Dipartimento di Musica e Spettacolo - CONFERENZE, Women and the Silent Screen Conference

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Nazimova’s Salomè: Silent Monument
Dolores Christine McElroy

Last modified: 2010-05-28


Russian actress Alla Nazimova’s film production of Salomè (Oscar Wilde, 1892) has confounded critics and filmgoers since its premiere, on December 31, 1922, largely due to its decidedly strange look. Thus, What is Salomè? This controversial question has plagued many viewers. Why such violent dismissal of a film with such a clearly delineated and, I daresay, by-now-familiar, if odd, narrative as Salomè, which has claimed its place in the canon of Western Art for the past hundred years? What is it about Salomè that makes people want to negate its status as art (Nazimova’s biographer, Gavin Lambert, declared that the film was “not a movie at all”), having trouble situating it in either the high or the low? To which established lineage – art film? avant-garde? Hollywood star vehicle? – does Salomè belong, or do we need to create a new category to explain it? And what are the implications of rewriting those narratives and delimitating those categories?

Any attempt at an explanation has to begin on Salomè’s flamboyant surface, where the keys to the film’s condemnation and redemption meet the eye. The look of the film is the key to expanding the thinking about it in several directions, namely the directions of its place in an American avant-garde canon, questions of medium specificity, and issues of stardom/authorship. In a 2002 article by the Los Angeles Times on the Unseen Cinema series, writer Susan King calls Salomè “a wallow in high camp and excess, but it is also gorgeous to behold.” It is my contention that what makes the film “excessive” is also what makes it “gorgeous,” namely, the design. Salomè’s triumph of design over narrative is also what makes the film avant-garde.

In October 1922, the reviewer for Motion Picture Magazine criticized Salomè for its failure to adhere to the following guidelines: “We have always been led to believe that the first requirement of any setting or background was to suggest the atmosphere of the action in an unobtrusive manner.” The design elements are read as upsetting, incorrect, obtrusive, even deviant, leading the production astray from established Hollywood norms. In my analysis, Salomè’s claim to the avant-garde is the supremacy of design over narrative. It seems that Nazimova was striving for something not only highly stylized in terms of production design and mis-en-scene, but also in terms of her acting and direction. Patricia White notes that Salomè was “at least as much designed as directed.” In her essay “Nazimova’s Veils,” White reproduces a paragraph by C.A. Lejeune illustrating how this stylization extends to Nazimova’s acting, enumerating the ways in which she used her body to “strengthen and complete the design on the screen.”

Evidence of Nazimova pushing the boundaries of character through stylization is present in Salomè’s dream sequence where Nazimova is filmed as part of a constellation of peacock illustrations, becoming a peacock herself in profile, a living part of an intentionally two-dimensional design. White mentions another quote from a fan magazine that supports this: “Nazimova doesn’t speak of her venture into picture work as the ‘movies’; she calls it photodrama.” Does the reference to photography over “moving” image enhance her articulation of an experimental aesthetic of hyper-stylization? And, finally, in Salomè, as in few other films, star and author unite undeniably as one, with Nazimova literally embodying her aesthetic vision. My research into Salomè hinges upon this “intrinsic description of the monument,” as Foucault would have it, which is inextricably bound up in the woman who created it.

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