• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as current film releases with spiritual significance, and a few bits and pieces on the Bible.

    Saturday, May 26, 2018

    Salomé (1922)


    Alla Nazimova was one of the leading figures of 1920s cinema, not just in her native Russia, but throughout the film-viewing world. Not only was she an actor of some repute but she also wrote, edited, produced and directed. Indeed, whilst her husband Charles Bryant was given the directing credit for Salomé, many consider that Nazimova is, at the very least, worthy of consideration as a co-director. Certainly she, in combination with her friend Natacha Rambova oversaw the film's art-direction and had a hand in the design of the costumes and sets,. The costumes and sets were based on the original drawings Aubrey Beardsley created to accompany Oscar Wilde's play.

    Whilst the film lacks Strauss' music and omits most of Wilde's text, it is very much an adaptation of Wilde's 1891 play, itself drawing on numerous writers and artists stretching back from Flaubert and Moreau all the way to the New Testament. David Thomson records that Nazimova herself called it "a pantomime of the play", and there's a certain appeal to that description (624). Wilde's plot and sense of decadence are clearly at the forefront, much of the film's dialogue belongs to him, and the film retains the occasional Wilde innovation, such as calling John the Baptist 'Jokanaan'.

    Another aspect of Wilde's work that remains is the production's atypical sexuality. Numerous sources testify to Nazimova's lesbianism or bisexual (e.g. Lambert 162), and the result of her bold choices with respect to costume and set design was to create one of the earliest pioneering works of queer cinema. With its androgynous characters, stylised costumes and phallic props, Salomé is perhaps the most camp of all biblical films - a category with no shortage of competition - and it's influence can be seen in an array of subsequent films based on the New and Old Testaments, from 1933's Lot in Sodom, through to more macho efforts such as The Passion of the Christ (2004).

    The visual impact of Navimova's work is breathtaking, with avant garde, art deco, sets and strangely alien-esque costumes. Herod looks like a cross between Bacchus and a circus clown, Herodias like one of Macbeth's witches and Nazimova herself looking like she had just stepped off the set of Metropolis, itself still half a decade from completion.

    But its emotional impact is no less powerful. Whilst there seems very little interest in Ulderico Marcelli's original musical arrangement, contemporary versions of the score are well and truly in abundance. Recent soundtracks such as those by Mike Frank or P. Emerson Williams or The Bad Plus have revitalised the movie bringing it new-found popularity in the modern age.Indeed it's one of the finest examples of Silent film music coming full circle: just as in the early days a movie might be accompanied by anything from a single pianist to a full-scale orchestra, depending on the size of the venue and the grandeur of the production, today live showings feature an inspiring array of accompaniments from canned music on a DVD, through small collectives, right up to 70-piece orchestras.

    In a version of Salomé that I saw recently, Hayley Fohr's drone inspired score combined violin and double bass with drums and manipulated vocals to give an ethereal power to Bryant, Nazimova and Rambova's images. Paul Joyce described it as "a mix of avant rock, post-rock, electronica and trace elements of folk/country" which captures it nicely. The music gave heightened the emotional impact of the film, but it's clear from the fact that this is such a popular film to screen that this is not a two-way street. Even watching the film in silence the power of its imagery is clear.

    Fohr chose to omit the film's intertitles, a decision which proved controversial with some. Watching the film again, this time with the intertitles included, I'm not convinced they move the plot on a great deal, although their design and their use of Wilde's dialogue give them a certain aesthetic pleasure. It would have been better had the missing intertitles simply been cut, rather than replaced with several seconds of black screen. Nevertheless, I'm reminded of the famous dictum of another key director of the silent era, Alfred Hitchcock: "Show, don't tell". If nothing else, Fohr's the wordless approach does underline the film's ability to convey its story and its meaning based purely on its imagery.

    What lies at the heart of all this emotion are the film's themes of desire, rejection and unrequited love. Herod desire's his step daughter oblivious to the pain he is causing Herodias. But Salomé has no eyes for him, only for John, who in turn is too pure for the sultry dancer. Instead Jokanaan gazes only towards the heavens. Meanwhile two of Herod and Herodias' servants (Herodias's unnamed page and Narraboth the Syrian guard) are similarly entangled. The former has eyes only for the moon - which looms large in numerous shots - the latter keeps an overly attached eye on the princess. Salomé is oblivious to both. In a desperate attempt to keep Salomé away from the Baptist, Narraboth takes his own life, but when his body falls at Salomé's feet she barely even notices, stepping over his body to continue her attempt to win a kiss from the prophet (see above). When the princess finally gets her kiss, once Jokanaan's head has been removed from his body, it so enrages Herod that he has her immediately executed.

    Sadly the film's pioneering expression of sexuality proved similarly fatal to its performance at the box office. In addition to its unconventional style, rumours that the film had "employed only homosexual actors" (Anger 163) and tales of on-set debauchery, hurt the film at a time when the industry was still suffering from the fallout from the Fatty Arbuckle scandal. Yet somehow it was this film, rather than some of Nazimova's more commercially successful films that has survived. No doubt this is partly because it became cherished by a community that was still very much living underground in the early 1920s, but perhaps it was also because, in a field where still few, if any, women are known primarily by their surname in the way that many men are, this film, more than any other expressed a purity of artistic vision and single-minded determination to make the film the way she imagined it.

    In addition to Joyce's review, readers may also like to read those by Martin Turnbull and God is in the TV.

    =============
    - Anger, Kenneth (1981 [1975]) Hollywood Babylon New York: Dell Publishing
    - Joyce, Paul (2018) "Under the Moon… Salomé (1923) with Haley Fohr Ensemble, Barbican" at ithankyou. Available online at:
    http://ithankyouarthur.blogspot.co.uk/2018/05/under-moon-salome-1923-with-haley-fohr.html
    - Lambert, Gavin (1997) Nazimova: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
    - Lindsay, Richard A. (2015) Hollywood Biblical Epics: Camp Spectacle and Queer Style from the Silent Era to the Modern Day, Santa Barbara, California/Denver, Colorado: Praeger.
    - Theophano, Teresa (2002) "Film Actors: Lesbian" at glbtq.com. Available online at
    http://www.glbtqarchive.com/arts/film_actors_lesbian_A.pdf
    - Thomson, David (2002) The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, LONDON (Little Brown), Fourth Edition.

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