The A List
The details of Nazimova’s deal with Metro in 1917 underscored her A-list status. She was given her own production unit as well as script approval, final say on casting, her choice of directors and a salary of $13,000 a week — the equivalent of about $200,000 a week today — and $3,000 more than Mary Pickford, who had starred in dozens of movies by then.
Metro was in the process of transferring its studio operations to Hollywood, but Nazimova’s first two movies under her contract were filmed in the east. The first film was “Revelation,” in which Nazimova played a prostitute (cleaned up in the script as a “cabaret singer”) who serves as the muse of an artist, played by Alla’s faux husband Charles Bryant. The prostitute/singer becomes transmogrified from sinner to saint when she poses as the Virgin Mary and is later redeemed by volunteering as a nurse during wartime.
In September, she and Charles traveled with the cast and crew to New Orleans, which was standing in for Paris. In December, the company moved to St. Augustine, Florida, where they shot additional exteriors on the grounds of the landmark Ponce de Leon Hotel and in Fountain of Youth Park. They also filmed outdoor scenes for the second project, “Toys of Fate.” They were back in New York after the first of the year to film interiors for “Toys of Fate” at Metro’s soon-to-be-closed Manhattan studios.
In “Toys of Fate,” Nazimova played a dual role — a gypsy driven to suicide when a wealthy Englishman played by Charles fails to return her love and then, twenty years later, the gypsy’s daughter who has an encounter with the same faithless gentleman.
“Revelation,” which premiered in February 1918, and “Toys of Fate,” which opened on May 30, were both big hits, a fact that established Nazimova as a popular and successful movie star even before she arrived in Hollywood. The screenwriter on “Toys of Fate” was Metro executive June Mathis, who, not yet 30, was on her way to becoming the most powerful female executive during the silent era. Mathis was a former child performer on vaudeville, who had toured with Julian Eltinge, a female impersonator with a huge following on the circuit. Nazimova found a kindred soul in June Mathis, and they would work together on many of Nazimova’s most successful films.
On the evening of February 16, Nazimova quietly slipped into a box seat in the balcony at the Lyric Theatre in Manhattan to watch the premiere of “Revelation”— and inadvertently stopped the show. She was spotted by someone in the audience who shouted “There she is!” According to a report in the New York Times, “The spectators turned and began to applaud. Nazimova seemed not to realize at first that she had been discovered, but as the applause became louder and louder she knew it was for her, and rose to acknowledge it. The whole house greeted her with shouts and hand-clapping that did not cease until she had retreated from the box.”
Nazimova did one last turn on the stage before she abandoned Broadway for Hollywood. In March, she opened in the American premiere of Ibsen’s “The Wild Duck,” in repertory with Nazimova’s Ibsen standards, “Hedda Gabler” (appearing with Charles) and “A Doll’s House.”
In an interview with journalist Hazel Simpson Taylor in advance of the premiere, Nazimova explained what drove her. “It is my devilish ambition that has urged me on and on,” Alla said. “Don’t you understand, it is because I love my work for itself, not for whatever glory it may bring me; not for self-aggrandizement, but for the joy of achievement. I am happy because I’m doing the work I love and there is always something more to do. It is the thing beyond that is the most fascinating. A role that is the most unsuited to me is the one I love the best. I throw myself into that character, I make myself be that character. I live another life. For instance, I have just been rehearsing ‘ Hedda Gabler.’ I make everybody miserable, and the more miserable I make them, the happier I am, for Hedda was meant to be a perfect cat, understand – yes?”
Her portrayal of 14-year-old Hedvig in “The Wild Duck” drew praise, but John Corbin, the critic at the New York Times, was merciless about her Hedda. “Mme. Nazimova’s interpretation of Hedda Gabler has not changed in any essential in the many years since she first disclosed it,” Corbin wrote. “And, as it seems, there is still a faction of good folk willing to accept bizarre personality, meaningless writing and broken English as the apotheosis of histrionic art.” He even made fun of her Franco-Russian accent, noting that “[the phrase] ‘vine leaves’ … became from time to time ‘wine leaves,’ ‘vine lees’ and ‘wine lees.'” Corbin finished her off with a coupe de grace: “The play as a whole, and the leading character,” he wrote, “are slaughtered to make a Broadway holiday.”