(director: Charles Bryant; screenwriters: from the play by Oscar Wilde/Natacha Rambova; cinematographer: Charles Van Enger; music: Carlos U. Garza/Richard O’Meara; cast: Alla Nazimova (Salomé, stepdaughter of Herod), Mitchell Lewis (Herod, Tetrarch of Judea), Nigel de Brulier (Jokaanan, the Prophet), Rose Dione (Herodias, wife of Herod), Earl Schenck (Narraboth, Captain of the Guard), Arthur Jasmine (Page of Herodias), Louis Dumar (Tigellinus), Frederick Peters (Naaman, the Executioner); Runtime: 72; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Alla Nazimova; Images; 1923-silent)
“Only remotely like Wilde’s fantasy play.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Salomé was produced and financed by the Russian-born silent-movie star Alla Nazimova as a vehicle for herself. It’s inspired by Oscar Wilde’s scandalous play (written in French) and fashioned after Aubrey Beardsley’s Asian-inspired drawings in the play. It’s written and costumed by Natacha Rambova, the heiress who married Valentino two months after the film was released. Director Charles Bryant (“A Doll’s House”/”Stronger Than Death”), the husband of the gamine Nazimova, keeps it kitschy, vulgar, gushing over with the Hollywood decadence of the ’20s and it’s ornately stylized as avant-garde melodrama that’s only remotely like Wilde’s fantasy play. The storytelling is none to thrilling but there’s much to gloat over the costumes, sets, lighting and camerawork. That the 42-year-old Nazimova plays the 14-year-old Salomé, the step-daughter of the lustful King Herod (Mitchell Lewis), is hard to fathom when she’s in close-up and you can see how middle-aged she looks despite being so physically fit. But I found her unique wig to be a scream (Kenneth Anger in “Unseen Cinema” states that Rambova used “masses of giant pearls—each about the size of moth balls—each individually wired on black tightly-wound springs that quiver tremulously with each petulant gesture of the Spoiled Princess”). As a tribute to Wilde, many of the actors were gay and all the leads looked effeminate. It remains a cult favorite, especially among gays.
It’s mostly an arthouse bore, as it gayly works its way to its centerpiece–the dance of seven veil sequence. A spurned Salomé dances for the craven and seemingly clownish Herod, the usurper king of Judea, who killed his brother for the throne and stole his brother’s wife Herodias (Rose Dione), Salomé’s mom. Salomé requests at the end of the dance the severed head of the pious prisoner prophet John (Nigel de Brulier) on a silver platter, who is imprisoned in a well (that looks like a birdcage). Meanwhile the horny king wants to dump his wife for the youthful Salomé and offers her half his kingdom, but when she turns that down and is caught by the king kissing the severed head–he becomes so disgusted that he orders her slain.
Theater buffs might note that Gloria Swanson’s “Norma Desmond” sought to use the role of Salomé in her Hollywood comeback in the 1950 Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard.” “Salome” was hailed as America’s first art film. What can be asked today, is if this is really art or merely a curio. I maintain it’s the latter.
REVIEWED ON 12/16/2008 GRADE: B https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/