Salomé (1923), a silent film directed by Charles Bryant and starring Alla Nazimova, is a film adaptation of the Oscar Wilde play of the same name. The play itself is a loose retelling of the biblical story of King Herod and his execution of John the Baptist (here, as in Wilde's play, called Jokaanan) at the request of Herod's stepdaughter, Salomé, whom he lusts after.
Salomé is often called one of the first art films to be made in the U.S. The highly stylized costumes, exaggerated acting, minimal sets, and absence of all but the most necessary props make for a screen image much more focused on atmosphere and on conveying a sense of the characters' individual heightened desires than on conventional plot development.
Despite the film being only a little over an hour in length and having no real action to speak of, it cost over $350,000 to make. All the sets were constructed indoors to be able to have complete control over the lighting. The film was shot completely in black and white, matching the illustrations done by Aubrey Beardsley in the printed edition of Wilde's play. The costumes, designed by Natacha Rambova, used material only from Maison Lewis of Paris, such as the real silver lamé loincloths worn by the guards.
No major studio would be associated with the film, and it was years after its completion before it was released, by a minor independent distributor. It was a complete failure at the time and marked the end of Nazimova's producing career.
There is a longstanding rumor, which seems to have started while the film was still in production and has been asserted by chronicler of Hollywood decadence Kenneth Anger, that the film's cast is composed entirely of gay or bisexual actors in an homage to Oscar Wilde, as per star and producer Nazimova's demand. It is, of course, impossible to say, but one of the extras in Salomé reported that a number of the cast members—both featured and extras—were indeed gay, but not an unusual percentage of them, and certainly not all of them. What can be said is that Nazimova herself was usually thought of as a lesbian (despite occasional flings with men including Paul Ivano), the two guard characters (who, next to Salomé, have the most screen time) are at least played very stereotypically gay, and several of the female courtiers are men in drag.
A writer for Screenland described Salomé as "a painting deftly stroked upon the silversheet" and that "poets and dreamers will find imaginative delights in the weird settings and the still more weird acting, depressing at times to ordinary folks. And it is worth something to watch Nazimova balance her Christmas-tree headdress!"
Salomé was screened in 1989 at the New York International Festival of Lesbian and Gay films and in 1990 at the New York Gay Experimental Film Festival.
In 2000, this film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
In 2006, Salomé became available on DVD as a double feature with the avant garde film Lot in Sodom (1933) by James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber.
In 2013 "Salomé" was screened at the Ojai Music Festival with the Bad Plus performing a live improvised soundtrack.
2002: AFI's 100 Years...100 Passions – Nominated
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists: