July 11, 2013

Camille 'a la' Nazimova

In 1921, actress Alla Nazimova teamed with designer Natacha Rambova to  film a modern dress version of  'La Dame aux camelias' by Alexandre Dumas fils. Nazimova had been a smash hit on Broadway, starring in Ibsen's A Doll's House and Hedda Gabler--even having a theatre named after her.


Alla had met Rambova when Natacha took her sketches to the Metro Studio for the planned film, Aphrodite.  When Aphrodite was shelved due to censorship fears, Alla Nazimova needed a hit movie--badly. 

The two talented women went to work on a new project: a modern dress version of "La Dame aux camelias". Natacha would be responsible for the sets and costumes. Nazimova would play Marguerite and a handsome young actor named Rudolph Valentino would play the key role of Armand Duval.

The Film:
Chapter One: The Opera and Marguerite's Party

Marguerite Gautier is a Parisian courtesan whose life of parties, nightlife and suitors is often interrupted by bouts of consumption (tuberculosis) from which she is suffering.

Alla Nazimova as Marguerite Gautier

Sincere young Law student Armand Duval (Rudolph Valentino), first sets eyes on Marguerite at the Opera, with his best friend, the sophisticated Gaston Rieux (Rex Cherryman).

"...across a crowded room"-Rudolph Valentino spies Nazimova

Gautier is surrounded by an entourage, including the wealthy Count de Varville (Arthur Hoyt). Nevertheless, Armand is immediately attracted to the flashy party girl. 

Valentino, Rex Cherryman, Nazimova and Arthur Hoyt

Camellia covered wrap by Natacha Rambova

Marguerite whispers into the ears of de Varville  when she notices Armand looking over at her.

The entourage returns to Marguerite's apartment for a post-Opera party.  The Deco-inspired design of these two rooms is considered a cinematic coup, even today. 
Marguerite's apartment: all Art Deco curves and Camellias

Feeling ill, Marguerite retires to her bedroom until the cough subsides. Note the camellias on the bed, vanity and even on the wall.  Rambova used them everywhere.
Marguerite recovers from a coughing spasm in her bedroom
Time to return to the guests (note the round bed!)

Prudence brings Gaston and Armand to the party
Marguerite hams it up while de Varville and Armand look on
Marguerite asks de Varville and his hangers-on to leave
Detail of the above...
Once they are alone, Marguerite and Armand...


 To be continued...

July 08, 2013

Natacha Rambova: Portraits of an Artist

While researching a post on the 1921 film "Camille", I was struck by the brains, creativity and beauty of the costume and set designer, Natacha Rambova.
The exotic bohemian look of Natacha Rambova

Natacha was born Winifred Kimball Shaughnessy in Salt Lake City on  January 19, 1897. At a young age, her mother packed her off to boarding school in England after she married Edgar de Wolfe, brother of famed interior designer and society maven, Elsie de Wolfe.
While in Europe, 'Wink' as she was nicknamed, developed a passion for the ballet.  Her heroes were Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina and Vaslav Nijinsky.  She met and fell in love with a lesser player in the Ballets Russes, Theodore Koslov who would impact her life for years to come.
 Theodore Koslov in 1912

Koslov was a handsome ladies' man. He manipulated the young female dancers and wannabe dancers like men on a chessboard. Winifred, at the age of 17, changed her name to Natacha Rambova, took up ballet and became Koslov's lover.
They returned to the United States where Koslov named his dance troupe The Russian Imperial Ballet.
Natacha was tall for the dance: 5'8", but had amazing skills in pantomime not to mention her genius in costume and set design. 
A rare photo of Rambova with her hair down


2011-Cover girl looking very native American

Natacha's mother had expected her to take up her position in society when she returned to America. Rambova held firm; she was a dancer.

Natacha dances a pantomime 'en pointe'

Rambova's relationship, both personal and professional, continued with Koslov. He took advantage of the amazing creative force this young woman had, allowing her to design costumes and sets and, even dancing with her while taking all the credit and garnering the glory for himself. 
Natacha Rambova and Theodore Koslov in "The Aztec Dance"

Natacha was a stunning beauty.  She kept her auburn hair long, parted in the middle, wrapped and  tied with turbans and headbands. Koslov had instructed her to always wear flat shoes because of her height.  She favoured artsy, flowing dresses which gave her a distinctly bohemian air.

Looking rather Garbo-esque

When the movies lured the Russian Imperial Ballet to Hollywood, Natacha went along. Koslov's troupe would never have had the professionalism without her creative input, including her dancing.

An unconventional beauty and style

Koslov found a friend and fan in Cecil B. De Mille, who gave him small roles in some of his early films. Rambova continued to create fabulous sets and costumes. There is no doubt that Koslov took full credit for these.

The pensive artist before a work of art 

Natacha's unconventional hair styles seldom wavered far from braided or knotted "do's", with headbands, scarves and turbans to accentuate her beautiful hair. Below, an assortment of hair jewelry as well as some dazzling ear bobs adorn her perfect features:

Natacha Rambova's bohemian, arty style made her stand out in a crowd, and often misunderstood. She wore flat shoes and walked with her toes pointing outward. Future husband, Rudolph Valentino, joking referred to her as 'Anna Pavlova'.  But Natacha wore (regular) clothes well; she was not covering flaws in her figure.
Natacha in turban and jeweled spaghetti strap dress

Natacha Rambova always had a kind of style that was both esoteric and eclectic--unique to extremely creative people.
 Natacha wears a pleated Mariano Fortuny sheath

 A dramatic one shoulder ensemble by Paul Poiret

By some stroke of good fortune, one day Natacha delivered her sketches to the film studio personally, beating Koslov to the punch.  The rest is film history. Cecil B. DeMille and others not only marveled at her beauty, but recognized a major talent in art direction. She would go on to meet and work with Alla Nazimova on ground breaking projects such as 'Camille' and 'Salome' as well as marrying Rudolph Valentino, managing his career and turning him into the first major male sex symbol of the twentieth century. 
A 1925 portrait by Paul Ivanovitch

Little Winifred Shaughnessy had come a long way from Salt Lake City, but--there was still much more to come...