Silent cinema review: Salome (1923)

The Purcell Room at the Southbank Centre last night played host to a screening of the Nazimova classic silent ‘Salome’, based on the play by Oscar Wilde, and designed and costumed from the drawings of Aubrey Beardsley.

Charlie Barber’s percussion-based music, punctuated by singing in Hebrew, fits perfectly with the strange story of the daughter of Herodias and the prophet John the Baptist.  In a costume which includes a wig adorned with white globes glowing like stars, Nazimova (already a mature woman in 1923 and hardly the innocent child the part demands) pouts and grimaces at her stepfather’s attentions.    But he is the powerful Tetrarch and should not be disobeyed.

British-born Nigel de Brulier plays the mysterious Prophet John, the ‘man who has seen God’.  He is perhaps best known as a succession of cardinals, bishops, judges and other such characters in both silent and sound pictures up to his death in 1943.  His sad face and expressive eyes are perfect for the head which will drive Salome to frenzy and eventual destruction.

Mitchell Lewis is the randy Herod, who first lusts after Salome and then recoils from her in horror after hearing the price she demands for dancing in front of him.  Lewis would continue to make uncredited and small roles for the cinema for another thirty years after this film.  As his wife, and the mother of Salome, Rose Dione, the French actress, is effectively raging at the threat to her position as the first lady of the country.

But this is Nazimova’s film, and rightly so.  Her second costume change, to a silver wig and many veils as she dances, is stunning, and for a woman of over forty she moves like a young lady and passes (just about) as the picture of innocence.  Shown in a lovely tinted print, this film retains its power and is faithful to its source material.