I recently discusses Ozu’s A Story of Floating Weeds, lauding the great master for directed such acting subtlety in silent film, a rarity. Charles Bryant’s 1923 Salome is basically the opposite of that. Based upon Oscar Wilde’s play about the decadent evil Jewish royal family of King Herod at the time of John the Baptist’s beheading, there is nothing subtle here at all. The acting is WAY over the top, with every gesture slowed to an extremely dramatic pace, every eye movement extreme, every moment demonstrative. But here’s the thing–while we might almost call this premodern acting, it still works in creating a really interesting and nutty little film.
Mitchell Lewis plays King Herod. This is a lusty, violent man who wants nothing more than sex with his stepdaughter Salome, played by Alla Nazimova. She is the daughter of his current wife Herodias, played by Rose Dione. Herod has taken John the Baptist (or Jokaanan in the play/film, and I don’t know why Wilde changed the name), played by Nigel de Brulier, and thrown him in the dungeon. This 1-act play on a single set follows Salome, in her unfocused wanting and greed with power at her fingertips, fall in love with the prophet, maybe because he damns her over and over, I don’t know. This leads the captive slave/former prince who is in love with her to kill himself. Salome then dances for Herod who promises to give her what she wants–John the Baptist’s head on a platter. Why? He doesn’t love her back and she doesn’t know how to deal with this except follow her corrupt murderous parents. What happens next does not go so well for her.
This movie is really about sex, sex, sex. Silent films loved biblical and Roman epics because they could be so racy. Herod is just drooling over Salome and the dance (which I found not that interesting) is intended to make everyone drool as well. The clothes are skimpy (and very 20s–no period fashion needed here) but hey, it’s the Bible so we can show a lot more skin.