Alla Nazimova was one of the most noticeably European influences on mid-period American silent film bringing a sophistication and style that took pretentious then gave it a make-over and a stern talk about expressing itself more. But her films are uniquely striking, imaginative and memorable. Theda and Pola may have promised you a good time but Nazimova offered something altogether more disturbingly transgressive...
Born Miriam Leventon in Yalta, she first came to the US in 1905 with an attempt to open a Russian language theatre in New York. After this failed she was signed up by Henry Miller and became such a success on Broadway that they named a theatre after her. By 1916 she had made her first movie and soon went on to write and produce her own films.
|Nazimova admires Natacha Rambova's sets|
By the time she made this film, Nazimova had her own coterie of creatives including art director extraordinaire Natacha Rambova (real name, sadly, just Winifred Shaughnessy) and a young actor name of Rudolph Valentino. Both would provide a memorable contribution to this updating of Alexandre Dumas jnr’s La Dame aux Camélias book of 1846 and play of 1852.
Nazimova plays Marguerite Gautier a courtesan (OK, “escort”…) who lives a life of luxury in exchange for favours – but only if you offer me jewels (there’s no way, if you can’t pay…). She’s living la vida loca but it’s slowly killing her consumptive body.
The film opens on a magnificent art nouveau staircase leading down onto the dance floor of a chic Parisian nightclub. Marguerite is wearing a gown trailing a shimmering satin wrap dotted with images of Camellias, her signature: the most beautiful but fragile bloom - one scratch of the petals and the flower soon dies.
She is surrounded by wealthy older men who compete for her attentions as she wittily bats them away. Across the club a young man stands and stares… he is law student Armand Duval (Valentino) a new arrival in Paris being shown around the highlife by his friend Gaston Rieux (Rex Cherryman). Gaston introduces him to Marguerite who advises that he may be better off studying love not law.
The party moves on to Marguerite’s apartment and all goes well until the hostess has a coughing fit and retires to her room. Armand follows and the two get very close very quickly. This is much to the annoyance of Count de Varville (Arthur Hoyt) who is on a promise or special promotional offer…
A young woman arrives mid-party, a former co-worker with Marguerite from her life before, called Nichette (Patsy Ruth Miller). She catches Gaston’s eye yet he is told to behave himself as he is not worthy. A sign of Marguerite’s loyalty to those she loves… does she really belong in this shallow world of the good time girl?
Armand and Marguerite fall deeper in love and there’s a wonderful scene in a blossom-covered orchard where they picnic and Armand gives her a copy of Manon Lescaut by Abbe Prevost (incidentally, turned into an opera by Puccini just as Verdi turned The Lady of the Camellias into La Traviata…). He reads the story as she leans her head against his shoulder and we flash back to the book’s key moment as Manon’s lover abandons his noble life to follow her in exile to America.
In shock, Marguerite realises that she doesn’t want the same thing to happen to her lover. They are joined by Nichette and Gaston who announce their engagement: can there be the same future for Marguerite and Armand? As the blossom billows around them it seems all is possible but that wouldn’t account for the pull of a story that has been told so many times… sure enough Armand’s father soon visits Marguerite with a request that will turn her life inside out.
Ray C. Smallwood directs with smooth assurance whilst Rambova’s sets are genuinely stunning, with Marguerite’s apartment being the stand out with its organic curves, high ceilings and connecting see-through doors all of the same silken prints as Marguerite’s dress. Even her boudoir is separated from the living space by glass with flimsy curtains made from this material: everything is to be seen in her rooms and there is not a dark corner anywhere. There are even automated blinds on the oval windows which pull back at the click of a button to reveal the city outside - has anyone got those at home?
Nazimova is extraordinary to watch with her shock of dense curls corkscrewing up way above her head and an acting style that combines a powerful naturalism with mannered choreography. Her face is almost always in soft focus with her 41-yeard old features carefully lit at all times – she still carries it off.
Valentino, 16 years her junior, is also in soft focus and is a less defined presence all round than he would be with The Sheik and later films such as The Eagle in which his sense of humour was allowed to shine through. He’s still a highly credible romantic lead and no mistake.
I watched the TCM restored version which features a sprightly new score from Peter Vantine. It comes as part of the Greta Garbo Signature Collection box set for which is serves as an interesting comparator with the Swedish star’s version of the same story. Nazimova’s no Garbo perhaps but she is still one of the silent era’s most distinctive talents. How many others are remembered from their surname only?