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A classic love story inflated to superhuman scale, Samson and Delilah (1949) was one of Cecil B. DeMille's most successful biblical epics. This telling of the Old Testament tale stars Victor Mature as Samson, a playful and cocky Hebrew who suffers from an ill-fated attraction to Philistine women, particularly a golden-haired huntress named Semadar (Angela Lansbury). Through the machinations of Semadar's conniving advisors (led by George Sanders as Saran), Samson earns the hand of a Philistine woman in marriage. Instead of Semadar, they give him Delilah (Hedy Lamarr), whom he spurns, which sets in motion her elaborate plans to find the secret of Samson's strength, and avenge herself of the jilting.
DeMille had for years been attracted to the story of Samson and Delilah, but had been unable to refashion it into a plot suitable for a film. In his Autobiography, DeMille wrote, "Again and again I had gone back to the Book of Judges to read it; but every time I was stopped by the fact that I could not find the one thread that would tie together the separate incidents in Samson's life as it is recorded in the Bible. Then I came upon a little-known novel, Judge and Fool, by Vladimir Jabotinsky; and the problem was solved." Following Jabotinsky's design, DeMille combined two characters (the younger sister of Samson's first fiance and Delilah), who appear to be separate people in the biblical text. This gives some motivation to Delilah's strange love/hate attitudes toward Samson which, in scripture, is not satisfactorily explained.
Although DeMille and his acolytes insist that his films are high-minded morality tales designed to encourage spiritual growth, most everyone else sees them for what they are: sexy spectacles designed to titillate the viewer, then absolve the conscience of guilt by ending on a note of religious piety.
DeMille deflects these accusations thusly: "I am sometimes accused of gingering up the Bible with large and lavish infusions of sex and violence," he wrote in his autobiography, "I can only wonder if my accusers have ever read certain parts of the Bible. If they have, they must have read them through that stained-glass telescope which centuries of tradition and form have put between us and the men and women of flesh and blood who lived and wrote the Bible. Clothing them in what we think is reverence, we have too often stripped the men and women of the Bible of their humanity; and I believe that that same process strips them of much of their religious value, too."
The balance of sin and salvation is nicely illustrated in an anecdote from Lamarr's lively 1967 autobiography, Ecstasy and Me: My Life as a Woman. She recalls having cocktails at Romanoff's with a sleazy talent scout (whom she pseudonymously refers to as Sidney), who tries to seduce her by offering her an audience with DeMille, who was in the process of casting Samson and Delilah. "C.B.'s a genius at those things," Sidney says, "By the time he's through spreading the money and talent around, every man in the world will want to screw the heroine of that particular biblical drama. It's a natural; a guy with muscles, a broad with virginity."
"Who plays Samson?" Lamarr asked.
"They're thinking of Victor Mature. But who cares? It's only a body to set you off in the ruins. Muscles and tits sugarcoated with religion. It's for you."
As repulsed as Lamarr was by Sidney's vulgar approach to filmmaking, she bit the carrot and met with the director. A few days later, the role was hers.
Later, Lamarr's agent echoed Sidney's sentiments, "C.B. is brilliant. When it comes to sex and spectacle, no one can tear down a temple and tear off a piece at one and the same time like he can. When he sells sex, sister, people buy because he wraps it in fancy paper with pink ribbons."
Samson and Delilah was widely praised for its Technicolor beauty and the scale of production, but few took it seriously. On December 22, 1949, The New York Times wrote, "For Mr. DeMille, that veteran geni who has already engineered three quasi-religious film pageants that tower in the annals of the screen, has here led his carpenters and actors and costumers and camera crews into the vast manufacture of a spectacle that out-Babels anything he's done. There are more flowing garments in this picture, more chariots, more temples, more peacock plumes, more animals, more pillows, more spear-carriers, more beards and more sex than ever before. At least, that's the sizable impression which Mr. DeMille has achieved by bringing together the Old Testament and Technicolor for the first time."
But critic Bosley Crowther then tagged his review with a sort of asterisk. "Does it all make for entertainment? That quite frankly depends. If you are looking for historical drama, for poetic tragedy - no. But if you'll settle for gold-plated pageants, for muscular episodes and for graphic inducements to wolf-whistling, then Samson and Delilah is for you."
DeMille may have been the master of Old Testament decadence, but in real life, he preferred a more pedestrian form of revelry. During production, DeMille invited Lamarr to accompany him to a Shriner's convention. "He wore a fez, this awesome filmmaker," Lamarr recalled. "As at most conventions, the men acted juvenile. I said to myself, 'These things I do for America.' Mr. DeMille lost some standing with me that night."
DeMille reportedly spent $100,000 in researching the historical details of Samson, Delilah and the world in which they lived. The climactic destruction of the Philistine temple posed a particular problem. It had to be grandiose enough to provide the film with a spectacular finish, but it also had to be architecturally plausible. What kind of stone temple (capable of holding hundreds of people) could be supported by two columns in close proximity? "The Bible does not give blueprints," DeMille wrote, "but we found a description of just such a building, and just such a spectacular collapse, in the writings of Pliny, the Roman historian of the first century A.D., and we constructed our temple set accordingly, with only such modifications and safeguards as the needs of our story required and modern engineering made possible."
