Nazimova as Salome
Nazimova as Salome

Metro Cancels Contract

Over the first five years of her contract at Metro Nazimova had quietly expanded her control over production, as she had on Broadway. While the theatre had been a proving ground for her artistic sensibilities, movies were different. As her films became more artistic, they lost commercial appeal. Box office suffered.

Edith 'Lucky' Luckett and her daughter Nancy, the future first lady
Edith ‘Lucky’ Luckett and Nancy, the future first lady

In April 1921, because of the slump in ticket sales – and apparently after seeing rushes from her Jazz Age production of “Camille,” updated from 19th century Paris to the current day – Metro cancelled her contract. It was a bitter blow, but not entirely unexpected. She set up an independent production company, Nazimova Productions.

There was welcome news in early July. Her friend Lucky and husband Kenneth Luckett were parents of a baby girl born on July 6 In New York. They named her Anne Francis, but she would be known the rest of her life as Nancy. Lucky asked Alla to be Nancy’s godmother, and Alla agreed.

Later Lucky divorced her husband, married neurosurgeon Loyal Davis and gave up the stage. Her daughter took her stepfather’s last name, becoming Nancy Davis. Many years later Nancy married Ronald Reagan and, in 1981, Nazimova’s goddaughter became first lady of the United States.

“Camille” was released in September to generally favorable reviews both for Alla and Rudolph Valentino. And yet the influential fan magazine Photoplay lamented, “What has happened to the great actress, the splendid genius, the incomparable artiste? Will the spark of genius light again?”

Nazimova and Valentino in 'Camille,' 1921
Nazimova and Valentino in ‘Camille,’ 1921

Independent

Nazimova moved on. She put together a two-picture deal for her first independent productions and shopped it around town. There were no takers, so she decided to fund the productions herself. With $300,000 in the bank – about $4.5 million today – she was able to raise another $100,000. With funding in place, she secured a distribution deal through United Artists.

Nazimova’s first independent production was a screen version of “A Doll’s House,” an Ibsen play that had helped propel her to Broadway stardom. Nazimova called the shots but Charles Bryant received the director credit.

By the time “A Doll’s House” wrapped at the end of December, Alla had marshalled her second project through pre-production and was ready to start filming. It was her most extravagant and self-indulgent project yet – a film version of Oscar Wilde’s play, “Salome.”

Natacha Rambova’s sets and costumes were inspired by Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations for a bound volume of the Wilde playscript published in 1893. Nazimova adapted the play, and gave the credit to the pseudonym, Peter Winter. As was the case with “A Doll’s House,” Charles Bryant got the directing credit.

Nazimova in 'A Doll's House,' 1922
Nazimova in ‘A Doll’s House,’ 1922

“A Doll’s House” opened on February 12, 1922, to good reviews. The Film Daily proclaimed it a “splendid work of Nazimova in a role which she handles extraordinarily well.” The Los Angeles Times gushed, “There are comedy and pathos, even to the point of laughter and tears… There is the lesson for all women everywhere that brings out the big point in the play, namely – that every woman has the right to control her own destiny, to develop her own individuality and personality… It’s a picture for all to see.” The San Francisco Chronicle said, “Nazimova brings all of her delicate art to bear on her impersonation of the childlike Nora … Nazimova’s emotional action has the sweep of passion that seems reality. In her performance of Nora she suggests the strong woman under the exterior of the flighty wife.”

Board of Review

Alla and Charles traveled to New York in June to screen “Salome” for members of the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures with the hope of winning their seal of approval. The film was suspect in some quarters, especially because the Oscar Wilde’s play had once been banned.

'Salome' costume designed by Natacha Rambova
‘Salome’ costume designed by Natacha Rambova

The screening was a disaster. The evening started with a technical snafu – the film got caught up in the projector. “The Judean lads were still discussing the moon,” wrote a Los Angeles Times columnist, “and Salome was just beginning to agitate the curious glass spangles in her hair” when the film broke.

After the do-over screening a week later, the board gave “Salome” its seal of approval. Among the 182 ballots returned, 152 rated it an “exceptional picture,” 20 said otherwise, and the rest gave no answer. On the question of whether the film should be censored, 20 said yes, and 152 said no.

“Salome” opened on New Year’s Eve at the Criterion Theatre in New York. Nazimova appeared in person in costume at both showings. The premiere broke all records at the Criterion, selling out both New Year’s Eve and the next night.

The New York Times called it “a visually satisfying spectacle.” Brooklyn Life “liked it enormously,” writing, “We are less concerned with Nazimova’s interpretation of Wilde’s heroine that the fact that she has told a story by means of a series of beautiful pictures. … Nazimova’s performance is a clear-cut, artistic rendition of the idea of Salome.” The San Francisco Chronicle called it “the sensation of the week – the art sensation. This is Nazimova’s triumph — as a work of high art it was far ahead of its time.”

United Artists released the film nationwide six weeks later. Their publicity campaign promoted it as “an orgy of sex and sin,” a claim that disappointed viewers who expected a salacious experience and were disappointed by the restrained artistry.

“Salome” was well-reviewed across the country, but it still flopped. Nazimova lost serious money. Years later, recalling her productions of “Camille” and “Salome” as the pivot point in her film career she said simply, “I made them to please myself.”

With no film roles forthcoming, Nazimova returned to Broadway in “Dagmar,” a play about a sexually free Russian countess whose philandering has a tragic end. It opened on January 22, 1923, and had an eight-week run at the Selwyn Theatre.

The reviews were not good. One reviewer summed it up: “She just vamped and vamped.”

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