Sunday, 10 August 2014

Moon madness… Salomé (1923)

"Look at the moon! ...looking for dead things."

I’ve always liked the drawings of Aubrey Beardsley who, along with the more painterly Arthur Rackham, defined late-Victorian story illustration with their often unsettling graphics alongside the strangest works of Edgar Allen Poe and others. Beardsley also illustrated Oscar Wilde’s 1893 play Salomé about the curious incident of the prophet undone by seven veils and the impatient impulse of youth… and was a strong influence on the look and feel of Nazimova's filmed version of 1923.

Wilde wrote the play in Paris (and in French...) where he had been familiarising himself with the decadent and symbolist art movements. He supposedly completed the bulk of the composition in a single sitting after an evening discussing the legend with his fellow artists and writers - an act of passionate writing at a time when his life was shifting into radical directions... In Salomé the act of merely looking can lead the soul on a fateful dive into the heart of desire.

Beardsley illustrated the play's 1894 English edition and added his own twist to the central character who in his hands became a knowing, sexually-advanced woman completely in control of her own allure. Even Wilde was concerned his work might be overshadowed by the power of the drawing even though he had initially viewed Beardsley as "...the only artist who, beside myself, knows what the dance of the seven veils is, and can see that invisible dance."

Detail from Beardsley's illustrations for the 1894 edition
Directed by Charles Bryant, Salomé is the quintessential platform for producer and star, Alla Nazimova - a woman aiming to combine both Wilde and Beardley's visions. This mix allowed her to put together  one of the first genuine Hollywood “art” films – an enterprise laced with her European artistic sensibilities from the choice of story, writer, designer and even sexuality… Maybe the rumours of an all-gay cast were just hype, but this story of transgressive - deathly - passion may have additional spice being performed by homosexual actors given Wilde’s proclivities and their eventual consequences.

Earl Schenck and Arthur Jasmine - I don't *know* to be honest...
Whatever the interpretations modern minds may make… it is undoubtedly a superbly-designed photo-play that achieves a lot with essentially a single studio placement. As with Camille, design was provided by the extraordinary Natacha Rambova who, taking full inspiration from Beardsley, manages to capture his erotically-charged decadence if not quite the exactitude of his draftmanship… But no wonder the author of Dorian Grey thought he had found a kindred spirit in this electrically inventive portrayer of the perverse: “I have one aim – the grotesque. If I am not grotesque I am nothing”.

Don't look now...
Such freedom of expression clearly appealed to Nazimova who was forging a brave career through her alien sophistication and an angular, conflicted, expression so at odds with the warmth of mainstream American cinema. Yes she strikes a pose but it rings true and if you look hard enough she’s actually very funny in a “does this bother you…” sort of way.

Salomé is a challenging enough subject in its own right but without Nazimova’s conviction it would collapse in on its own conceit. Salomé needed to be well choreographed to translate the author’s rhythms and, with title cards used only sparingly, the film’s attempts to visualise Wilde’s narrative rest on controlled direction and timing. The pantomime occasionally grates but then some of these characters are plain villains and they are meant to be grotesque…

The look of lust from Herod...
Not Salomé though, she’s just a bored teenager…  just about:  Nazimova was 44 at the time and with expert lighting and deep inches of foundation she carries it off, like Mary Pickford on crystal meth. She sits bored stiff at the table as the regal bacchanal rages all around. Her stepfather, Herod, Tetrach of Judea (Mitchell Lewis) has obtained power by murdering his brother and acquiring his wife, Harridan sorry Herodias, and her altogether more alluring daughter, Salomé.

They party with a collection of bizarre guests, a group of Pharisees who argue over the existence of angels, men in strange hats and with strange hairdos and nervous servants so concerned over the risks of their master’s approbrium that they would rather throw themselves off the battlements rather than be granted an audience with an unhappy King… seriously worse than the corruptions of the American studio system.

Party guests
Tiring of her step-father’s inappropriate attentions, Salomé leaves the banquet hall and steps outside for some fresh amusement. She finds  her  loyal servants Narraboth, Herod’s Captain of the Guard (Earl Schenck) who harbours unrequited love for his mistress and  Herodias’ Page (Arthur Jasmine).

Salomé ignores them and distractedly stares at the stars in a provocative pose before sounds from a deep well break her reverie… These are the prayers and pronouncements of John the Baptist  or Jokanaan in the film and play  (Nigel De Brulier), a seer and prophet  who just won’t be silenced on the subject of the impending Messiah.

Salomé catches one look at his fine chiseled features and slender strength and is hooked, demanding that he be release so that she may learn more. One of her admirers passes on the key not before a confused servant kills himself rather than face Herod’s wrath.

Jokanaan emerges and refuses to be distracted from his cause by the “young” seductress in spite of her best efforts: he knows that even if he glances at her too deeply he could fall. Soon good feeling turns to bad and, in the face of Salomé’s infatuation, faithful Narraboth kills himself in front of his love but she simply steps over his corpse in her attempt to speak closer to Jokanaan. Horrified at this callous disregard and so much else besides, Jokanaan returns to his cell…

“Thy hair, Jokanaan, is like the long black nights when the moon hides her face! The silence that dwells in the forest is not so black as thy hair!”

The film, as the play, makes constant references to the Moon – it’s tied to fate and the immutability of feminine will. What starts off blue gradually gets darker as a skull appears to fill the centre and then the sky runs red as matters descend into madness.

Salomé sulks and as the party finally comes out to join her, is made an offer she cannot refuse by Herod: if she dances he will give her anything she desires. She agrees but doesn't reveal what her prize will be…

There follows the dance of the veil in which Nazimova makes like Lady Gaga and showcases her graceful energy, she’s not quite Pola Negri but she gets the point across. Herod is certainly won over and only stops his inane grinning when she says what it is she wants: nothing less than the head of Jokanaan served on a silver salver.

Initially there’s no one to do the deed as too many have respect for the holy man but finally it is over and Salomé realises exactly what she has lost…. And there’s rather more to come as Herod takes matters into his own hands.

Salomé is wonderfully mannered and exists pretty much in an unsettling world all of its own - surely one of the most subversive films of silent Hollywood and one that undoubtedly confused its intended audience. It was a box office dud that prevented Nazimova from being able to make further films with the same control - still, she's now surely viewed as a prophet not without honour in her adopted country.

Salomé is available on DVD via Amazon and it deserves more than the basic efforts on sale. “We’re all of us lying in the gutter but some of us are staring at the kerb…” as Julian Cope later paraphrased Oscar Wilde’s famous observation…

You can also get the Beardsley illustrated  English version via Amazon... which leads you down a slightly different path.

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