06 June 2023

La Collectionneuse: Nita Naldi

With her exotic looks, Nita Naldi was one of the most famous Hollywood vamps of the 1920s. She notably co-starred with Rudolph Valentino in three movies. Interestingly enough, she also had a leading role in an early Alfred Hitchcock film. About her career, she once wittily declared: "They had ermine tails and paradises in my hair and a couple of snakes coiled around my neck. In real life, believe me, any man of sensibilities would have run 20 miles to get out of my sight".

Nita Naldi
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 4686/1, 1929-1930. Photo: Paramount Pictures. Nita Naldi and Rudolph Valentino in Blood and Sand (Fred Niblo, 1922).

Nita Naldi
Spanish postcard by Ediciones Adolfo Zerkowitz, Barcelona, no. C-70. Photo: Paramount.

Nita Naldi
Italian postcard by Casa Editrice Ballerini & Fratini (B.F.F. Edit.), no. 119. Photo: Films Paramount. Nita Naldi in The Ten Commandments (Cecil B. De Mille, 1923).

Nita Naldi
Italian postcard by Casa Editrice Ballerini & Fratini (B.F.F. Edit.), no. 120. Photo: Films Paramount. Nita Naldi in The Ten Commandments (Cecil B. De Mille, 1923).

Nita Naldi
British postcard in the Famous Cinema Stars Series by Beagles, no. 101 U. Photo: Paramount.

Nita Naldi on stage

Nita Naldi was born Mary Nonna Dooley on the 13th of November 1894 in New York, U.S.A.

Several years after her father had left the family, her mother passed away in 1915.

She soon turned to the stage and her first known Broadway credit was in 'Follow the Girl' in 1918.

She also appeared, e.g., in 'The Passing Show of 1918', a lavish revue produced by the famous Lee and Jacob J. Shubert.

Nita Naldi
American AZO postcard.

Nita Naldi
Swedish postcard by Ljunggrens Konstförlag, Stockholm, no. 193.

Nita Naldi
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 873/4, 1925-1926. Photo: Paramount.

Nita Naldi
Croatian postcard by Edit. Caklovic, Zagreb, no. 76. Photo: Bosna-Film.

Nita Naldi
Mexican postcard by CIE, no. 1322.

Her first steps in movies

The movie industry took interest in her and she was noticed as dancer Gina, a victim of the sinister Mr. Hyde, in Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920), opposite John Barrymore.

Although of Irish descent, Nita Naldi had a type of beauty which mixed Latin and oriental features that gave an exotic flavour to her screen persona and prevented her to play wholesome All-American girls.

As a result, she quickly became typecast.

For example, she is a vamp whose extravagant demands cause her victim to forge a check in Life (1921), a malevolent mistress in The Common Sin (1920), a Spanish coquette in A Divorce of Convenience (1921), a money-hungry revue dancer in Channing of the Northwest (1922) and appropriately plays a character called Temptation in the allegory film Experience (1921).

Nita Naldi
Italian postcard.

Nita Naldi
Swedish postcard by Ljunggrens Konstförlag, Stockholm, no. 194.

Nita Naldi
British postcard by Picturegoer, no. 142. Photo: Paramount.

Nita Naldi
Danish postcard by J. Chr. Olsens Kunstforlag, Eneret, no. 656.

Nita Naldi
Romanian postcard.

Paramount’s no. 1 vamp

She got her big break when she was chosen to play man-eater Dona Sol in Blood and Sand (1922), opposite Rudolph Valentino. Her success prompted Paramount to sign her and she became their no. 1 vamp.

She played the role to the hilt: she is, notably, Countess Rostoff, an international thief, in Anna Ascends (1922), a vampy owner of a crooked gambling house who financially ruins Hope Hampton’s husband in Lawful Larceny (1923), a surgeon’s wife who seduces Lewis Stone, although he’s married to Leatrice Joy, in You Can’t Fool Your Wife (1923), a promiscuous opera diva who adds Jack Holt to her list of conquests, much to the chagrin of Agnes Ayres who sincerely loves him, in Don’t Call it Love (1923) and an actress with whom Matt Moore is infatuated with, which provokes her husband’s jealousy, in The Breaking Point (1924).

In Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1923), she plays evil Eurasian Sally Lung and her death scene especially stood out. To her lover who, in need of money, had pressed her for the return of a set of expensive pearls he had bought her, she nixes the idea by answering "Poor Sally would catch a cold without her pearls". After realizing that he won’t get anything from her, he takes the necklace by force and declares he’s through with her. She retaliates by telling him she’s a leper and that he most probably got the disease from her. Horrified, he shoots her and she utters, before expiring, "Danny dear, I’ll tell the devil you won’t be far behind", which proves prophetic as he soon dies in a fatal boat accident.

In March 1923, a beautiful portrait of her posing with a faun by Alberto Vargas was published in Shadowland. For the magazine, the artist added clothing on her left breast, which, in the original drawing, was naked.

