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Salome & Lot in Sodom
In Singin' in the Rain, Betty Comden and Adolph Green lampooned the remote, exotic kind of silent film star by having 'Olga Mara' make a premiere entrance in a cobwebbed dress, dragging a fur behind her. Nazimova may not have been their direct inspiration, but the concerns and attitudes she shows in this film come pretty close. This Salome is her film through and through. It's directed by her husband, and designed by Natacha Rambova, an actress and costume designer soon to be the wife of Rudolph Valentino.
The big deal about Salomé is its look - a pointed attempt to recreate the illustrations of noted artist Aubrey Beardsley. There is only one set in the film, a hall for the nighttime feast of Herod and the plaza outside, but the look is definitely Beardsley, especially the interesting costumes - and Salomé's weird hairstyle. The drawings do come to life in the decor, particularly the cage covering the well where Jokaanan, the substitute for John the Baptist, is imprisoned. Nazimova apes the poses and attitudes of Beardley's models - all that's missing is the oft-reprinted pose of Salomé kissing the Baptist's head on its plate. The solemn pace slows everything down for pictorial effects, and then discreetly omits both the beheading and the famous kiss. Nazimova was then 42 and playing a teenager, but only her closeups betray the fact that she's no spring chicken.
The direction is basic, and rather smooth for a silent of this vintage, with the numerous intertitles well chosen and paced. But the melodramatic, stylized acting and body movement makes the film look a bit stuffy. Characters throw their arms into exaggerated poses just to move, etc. The dance of the seven veils is little more than Nazimova striking poses with pieces of cloth, and an oddly-dressed chorus. This, of course, elicits a huge slavering response from the depraved Herod. The gaunt, soulful actor who plays Jokaanan is less hysterical - he doesn't generate a frenzy, even as the titles - "Woman of Babylon!" - lay on the full-caps and exclamation points.
Salomé is one of those films that looks better in stills than watching it on a screen. The costumes and pictorial effects are more important than the story, which could have been completely covered in a two-reel short subject. Like many ambitious Hollywood producers, Nazimova interpreted Art as non-cinematic graphic effects, and gorgeous glamour lighting.
The other point of interest is the film's sexuality. Silent film fans keen enough to want the picture are already going to know about Nazimova's bisexuality, etc. The film's sensual atmosphere doesn't stop at the daring (for 1923) costumes - Herodias' strange leotard, Salomé's tiny dress. The Captain of the Guard and a young page played by Arthur Jasmine cavort in an openly affectionate manner too, while Salome's blowsy mom crawls all over the jaded noble seated next to her at the banquet. The effect now is of high kitch and forced naughtiness, but it's all of a piece, right down to the servant who kills himself rather than bring bad news to Herod, and the Guard's suicidal ardor for Salomé.
Somehow, it all plays as might Norma Desmond's 'return' epic Salomé, as envisioned in Sunset Boulevard, the one that William Holden and the Paramount execs dismiss as 'awful'. This is a lot better than awful, but it's possible that Billy Wilder was referring to this film to add resonance to his Hollywood exposé.
DVD producer David Shepard has wisely double-billed this odd feature with another vintage, artsy film that's much more erotic. The half-hour Lot in Sodom is an early-talkie experiment that's much more overt with its sex, both hetero and homo. I've read about this bizarre picture for years in books about sex in early films, Playboy articles, etc. It was made in 1933 by James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber, with the participation of Watson's wife Hildegarde and other actors from their acclaimed 1928 short The Fall of the House of Usher (not to be confused with the Jean Epstein feature version of the same year).
Arthur Knight's Playboy series on Sex in Movies always hit on the Hedy Lamarr film Ecstasy and this weird wonder, which has probably never stopped showing in gay film clubs. Clever superimpositions and precise optical work creates a constant parade of jolting erotic images. The quality of the opticals betters many Hollywood efforts, thanks to the creative designs.
Nothing is obvious, and all of it is actually in good taste. Several sexually 'depraved' males are multiplied into a dozen and are seen doing nonspecific but vaguely suggestive actions. They cavort and run around playfully (there's a disturbing, hard-to-describe series of shots that combines upper bodies and legs) but also crawl and pose on the floor with wanton, cruel looks on their faces. There's a genuine sense of perversion (yeah, the word still applies) that's missing from but alluded to in all those biblical movies about the Evil of sex ... even Robert Aldrich's rather exciting Sodom and Gomorrah (1962) can't show stuff like this, and has to rely on wicked glances from Anouk Aimee and Stanley Baker.
The bibilical story in Genesis is followed, somewhat. Lot, and his wife and daughter are visited by an angel with a sword (nice optical embellishments make the sword glow and spurt fire), and the depraved Sodomite males demand to know who he was. Odd messages spell themselves out across the screen, as in early German expressionist movies, and Lot is told not to withhold his daughter from the Sodomites. This is followed by a truly bizarre series of montages with nude female anatomy. Rape is suggested via a snake and a bizarre visual that I think (hope this movie isn't psychoanalyzing me) superimposes a formal arched doorway where Lot's daughter's (or wife's?) vagina should be. The general air of perversity suggests also that the images are Lot's own guilty thoughts about his wife and daughter. It's strong stuff, like the magic scenes of Der Golem gone totally sex-mad, the kind of thing that our New Conservatives would use as an excuse to scrap PBS in favor of The Patriot Channel. But it's also aesthetically valid, and a genuine curiosity. At 27 minutes, it's also not the potential ordeal that Salome will be to some viewers.
Blackhawk Films (David Shepard)'s DVD of Salomé and Lot in Sodom are nicely presented on this image disc. Both films are in remarkable shape, with the expected occasional light scratches, but still playing smoothly on the screen. Shepard uses freeze frames for the titles, but otherwise there's no sign of editorial tampering. He thoughtfully includes a note on the back of the box about the sources for transfer, acknowledging the very minor nitrate decomposition in Salomé that results in many scenes having a mottled-overlay look. It's not a problem.
Salomé has a choice of two very good new scores, one in 2.0 and the other in 5.0. Lot in Sodom has its original experimental track by Alec Wilder. The sound mix on the erotic earlie talkie is very interesting, using dialogue that's intentionally inaudible.
Lori K. Martin provides excellent liner & insert notes on the main feature, pulling up details like the fact that the exotic-sounding Natacha Rambova's original name was 'Winifred Hudnut.' Producer Shepard uses a quick quote from Norman G. Weinberg to cover the notorious Lot in Sodom. Any brief description would make it sound like a gay porn loop - which it is not.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Salomé & Lot in Sodom rates:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July, 2003