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The bible story of Salome, King Herod's teenaged stepdaughter, who performed the dance of the seven veils in exchange for the head of John the Baptist, has been filmed many times, most notably in Alla Nazimova's stylized 1923 silent version based on the Aubrey Beardsley drawings for Oscar Wilde's play. Salome (1953), starring Rita Hayworth, is tamer than earlier versions, but is dazzling to look at in vivid Technicolor.
The biblical epic, more or less invented by Cecil B. DeMille in the 1920s, had a Technicolor renaissance in the 1950s. DeMille himself kicked off the revival with Samson and Delilah (1949) which was followed by two of 1951's biggest hits, Quo Vadis? and David and Bathsheba. The following year, Columbia chief Harry Cohn was looking for a new project for his number one star Rita Hayworth. Jesse Lasky, Jr., who had written Samson and Delilah and was by then under contract at Columbia, suggested the story of Salome. But Cohn didn't want his star to play an evil woman, so Lasky changed the biblical story, making the teenage vixen a sympathetic heroine. In this version of Salome, the princess dances to save John the Baptist instead of having him beheaded. And she's attracted to the Baptist spiritually, not physically.
Unfortunately, Lasky didn't get to write the screenplay from his story, so any DeMillean style he might have given it was bogged down in Harry Kleiner's pedestrian script and William Dieterle's heavy-handed direction. In spite of that, Salome does have compensations that make it worth watching. Publicity for the film boasted that Salome was "the first biblical epic to have shot all its exteriors on the authentic historical locations." That was a bit of a stretch - Dieterle and his crew did shoot some desert exteriors in Israel, but others were shot in Palm Desert, California - but it's a sumptuous-looking film, thanks to Charles Lang's color cinematography. There are several outstanding performances, most notably Charles Laughton as Herod, and Judith Anderson as his wife Herodias. Both actors were at their best playing obsessive characters - Laughton's Nero in The Sign of the Cross (1932) and Anderson's Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca (1940) are unforgettable - and in Salome they play their evil couple without restraint, a dueling duo of intensity, fury, manic energy and prime-cut ham.
Hayworth's dancing skills, too rarely used in her recent films, were on full display in Salome, in intricate dances created by renowned choreographer Valerie Bettis, who had previously created Hayworth's dances in Affair in Trinidad (1952). Far from a teenager, Hayworth was still glamorous and desirable enough to play a temptress. But as a 35-year old mother of two, her body was hardly girlish. It was up to costume designer Jean Louis to give her a youthful figure in her provocative costumes. He invented a flesh-colored elastic body stocking that shaped Hayworth's body under the seven veils, but made her appear nude, save for strategically-placed jewels - a sort of full-body girdle, the precursor of today's "Spanx." Marlene Dietrich saw those costumes and asked Jean Louis to design similar gowns from the same material for her nightclub act, which left audiences marveling at the youthful figure of the glamorous grandmother.
Hayworth's importance to Columbia is evident in the fact that Salome was co-produced by Beckworth, Hayworth's production company. But if she was on top professionally, her personal life was in disarray. Her much-publicized marriage to international playboy Prince Aly Khan had ended in 1951, after less than two years. She filed for divorce, and the following year she resumed the movie career she had abandoned when they married. During the filming of Salome, Khan arrived in Hollywood to try to win her back. During his visit, the couple's three year-old daughter Yasmin found an open bottle of sleeping pills and swallowed them. The couple rushed the child to the hospital, and the crisis brought them closer together. Hayworth agreed to join her estranged husband in Europe after the film wrapped, but the reconciliation was short-lived. Soon after, Hayworth began seeing singer Dick Haymes, and married him in September, 1953. That marriage also lasted less than two years.
Stewart Granger, then MGM's top swashbuckler, was borrowed by Columbia to play Hayworth's love interest in Salome. Like Hayworth, he was preoccupied with personal matters during production. He and his wife, actress Jean Simmons, were involved in a court fight to get her out of her contract with Howard Hughes. Their efforts were ultimately successful.
Salome was also a success, at least with the public, which was intrigued by all the publicity about the supposedly lascivious dance of the seven veils. The critics were less enthralled. Time magazine called it "A turgid multimillion-dollar blend of sex, spectacle and religion...directed with a ponderous touch by William Dieterle." However, the Time critic was grudgingly admiring of Hayworth's efforts: "She writhes, wriggles, and undulates through this predecessor of the modern striptease with such abandon, as she removes as many veils (six) as the law and the Breen Office will allow, that moviegoers may come away with the feeling that never before has history been so colorful." Bosley Crowther of the New York Times found Salome "A lush conglomeration of historical pretenses and make-believe, pseudo-religious ostentation and just plain insinuated sex." No doubt reviews like those attracted more audiences than it repelled, and contributed to Salome's success at the box office.
Director: William Dieterle
Producer: Buddy Adler
Screenplay: Harry Kleiner, based on a story by Kleiner & Jesse Lasky, Jr.
Cinematography: Charles Lang
Editor: Viola Lawrence
Costume Design: Jean Louis, Emile Santiago - men's costumes
Art Direction: John Meehan
Music: George Duning, Daniele Amfitheatrof - music for dances
Cast: Rita Hayworth (Princess Salome), Stewart Granger (Commander Claudius), Charles Laughton (King Herod), Judith Anderson (Queen Herodias), Sir Cedric Hardwicke (Tiberius Caesar), Basil Sydney (Pontius Pilate), Maurice Schwartz (Ezra), Alan Badel (John the Baptist).
by Margarita Landazuri