Metro Cancels Contract
At Metro, Nazimova quietly expanded her creative control over production, as she had on Broadway. Her films became more artistic and lost some of their commercial appeal. Box office suffered.
In April 1921, because of the slump in ticket sales – and apparently after seeing rushes from her 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.
Alla received welcome news in early July from her friend Lucky Luckett. She and her husband Kenneth were parents of a baby girl born In New York, on July 6. 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 for Alla and Rudolph Valentino. But 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?”
But Nazimova had moved on. She was shopping a two-picture deal around town. Unable to raise the half-million dollars, 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.
During the first week of November, filming began on her first independent production, a screen version of “A Doll’s House,” an Ibsen play that had helped propel her to stardom on Broadway. 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 film yet – a film version of Oscar Wilde’s play, “Salome.” The sets and costumes by Natacha Rambova were inspired by a book of the play illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley. Nazimova adapted the play, and took the credit under the pseudonym Peter Winter. As was the case with “A Doll’s House,” Charles Bryant got the directing credit.
“A Doll’s House” opened on February 12 1922 to positive 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.”
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.
The screening turned into a disaster, however, after the film got caught up in the projector during the first reel. A Los Angeles Times columnist who was in the audience found the pacing to be slow. “The Judean lads were still discussing the moon,” he wrote, “and Salome was just beginning to agitate the curious glass spangles in her hair” when the film broke.
At the do-over screening a week later, the board voted in favor of approving the film. Among the 182 ballots returned, 152 rated “Salome” 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” finally got its grand opening on New Year’s Eve at the Criterion Theatre in New York. Nazimova appeared in person in the costume she wore as the dancing girl at two shows that night, the first at eight-thirty, the second at midnight. The premiere run broke all known motion picture records at the Criterion Theater on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s night, selling out both nights.
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,” which may have raised the expectations for titillation among some moviegoers who were then disappointed by its rather restrained artistry. While it was still well-reviewed outside New York It also proved to be a flop, and the financial losses put Nazimova on the path toward bankruptcy. 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. The reviews were not good. One reviewer summed it up: “She just vamped and vamped.” It opened on January 22, 1923, and had an eight-week run at the Selwyn Theatre.