Biblical tales were big business in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. It seems audiences couldn’t get enough of ancient antiquity resurrected for the big screen. One man – undeniably – knew how to pull off the spectacle better than most. Cecil B. DeMille was one of Hollywood’s founding fathers and a cornerstone at Paramount Pictures during its heady silent and early sound era. His penchant for recreating spectacular vignettes from the Bible became his calling card in the movies, despite also having contributed such non-Biblical classics as The Crusades (1935), Union Pacific (1939) and his penultimate, Oscar-winning, The Greatest Show On Earth (1952) to our canon of beloved, shared movie memories. By the time he appeared for his close-up cameo in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), DeMille had already achieved the status of a legendary director; Hollywood’s grandfatherly éminence grise. Curiously, DeMille played himself in Wilder’s brooding 1950 classic. Even more fascinating for movie buffs, De Mille is seen hard at work on Samson and Delilah, released theatrically the year before.
Personally, I’ve always found DeMille’s Bible-fiction excursions (The Ten Commandments 1956 included) just a tad too preachy. All those ersatz temples and tombs looking like the lobby of Grauman’s Egyptian Theater, his stars rigidly placed in their gleaming metal breast plates or diaphanous gowns, the latter so obviously spun from the loom of a fashion designer, and, all those thousands of extras reverently posed in moving tableaus of other famous artist’s depictions from the Bible. The sheer enormity of that spectacle is none the less impressive, but at least for me, it has never truly come to life. I prefer William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959) or even Mervyn LeRoy’s Quo Vadis (1950) to The Ten Commandments. Nevertheless, there is no denying DeMille his place in the cinema firmament, nor would I even attempt to try.
When one conjures to mind the image of the classic Hollywood director it is likely DeMille’s likeness we see; megaphone in one hand, riding crop in the other. And undeniably, when we think ‘Easter’ we wait for the inevitable broadcast of The Ten Commandments (not Ben-Hur) in all its grandiosity to unfold inside our living rooms. No, there’s no point in decrying the stilted performances of that synthetic glamor. The film and the holiday are indivisible and very much a tradition, bridging the secular with the sacred; even if The Ten Commandments is very much more the former than the latter. But before this epic swan song in his career, DeMille released Samson and Delilah (1949), the movie that arguably jump-started the second coming of the toga party in Hollywood.
During the war years, Hollywood had shied away from the Bible-fiction epic, mostly due to wartime budgetary restrictions precluding lavish spending on single movies with casts of thousands. But at war’s end Paramount and DeMille decided to take the plunge with Samson and Delilah. The gamble paid off – handsomely in fact (the film raked in $11 million, making it the top moneymaker of 1950). Given the movie’s overwhelming success at the box office, it remained hidden in Paramount’s vaults thereafter, rarely revived theatrically or even on TV. Perhaps in light of the embarrassment of riches lavished on The Ten Commandments and its perennial renewal on the small screen, Samson and Delilah had been deliberated allowed to fade into obscurity – requested only by diehard fans grappling with woefully careworn bootlegged copies on home video to satisfy their fix.
Viewing Samson and Delilah in the shadow of The Ten Commandments is a little bit like judging a rose in a flower show made up entirely of chrysanthemums. The former has neither the budget nor the visual grandiosity of DeMille’s penultimate achievement in the movies and in many ways Samson and Delilah plays like DeMille’s ‘cheat reel’ of outtakes from The Ten Commandments. Yet, even removed from such direct comparisons Samson and Delilah is somehow disappointing – particularly in retrospect and even when referenced alongside DeMille’s earlier films, The Sign of the Cross (1932) and Cleopatra (1934). I’m not exactly certain why this is. Perhaps, in all the years since the film’s absence from general circulation its cult following has managed to dwarf its actual artistic merits.
It behooves this reviewer to point out that Victor Mature was not DeMille’s first – nor even his second – choice for the strapping Israelite whose iron arms slew a fierce lion and later crushed the Philistines by tearing down their sacred temple single-handedly. Burt Lancaster had been DeMille’s ideal. Regrettably, the actor graciously declined the offer, citing his bad back. DeMille then considered champion bodybuilder Steve Reeves for the role. It’s difficult to accept the story that Reeves rejected the part because he was asked to tone down his incredibly muscled physique. After all, the classical sculptures of Samson are hardly circumspect about the physical proportions of this superhuman and, in fact, bear a striking resemblance to Reeves’ own well-muscled frame. And Reeves, in his prime, was just about the most perfectly sculpted muscle man of his generation – a living testament that would have made the screen Samson ripple with both prowess and conviction. Ultimately, Reeves would secure his own place of immortality in the movies, playing another immortal – Hercules – a decade later.
