Mysteries and scandals


It probably reflects no glory on me but I have a weakness for the kind of late-night trash pop TV bio where a gruff presenter says things like “but what happened next would change things forever”, while prowling a moodily lit backdrop representing a scrubbed-up approximation of mean streets.

The video below is just such a beast, promising the “mysteries and scandals” in the life of silent movie star (Alla) Nazimova. But for a show which actually uses the word ‘sexcapades’ it detours into some surprisingly non trash-typical territory as it charts Nazimova’s ill-starred career.

Biographer Gavin Lambert tells of Nazimova’s awful childhood in the Crimea (you may have heard tell of this region in the news of late). Her abusive father ensured she was unable to fulfil considerable early promise as a musician, belittling her and once breaking her arm after a violin recital. Later in life the scheming Charles Bryant joined her in a not-uncommon lavender alliance but exploited her financially, and her dream project Salomé brought her film career to a premature close.

But it’s not all gloom: there’s the triumph of her Broadway years, a degree of artistic independence almost unthinkable in today’s Hollywood and, of course, those pool parties in the Garden of Alla.

click here if you don’t see the video embedded below



  1. Oh, I love this. It is shockingly informative, and the glimpse of “Madonna of the Streets” is invaluable. Is the whole film extant?! The real mystery and scandal is that we probably won’t ever know.

  2. jon newlin

    of course alla had a later career–besides triumphs in o’neill and ibsen on broadway…she pops up in the 1940 escape with norma shearer and, in a startling moment of sapphic noblesse oblige, in the 1944 since you went away as a co-worker of claudette colbert’s, telling cc that she represents the apotheosis of the american dream for alla!

    • Her speech in “Since You Went Away” is so memorable, it makes the fact that she was underused in the achingly dull “The Bridge of San Luis Ray” (released the same year) that much harder to bear. She was perkier (despite being bedridden for much of her time on screen) in the 1940 Norma Shearer baffler “Escape,” but once again wasted in “In Our Time” (1944 was a year in which her good friend George Cukor really lobbied Hollywood to give her roles, but sadly her health was failing fast by then).

      Her “lost” silent films all have such insane plots: “Sigrid, A French dancer, diagnosed with a weak heart, is ordered by her doctor never to dance again. But when her dancing skills are needed by her lover’s father to help quell a native uprising on the East Indian frontier, she determines to dance whatever the cost.” And she frequently played much, much younger women (even children!) and more than once played twins! Any retrospective of her work would be a roller coaster.

  3. Part of the speech: Notable too because the woman who wrote the inscription on the Statue of Liberty, Emma Lazarus, was also a queer, Jewish woman. So many layers of gay!

  4. Jane Lanyon

    The embedded link has gone sour, but I believe this is the same video: Thanks as always for sharing

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