SAMSON AND DELILAH ,or History’s Most Famous Haircut. That critical ‘do’ was supposedly doled out 3,000 years ago by a major Philistine fox to the Hercules-like Hebrew hero from the last three chapters of The Book Of Judges in the Old Testament. Produced & directed by a patriarch founder of the late A.D. Kingdom of Hollywood, Cecil B. DeMille, this endearingly goofy, old-fashioned eye-dazzler was unleashed first as a roadshow, complete with Overture and Exit Music, for Christmas, 1949, making its way to general release in spring of ’51. A giant #1 hit, it grossed $28,800,000 just in the domestic market, paving the way for Quo Vadis and the era of spectacles set in ancient times.
“No man leaves Delilah.”
Circa 1,000 B.C. Oppressed by their Philistine conquerors, the Danites have a champion in the relaxed yet mighty form of Samson (Victor Mature). Despite opposition from family and both their societies, he wants to marry Philistine maiden ‘Samedar’ (Angela Lansbury). Thorn is, she’s also wooed by haughty ‘Ahtur’ (Henry Wilcoxon), an officer serving much haughtier ‘The Saran of Gaza’ (George Sanders). Meanwhile, brazenly lusting for Samson is Samedar’s wild younger sister, Delilah (Hedy Lamarr). A lion is fought hand-to-paw, a wedding celebration turns into a deadly brawl, vengeance is sworn in several directions. The jawbone of an ass comes in hand when Samson clobbers 1,000 enemy troops, then sultry spurned siren Delilah vamps up the sex appeal. A towering temple must topple…
“He was not captured by force of arms, but by their softness.”
Adding some extra ‘character motivation’ to the sketchy seed material, screenwriters Jesse Lasky Jr. and Frederick M. Frank took a page or three from the 1930 novel “Judge and Fool“, by Zionist advocate Vladimir Jabotinsky, and from a treatment done by historical tale-spinner Harold Lamb, who’d whipped up past DeMille pageants The Crusades, The Plainsman and The Buccaneer.
Some of the dialogue is pretty good: “Like all soldiers, when you fail by the sword, you ask for more swords.” Much of it is, well…”Your arms were quicksand. Your kiss was death. The name Delilah will be an everlasting curse on the lips of men.” With C.B.’s manner of directing, a lot depends on who’s saying it: most of the supporting players make your teeth ache, but George Sanders wonderful insinuation can make cat food come out like caviar.
Without dispute, what does sound great is Victor Young’s majesty & passion-evoking music score, one of his finest. Playing to type: Demille announced “For Samson, I want a combination Tarzan, Robin Hood, and Superman”. The affable, hunkish 35-year-old Mature measures up, even if he did famously shirk on doing anything within a mile of a stunt; his doubling (by pro wrestler Kay Bell) in the truly silly lion wrestle could not be more obvious. To summon Delilah, DeMille saw… “a sort of distilled Jean Simmons, Vivien Leigh and a generous touch of Lana Turner.” Not exactly an acting threat to the first two, Hedy Lamarr at 34 sounded sufficiently exotic, moved like a cat and had seductive beauty to spare. Amusingly, Lansbury, playing her elder sister, was 12 years younger. Sanders is delightful. *
Budget-minded after the excessive layout on Unconquered, DeMille didn’t go for massive scale here; apart from some 2nd-unit exteriors done in Algeria and Morocco, most of it was shot on the Paramount sound-stages and the back lot, keeping the cost down to a comparatively frugal $3,090,000, with only the final sequence going for a Big Finish. Stem to stern, it looks fully fabulous in Technicolor, showcasing the art direction, set decoration, props and especially the splendid costumes, the work of five designers under the command of Edith Head. Oscars went to that Costume Design and the Art Direction, and nominations were earned for Cinematography, Music Score and Special Effects. The last come in a glorious whopper of a finale when Samson pulls down the pagan temple of the god Dagon and takes a mob of nasty Philistines into the next world. Painstakingly crafted with a mix of large-scale mock-ups, miniatures and live action, it must have been a jaw-dropper back in the Truman times, and remains a neat “Holy Cow!” scene these many years down the pike (Destination Moon, the first major space travel epic, took the Academy Award for effects).
Milling about in those garishly grand garments: Olive Deering, Russ Tamblyn (all of ten), Julia Faye,William Farnum, Lane Chandler, Wee Willie Davis, Francis McDonald, Russell Hicks, George Reeves, Mike Mazurki, Harry Woods, Ray Teal and Tom Tyler. 133 entertaining minutes of Sunday School hokum, with sufficient sex tease, ample amounts of blood and one helluva smasheroo climax.
* Scott Eyman’s sterling bio of the director quotes him on the action-skittish Vic: “The man is the greatest coward ever born” while Charles Higham (more suspect) says at one point Cecil vented via megaphone to the whole crew: “I have met a few men in my time. Some have been afraid of heights, some have been afraid of water, some have been afraid of fire, some have been afraid of closed spaces. Some have even been afraid of open spaces — or themselves. But in all my 35 years of picture-making experience, Mr. Mature, I have not until now met a man who was 100 percent yellow.” Ouch. Vic and Hedy did not enjoy each other, but everyone else involved seemed to like both of them. The most famous, possibly apocryphal remark on the film came from Groucho Marx. We won’t repeat it here: as many people say about things in the Bible, “You can look it up”.