So, DeMille’s Samson eventually morphed into Victor Mature…or is it the other way around. Mature, a popular actor for his time had a reputation for impish playfulness on the set; a bon vivant with a devil-may-care attitude toward life, but also his craft, and whose prankster ways often mildly infuriated directors and co-stars alike. Esther Williams, as example (who worked with Mature on Million Dollar Mermaid) has frequently referred to the actor as Victor Im-Mature. Indeed, in later years, Mature was frank about the importance he placed on his own work ethic, saying “I was never that crazy about acting. I had a compulsion to earn money, not to act. So I worked until I could afford to retire (and) still enjoy life... I like to loaf.” It is unlikely that Mature’s lackadaisical approach to acting appealed to DeMille – a perfectionist who took his craft very seriously.
Yet, in reviewing Mature’s contributions to the part it is that other shortcoming that becomes more readily apparent; that is to say, the actor’s overall lack of overt muscularity. At six feet two inches, Mature was undeniably a big man, broad-shouldered and barrel-chested. Yet his physique lacks the necessary refinement and tonality to match our preconceptions about the mythical Samson. His flesh is smooth rather than sculpted, his body appearing bulky instead of brawny. While one may laughingly dismiss the amusingly pithy comment made at the time by film critic, Bosley Crowther, that Mature’s breast tissue was more readily on display than his costar’s Hedy Lamarr, it nevertheless remains difficult to imagine Mature’s mass alone garnering the necessary strength to topple an empire. Mature’s acting – his bravado and ego – arguably compensate, at least partly, for his physical failings, but never enough to make him wholly convincing as a strong man par excellence.
Hedy Lamarr is quite a different prospect. Although DeMille had entertained a host of names for the part of the treacherous Delilah (including Lana Turner, Maureen O’Hara and Rita Hayworth), Lamarr’s sultry good looks and fiery disposition as one of the undisputed cinematic birds of paradise in American movies remain galvanic and indestructible in Samson and Delilah. From the moment she slinks onto the screen we can accept her as the embodiment of that deceptive viper, so driven to consume and control this man of iron that she would rather destroy them both. And Lamarr is exciting beyond her physical appeal; an actress once groomed at MGM to become the next Garbo, but who proved her worth and her smarts both in Hollywood and elsewhere on the stage of life. Many forget that Lamarr was one of the engineers and patent holders behind the frequency hopping spread spectrum invention (a precursor to today’s Bluetooth and Wi Fi communication technologies) initially designed to make radio-guided torpedoes harder to detect and/or jam.
In Samson and Delilah, Lamarr radiates as the manipulative seductress. She titillates, but never without a more sinister purpose lurking behind the eyes that everyone except Samson can see. Yet it must be said the chemistry between LaMarr and Mature is lacking, despite her conviction in the role. The blame must therefore rest on Mature’s squared-off shoulders. The actor seems to be feigning desire throughout the film, perhaps because the one true love in this Samson’s life is Mature himself. Even when he initially takes Delilah’s sister, Semedar (Angela Lansbury) to be his Philistine bride, Mature’s Samson is a deceiver, unsuccessfully yearning to amalgamate the opposing worlds of the conquered and the conqueror to his own advantage. Hence, when Semedar betrays his secret answer to a riddle proposed to her once betrothed lover, Ahtur (Henry Wilcoxin) Samson is all too willing to disavow his lust for her in an instant, seemingly without compunction for the wrath and immediate destruction it will bring to Semedar’s household.
DeMille used four writers to cobble together his screenplay: Fredric M. Frank, Vladimir Jabotinsky, Harold Lamb and Jesse Lasky Jr. But the results are more episodic that cohesive, the film moving along as a series of vignettes haphazardly strung together. A bit in which an aged storyteller (Francis MacDonald) is publicly humiliated by the Leader of the Philistine soldiers (Frank Mazurki) is DeMille’s rather awkward attempt to introduce the tyrannical rule under which the Israelites toil. The leader’s authority – more disgustingly playful than foreboding, is challenged by Miriam (Olive Deering) who wastes no time hurrying to Samson’s home to report the assault. Miriam loves Samson dearly. Yet her loyalty remains unrequited. For Samson (Victor Mature) has already fallen under Semedar’s (Angela Lansbury) spell. We are introduced to Samson; broad-shouldered, though decidedly of limited imagination. He observes Semedar practicing her javelin, but is quite unaware Delilah is also perched along the garden wall.
Prince Ahtur (Henry Wilcoxin) secures a betrothal from Semedar’s father (William Farnum). But after Samson learns the Saran of Gaza (George Sanders) is intent on slaying a lion outside the city walls, he ambitiously sets off to kill the beast before the hunting party can arrive, thereby proving his strength and, by extension his worth to marry Semedar instead. Unaware of his intentions, Delilah helps Samson beat the hunting party to the lion’s den. Samson kills the beast and is rewarded by the Saran with Semedar’s hand. However, the wedding reception turns rancid when Samson challenges Ahtur, using a riddle neither he nor his men can decipher, placing a hefty dowry of silken robes of state as his forfeit. Samson is confident he will win. But Ahtur encourages Semedar to coax the answer from Samson’s lips, using her powers of seduction. She does and wastes no time divulging the answer to Ahtur who demands remuneration from Samson.
