Wednesday, 22 May 2019

House of Alla



"We must always judge an art by its best examples, not by its worst, not even its second best."





From an essay by her biographer Martin Turnbull:
[Alla] Nazimova took charge of every aspect of her career, much in the same way as Fairbanks, Pickford, Chaplin, and Griffith did in 1919 when they formed United Artists.

Her first independent feature was a film of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1922), released through United Artists. Although it was a critical hit, it was far from a commercial success. However, Nazimova had tasted independence and wanted more of it, and set her sights on making what she wanted to be her greatest achievement: a film adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé (1923).

Inspired by the artwork of illustrator Aubrey Beardsley, Nazimova and [Natacha] Rambova [a friend of Nazimova and future wife of Rudolph Valentino] set about making a version of Salomé such as 1920s filmgoers had never seen. Even by today’s standards, the film’s art direction reached for the outer limits of avant-garde.

Nothing on screen is designed to suggest first century Roman Empire. Instead, Nazimova sought to recast Wilde’s one-act play in a world where the ruling aesthetic is Art Nouveau meets searing minimalism meets Hollywood decadence. This is a world where wigs come fitted with glowing baubles, actors wear stockings patterned in palm-sized fish scales, and king’s yes-men don headdresses that resemble giant, glittering conches.

Although it had its supporters — in its review, Photoplay Magazine said, “A hothouse orchid of decadent passion... You have your warning: this is bizarre stuff” - it’s not hard to see why movie-goers barely knew what to make of this astonishing spectacle. After all, this was 1923, and people wanted The Hunchback of Notre Dame with Lon Chaney, Zaza with Gloria Swanson, and Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments.

In Salomé what they got was a 42-year-old lead actress playing a teenager sporting cinema’s first micro-mini skirt as she performed a dance of the seven veils accompanied by chorus girls decked out in two-foot shoulder pads.

The world wasn’t ready for Nazimova’s inspired vision for Salomé and the film flopped badly. Consequently, Nazimova lost the ton of money she sunk into the film. She made a couple more movies, but was unable to recover financially, and left the movie industry in 1925, returning to the theatre until the 1940s when she experienced a minor career second wind before her premature death in 1945.

However, when seen through 21st century eyes, Salomé is a phantasmagoria of striking images, unbridled sensuality, and fearless storytelling. It also leaves the viewer with the lingering sense that if Alla Nazimova had the good fortune to come along a hundred years later than she did, she’d have found a world with its arms thrust wide open to embrace the groundbreaking artist that she was.








Alla Nazimova (born Marem-Ides Leventon, 22nd May 1879 – 13th July 1945)

11 comments:

  1. Wasn’t she a lesbian? Rumor has it she got with Valentino to squash those rumors...

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    1. From that biography (link at the foot of the post):

      "In 1899, she married Sergei Golovin, a fellow actor, however the marriage was “in name only” and the two never legally divorced. By 1905, Alla found herself in New York heralded on Broadway for her definitive interpretations of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler and A Doll’s House. It was during this period that Alla met Charles Bryant, the man who would become Nazimova’s “husband.” Never legally married–Nazimova was still legally Mrs. Segei Golovin–the two claimed to be married and would continue the pretense for the next 20 years despite the fact that Nazimova was a lesbian."

      Scandalous for the time... Jx

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  2. For those of you reading this who might be interested, my novel about Nazimova and the making of "Salome" will be coming out in August 2019. You can read more here:

    https://martinturnbull.wordpress.com/2019/03/16/revealing-chasing-salome-a-novel-of-1920s-hollywood/

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    1. Martin - Thank you for dropping by!

      I, for one, will be purchasing a copy of your book...

      Jx

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    2. Thank you Jon. I hope you enjoy it. And please do let me know what you think. Meanwhile, I've been meaning to ask you about the photo that is your banner on YouTube. Do you know where it was taken?

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    3. The banner pic is a detail from photo #1 in my blog post about an exhibition of photos at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) - it's the ODEON in Leicester Square. Jx

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  3. Love the ' no smoking ' photo

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  4. Does the Salome film still exist?

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    1. According to Wikipedia:

      In 2000, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

      In 2006, Salomé became available on DVD as a double feature with the avant garde film Lot in Sodom (1933) by James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber.

      Jx

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