But what makes Samson and Delilah such a pleasurable viewing experience is not its efforts at historical accuracy (one wonders where the $100,000 could have possibly gone), but the outrageous liberties DeMille took in order to sell the Old Testament story to a post-WWII audience. Nowhere in the book of Judges does it indicate that the blinded Samson was ceremonially taunted by a brigade of dwarves. The New York Times was particularly amused by one of Samson's more anachronistic lines, "I'll use you for lion bait." The production design is nearly psychedelic, with every piece of Philistine armor looking newly-minted and freshly-polished, characters bathing in what looks like a chlorinated studio pond, and Delilah's makeup radiating unnatural Technicolor hues.
Originally, DeMille considered Burt Lancaster for the role of Samson, but began looking elsewhere when he learned the actor had a bad back. The director clearly intended the actor to live up to Samson's legendary feats of strength, so he chose the brawny and handsome Mature. Unfortunately, Mature had some difficulty in living up to the role. When the actor showed up for work somewhat overweight, DeMille ordered him to undertake a vigorous exercise regimen and lose 30 pounds of fat.
According to DeMille biographer Charles Higham (a notorious scandal-monger), the director was shocked at Mature's repeated displays of cowardice: afraid of the live (reportedly toothless) lion, prop swords, water, and the wind machine. Higham writes that DeMille, exasperated with Mature's skittishness, took up his megaphone and shouted, for all the crew to hear, "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." It is hard to imagine a director publicly humiliating a leading actor, but DeMille was known for such displays of arrogance and cruelty.
Though she enjoys very little screen time, DeMille was particular about who should be in the role of Miriam, the virtuous woman whose love Samson ignores. In his acerbic memoir Whatever Happened to Hollywood?, co-screenwriter Jesse Lasky, Jr. (child of the founder of Paramount) recalled a discussion over the suggested casting of Olive Deering in the role:
"'I want a Jewess!' [DeMille] grumbled petulantly, 'A Jewish Jewess! If there is such a thing.'
"'She's a walking synagogue,' I assured him, 'Rebecca at the well! If you'll only just see her sir.'"
DeMille did consent to meet Deering, bringing her in and turning a bright spotlight on her face and loudly criticizing her appearance ("No camera on God's earth could photograph that face...Jesse, you have brought me the one actress in the world who cannot, I repeat cannot, be photographed from any angle!" According to Lasky, "Olive bore up wonderfully against this Gestapo-ish gesture, which had floored so many young actresses." Eventually DeMille tired of haranguing her and announced, "I think we've found our Miriam."
A rabid red-baiter, DeMille was suddenly panicked when "a mysterious phone call from Washington," informed him that Deering's name "had appeared on 'one of the lists'" (Lasky). DeMille cross-examined Lasky, and then Lasky questioned Deering, gaining the necessary assurance that she was not a Communist. Satisfied, DeMille issued his command, "Get Washington. Tell them -- if she's a DeMille actress, she's clean." In his memoirs, Lasky aptly observed, "The Boss regarded it as a matter of noblesse oblige to protect his own people from everyone. Except from himself!"
DeMille and Lamarr frequently butted heads during the making of Samson. "C.B. is an egomaniac and in a way he has a right to be," Lamarr's agent warned her just before the shoot, "I anticipate you two will be fighting every inch of the way. He knows this too. My advice to you is, don't win the battles but lose the war."
After the film's release, DeMille was interviewed about working with Lamarr, "We argued quite a bit but I respected Hedy... When I was blowing up, Hedy remained calm... Though I dread doing another picture with her because of our clash of temperaments, I have already asked her to star in The Greatest Show on Earth" (1952). Lamarr declined the offer. The role instead went to Betty Hutton who was the actress initially being considered for the role of Delilah, before Lamarr's fateful meeting with Sidney and C.B. Explaining why she refused the role, Lamarr explained, "He took too much out of me. I don't even say I was right, but as a successful actress, I was entitled to cut my own pattern and let the others cut theirs."
Samson and Delilah had a Herculean premiere at not one but two Manhattan palaces (the Rivoli and the Paramount, both located on West 43rd Street). The New York Times reported that an estimate 3,500 people swarmed the entrance to the Paramount, and another 2,000 queued up at the Rivoli. Produced at a cost of $3 million, Samson and Delilah earned an estimated $12 million at the box-office, making it Paramount's highest-grossing film to date.
Come Oscar® season, it was the film's "pink ribbons," not its edifying message that received the most attention. Samson and Delilah scored Academy Award nominations for Best Cinematography, Best Score, and Best Visual Effects, and brought home the Oscars® for Art Direction (art directors Hans Dreier and Walter Tyler, and set decorators Sam Comer and Ray Moyer) and Costume Design (Edith Head, Dorothy Jeakins, Elois Jenssen, Gile Steele and Gwen Wakeling).
Director: Cecil B. DeMille
Producer: Cecil B. DeMille
Screenplay: Fredric M. Frank and Jesse Lasky, Jr.
Cinematography: George Barnes
Production Design: Hans Dreier and Walter Tyler
Music: Victor Young
Cast: Victor Mature (Samson), Hedy Lamarr (Delilah), Angela Lansbury (Semadar), George Sanders (The Saran of Gaza), Olive Deering (Miriam), Russ Tamblyn (Saul), Henry Wilcoxon (Prince Ahtur).
by Bret Wood