Angered by this betrayal, Samson storms off to the city where he forcibly robs wealthy Philistines to secure his promised dowry, returning to Semedar’s house with the garments he flings into the room. Ahtur attacks Samson and in the resulting struggle Semedar is slain, resulting in an all-out brawl in which Samson destroys the house and kills many Philistines. Over the course of the next several months, Samson repeatedly defies getting caught by the Saran’s forces. Delilah becomes a concubine to the Saran, jealously plotting Samson’s demise. She tells the various lords who populate his house that she alone can deliver the strong man to them, provided they are willing to pay a king’s ransom to her for his capture. But she also makes the Saran promise no sword shall touch Samson’s flesh. The wager amuses the Saran who encourages Delilah in her quest.
Setting her trap, Delilah and Samson are reunited in a passionate affair. She attempts to learn the secret of his strength. Samson plies the viper with various lies to test her loyalty. But in a moment of true naiveté he confides that his strength derives from his faith in God, emblematically on display in the lengthy mane of his uncut hair. Drugging Samson with some wine, Delilah shaves him before calling in the Philistine guards to her tent. They bind the weakened muscle man to a tent pole with chains and then blind him with red hot pokers. Samson is sent to the gristmill as Saran’s slave, ridiculed by passersby who stop to gawk at the spectacle through one of the prison windows. However, when the Saran takes Delilah to the mill to show what her treason has wrought, it becomes quite obvious she still harbors an unquenchable passion for Samson.
Haunted by the reality of what she has done, Delilah prays to God and is purified. In the meantime, Samson’s prayers in prison seem to go unanswered. Sneaking into his cell by night Delilah begs for Samson’s forgiveness. Although he cannot abide her pleas at first, Samson is stirred in anger and breaks free of his chains. Realizing his strength has returned Samson plots with Delilah to be taken to the Philistine temple of worship on the day when the whole of the city is guaranteed to turn out to celebrate his crippling. Led between a pair of columns that support the temple, Samson dislodges the stone pillars, destroying the Saran’s empire and crushing his oppressors inside. In the final moments, Miriam is seen comforting a tearful Saul (Russ Tamblyn); the boy who worshipped Samson from afar as the Israelite’s noble defender.
Samson and Delilah is Cecil DeMille at his most kitschy and overly melodramatic. Performances aside, the story lacks the necessary trajectory to propel itself onward to that inevitable conclusion. Instead, what we have is a rather awkward series of extracts – some compelling, but most simply represented as visual embellishments of the ancient tale. It has often been noted that DeMille’s pseudo-Biblical heroes and heroines lack dimensionality. This is true. For DeMille, actions are more important than character motivation. As such, his characters simply go through the motions in recreating their sacred history, but without any real purpose behind the exercise.
We never truly understand Samson as a man, nor Delilah as a woman. They are mere archetypes; the big boned/thick-headed strong man and sultry self-destructive vixen who spar a few rounds before reaching their inevitable demise. Victor Mature’s refusal to wrestle the trained lion also does much to diffuse Samson’s credence as a powerful warrior. Perhaps audiences of their day did not anticipate or expect much more from the film. Certainly, Samson and Delilah’s overwhelming success illustrates how well-placed DeMille’s hand was on the pulse of the public. Viewed today, however, such stick figure representations really don’t play. In The Ten Commandments, at least we have lavish spectacle to divert our attentions from this obvious shortcoming. But on Samson and Delilah Hans Dreier’s art direction and George Barnes’ cinematography don’t live up to expectations. The use of rear projection is painfully obvious and the costumes more polished than lived in. The artifice lacks credibility. So does the melodrama. In the final analysis, Samson and Delilah is a middling effort - even for DeMille - the public’s fascination with the picture since, likely predicated on the fact that it has been MIA for so many years on home video.
Paramount Home Video has really done a bargain basement job of things herein. Last year they gave us the DVD, now the Blu-ray. Once again, the movie has been slapped to disc without so much as an audio commentary. For shame! The good news is Samson and Delilah, on the whole, looks rather marvelous in blazing Technicolor, thanks to a 2003 restoration and remaster in hi-def from those restored elements. Colors are bold and fully saturated, but still tend to adopt a rather ‘cartoony’ quality that remains troublesome. Flesh, at times veers dangerously close to piggy pink and can also appear slightly too orange. Where the Blu-ray decidedly improves on the old DVD is in its rendering of film grain and contrast; both tightening up considerably – as they should - and refining the overall image quality in decidedly pleasing ways. Fine detail is gorgeously realized in close-ups, though long and medium shots still look just a tad soft around the edges. The audio has also been restored in mono and provides an adequate listening experience though unremarkable in virtually all respects. Again, Paramount has stiffed us on the extras. It’s high time we stopped calling ‘theatrical trailers’ an extra. It’s the least the studio could have done! Bottom line: the overall impact of Samson and Delilah on Blu-ray is blunted by Paramount’s shortsightedness; a decided let-down, given how long fans have had to wait for this release.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)