Nazimova/Lewton: The Film Dynasty That Might Have Been

Allison Comins-Richmond, Independent Scholar

The actress, "Alla Nazimova" (Adelaida Yakovlevna Leventon, 1879-1945), has been more known, particularly in recent years, for the "colorful" life she led. She conducted numerous affairs with both men and women and entertained some of the brightest luminaries from print, stage and screen at her expensive residences. However, Nazimova as a creative entity is far more interesting. Alla's career encompassed both stage and screen roles, beginning with her studies with Stanislavsky and Nemirovich in the earliest years of the Moscow Art Theatre, and continuing in the USA with leading roles in Ibsen and Chekhov stage dramas. A star movie actress earning millions (second in salary only to Mary Pickford in the late 1910s), Nazimova was also a film producer of some note, as well as an occasional scenarist (pseudonym: "Peter Winters"). In film, she made the transition from silent to speaking parts, in a long career in which she partnered Hollywood's biggest stars, from Rudolph Valentino (when she was a relatively young leading lady) to Michael Chekhov (when she was an elderly supporting actress, earning a modest living).

Her nephew, "Val Lewton" (Vladimir Markovich Leventon-Gofshneider, 1904-1951), produced and co-wrote a considerable number of low-budget but high-rated films in the 1940s which enjoyed wide distribution. Some of his films, which now rank as prestigious classics (Body Snatcher, Cat People), were not the typical, formulaic" creature features" of the time. In lieu of lumbering monsters, they try to touch their audience through mood, atmosphere, and psychology, working on a more symbolic level, which has led critics and scholars to conclude that they contain elaborate subtexts.

The careers of both Nazimova and Lewton share several similarities. They both worked with major US film studios and worked with some of the most talented and powerful American personalities of their day, despite the fact that they were both Russian emigres. (Nazimova came to the USA in 1905 at age 26; Lewton in 1909 at age 5.) Both attempted to create works which tested the models and boundaries of their day: Nazimova primarily as a stage and screen actress, Lewton as a film producer.

Though their careers chronologically overlapped and they moved literally in many of the same circles, those who know of these two artists today often do not know of their kinship (Lewton grew up as a "poor relative" in his aunt Nazimova's home), much less of their creative similarities. Particularly in Hollywood, a town where connections are everything, and which has known several "dynasties" of film families (Barrymore, Fairbanks, Huston, Douglas, etc.), the Nazimova/Lewton "dynasty" deserves to be explored as a creative and fruitful addition to the Hollywood pantheon. A small contribution to this exploration is the aim of the present paper.

If time permits, brief video clips of Nazimova's acting roles and of Lewton's productions will be shown.