Over the years, recurrent remarks in the press about her weight somewhat hampered her career and reviewers were not always subtle when discussing her girth. Her Paramount contract ended with A Sainted Devil (1924), as Carlotta, Rudolph Valentino’s jealous former girlfriend.

Nita Naldi
Swedish postcard by Ljunggrens Konstförlag, Stockholm, no. 115.

Nita Naldi
Spanish postcard by La Novela Grafica, no. 14.

Nita Naldi
Swedish postcard by Forlag Nordisk Konst, Stockholm, no. 1256.

Nita Naldi
Italian postcard. Nita Naldi in A Sainted Devil (Joseph Henabery, 1924).

Nita Naldi
French postcard by Europe, no. 197. Photo: United Artists Corporation, New York. Nita Naldi and Rudolph Valentino in Cobra (Joseph Henabery, 1925)

Last Hollywood films and Nita Naldi in Europe

She soon reteamed with Valentino in her third and final film with him, Cobra (1925), as ambitious and unscrupulous Elise Van Zile.

In What Price Beauty, produced by Valentino’s wife, Natacha Rambova, she is Rita Rinaldi, a vamp who competes with country girl Mary for the love of a man. This movie was made in 1925 but was only distributed in 1928.

Among Nita Naldi‘s last Hollywood roles were Toinette, a cabaret dancer with whom Corinne Griffith’s husband has an affair, in The Marriage Whirl (1925), Fifi, who is the reason why Virginia Valli breaks her engagement to Lewis Stone, in The Lady Who Lied (1925) and Blanchita d’Acosta, a revue star who entices Hope Hampton’s fiancé in The Unfair Sex (1926). She also appeared in Clothes Make the Pirate (1925) a Leon Errol comedy.

In 1926, she left for Europe, where she played the unusual role of a schoolteacher in the Anglo-German co-production The Mountain Eagle/Der Bergadler (1926), directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

She also went to France for La femme nue (1926), as the wealthy Princesse de Chabran, Louise Lagrange’s love rival, and to Austria for Die Pratermizzi (1926), as a mysterious masked dancer who fascinates Anny Ondra’s boyfriend. In August 1929, she married James Searle Barclay Jr.,  in Paris. He hailed from a wealthy Long Island family and had been her lover for several years.

Nita Naldi
American postcard by Exhibit Supply Co., Chicago. Photo: First National. Nita Naldi in The Lady Who Lied (Edwin Carewe, 1925).

Nita Naldi
French postcard in Les vedettes de cinéma series by A.N. Paris, no. 184. Photo: G.L. Manuel Frères.

Nita Naldi in La femme nue (1925)
Vintage postcard. Nita Naldi in La femme nue/The Model from Montmartre (Léonce Perret, 1926).

Nita Naldi
Austrian postcard by Iris Verlag, no. 626. Photo: Sascha.

Nita Naldi and Igo Sym in Die Pratermizzi (1926)
Spanish postcard. Nita Naldi and Igo Sym in Die Pratermizzi/The Golden Mask (Karl Leiter, Gustav Ucicky, 1926). The Spanish title was La mascara de oro.

Harder times

Nita and her husband returned permanently to the U.S.A. in 1931 and, in 1932, she made her comeback on Broadway in a short-lived play starring Judith Anderson, 'Firebird'.

But her easy life was coming to an end: Nita Naldi and James Searle Barclay’s finances went downhill and she filed for bankruptcy in 1933. The couple had never been frugal in their expenses and Barclay’s wealth had melted away because of the Great Depression.

Afterwards, she occasionally went back to the stage and, in 1941, she was hired by Billy Rose to appear in his colourful Billy Rose Diamond Horseshoe Revue - The Silver Screen, in which she shared the bill with other old-timers such as Mae Murray, Gilda Gray and Carlyle Blackwell. She was widowed in 1945 and no probate was filed, as her husband had left so little money.

In 1952, she made her last appearance on Broadway as Marquesa Del Veccio Sporenza, a middle-aged woman fond of gigolos, in 'In Any Language', starring Uta Hagen. She could also be seen in several TV shows, such as The Robert Q. Lewis Show in 1950 or Jack Paar’s Tonight Show in 1958. On the 10th of March 1956, Nita, alongside the Gish Sisters, Leatrice Joy and Lila Lee, reminisced about the silent movie days on the CBS radio program 'Make up Your Mind'. In public, she always took care to maintain the old Nita Naldi image with jet-black hair, khôl-rimmed eyes, painted lips and long manicured nails.

During the last years of her life, the Actor’s Fund partially paid the rent of her room at the Wentworth Hotel in New York and she was plagued with health and sight problems. But she didn’t complain and kept her wit and her sense of humour. She passed away on the 17th of February 1961.

Text and postcards: Marlene Pilaete.

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