Salome! What a world of sensation that name conjures! Salome! Whose legend is synonymous with erotic allure. Salome! The world’s first and most famous ecdysiast, who took it off for a king and in return got ahead, in more ways than one. Salome! With a long, illustrious pedigree, going all the way back to the New Testament, in which she danced her dance—didn’t she? Or didn’t she?
Ah, yes, Salome may be a stripteaser, but she’s a Biblical stripteaser. Only she isn’t. Not really. At least, no one knows for sure. That is to say, someone in the Bible dances before King Herod and, in return, is given the head of John the Baptist. Beyond that, no one can say. What many folks (including classic movie fans) may not know is that Salome, in spite of her fame (or, maybe, infamy), makes only three brief appearances in the Bible, and in two of them she’s not named at all. In both Matthew 14:6 and Mark 6:22, she’s merely identified as the daughter of Herodias, the wife of King Herod. In the third instance, in Mark 15:40, a woman named Salome is one of Jesus’ disciples attendant at the Crucifixion, but there’s nothing to link this individual to Herod’s court. What’s more, the lady who dances for Herod merely dances; there’s no mention of any clothing removed. And the one who has it in for the Baptist is Herodias herself; when Herod offers the daughter anything she wants in return for her dancing, the dutiful girl consults Mom, who instructs her to ask for the Baptist’s head. End of story.
Except that it wasn’t. Somehow those fragments ignited an entire Salome industry that continues even today. As Toni Bentley notes in her marvelous book, Sisters of Salome, “[f]rom a few scant lines in the New Testament…Salome’s notorious reputation was born as the woman responsible for the death of John the Baptist, the prophet who preached the coming of Christ.” And for two thousand years, artists have fed off Salome’s legend, portraying her in every style, “in every medium from illuminated manuscripts to miracle plays,” capturing her image in frescoes, mosaics, engravings, and oils. By the 19th century, says Bentley, Salome was “being examined…by a number of…notable artists,” including Gustave Flaubert and Karl Joris Huysmans in literature and Gustave Moreau in painting. It all culminated in her two most famous incarnations, Oscar Wilde’s 1893 one-act fever dream of a play, Salome, and its brilliant 1905 operatic adaptation by Richard Strauss, ushering Salome into the modern era.
And, of course, there were the movies. Given the bent of Biblical films for sin, spectacle, and suggestiveness, cinema would seem to be Salome’s natural destiny. And what other medium could collectively embrace all the other arts that have embraced Salome? A Google search, however, came up with only three major movies focused on Salome herself. Both the 1923 silent version, Salomé, and the 1988 Ken Russell opus, Salome’s Last Dance, take Wilde’s play as their starting points. The 1953 Columbia extravaganza, and the subject of this post, Salome, produced by Columbia studio head Harry Cohn as a Rita Hayworth vehicle, is something else entirely. (Surprisingly, Cecil B. DeMille never glommed onto Salome; the lady and her reputation seem right up his alley.)
We haven’t seen the Russell version (about the play being staged in a brothel for Wilde’s delectation), which is beyond this blog’s classic-movie-era purview (although, based on what we’ve seen of his other work, we assume it’s pure, uninhibited Russell). We can report on the silent film, however, produced by the famous Russian actress Alla Nazimova as pretty much a straight adaptation of Wilde’s play. That’s the only thing ‘straight’ about it. Nazimova was one of golden-age Hollywood’s best-known lesbians, and her producing such a film, says Eve Golden, “led to rumors that she hired only [a] gay cast and crew.” Diana McLellan claims it was more than rumor: Not only was the film to be an “all-gay production for a mass audience,” its designs, by Nazimova’s lover, Natacha Rambova, were based on Aubrey Beardsley’s decadent drawings for Wilde’s play, and many of the ‘female’ performers were actually men in drag. Nazimova herself, at age forty-four, played the teenaged Salome in a series of outlandish costumes, including a headpiece, notes McLellan, “covered in glass bubbles that vibrated as she emoted.” “As both high art and high camp,” says Golden, “[the film] is hard to beat.”
Viewed today, Nazimova’s Salomé is a puzzle. As the GarboLaughs blog notes in its review, “it’s hard to tell if [the production] is intentional, the work of an amateur, or if palace guards with painted nipples and giant pearl necklaces are just too chic for us and we’re just not sophisticated enough to understand [Nazimova’s] vision.” It’s a vision rooted in Wilde’s 1890s decadence, but it’s stale goods compared to its original. Wilde’s play was a leap into psychological modernity, written in densely imagistic, poetic prose, and using recurring motifs (the moon, the color white) that lend the text a symbolist aura. It seems less a drama for the public stage than a private, dream-like meditation on themes of love, death, and obsession. For its own modernist statement, Strauss’ opera used dissonance and propulsive rhythms; it’s not structured in the standard 19th-century recitative-aria-chorus, but is more a series of extreme, sung-dialogue passages. Not until the finalé, with Salome’s great solo of depraved passion, do we approach a conventional aria. Whereas Nazimova’s stylized movie has the look of 1920s chichi, with the bee-stung-lipped star appearing at film’s end in a kimono-style robe and wrap-around turban; Gloria Swanson could not have looked more soigné. The film may have striven for avant-garde shock, but cinematically it’s quite conventional, to the point of stasis. Viewers will find the silent Salomé hypnotic or just boring; its gay subtext may be the big draw, but as sheer drama it’s a bit of a yawn.
In contrast, Rita Hayworth’s Salome is pure Hollywood hokum. It has the stodgy, over-produced, and garish look of many 1950s Technicolor Biblical epics, beginning with the ketchup-red background of its credit sequence. While Nazimova’s film defiantly allied itself with the avant-garde, in both its designs and its explicit ‘gayness,’ Cohn’s Salome looks back, to the Biblical silents of the 1920s and earlier, which presented narratives constructed along clear-cut moral alternatives and (as in DeMille) spiced them up with delicious scenes of wickedness to titillate the rubes, before virtue triumphs at the end. It’s certainly not trying to give us Wilde. If Cohn knew of Nazimova’s adaptation, he probably would have known it was a huge flop that left the actress bankrupt. His film instead tries to gives us the Bible, although it doesn’t get that right, either. You see, Rita’s Salome is a good girl. Nazimova’s Salome was a flapper cum vamp out for no good; in an effort to recoup her losses (and bad press), the actress, per McLellan, “gave numerous interviews, in which she portrayed Salome as a nice girl who’d gotten a raw deal from love.” Curiously, that’s exactly what Rita’s Salome is. Living in Rome, Salome is spurned by the young Roman senator she’s in love with and is banished back to Galilee (news she greets with the kind of stunned horror exhibited by a New Yorker facing expulsion to New Jersey). She thus spends much of the film in a snit. Moreover, after a sudden conversion to Christianity, Salome dances her dance not to sacrifice the Baptist, but to save him. However, we get ahead of ourselves—
Hayworth had been absent from Hollywood for three years (1949-1951), during a high-profile marriage to Prince Aly Kahn, when she returned to America to start divorce proceedings and to re-start her career at her old studio, Columbia, to earn much-needed cash. Taking advantage of his top female star’s homecoming, Cohn immediately cast Rita in the dull Affair in Trinidad (a production that didn’t even have a finished script), then rushed her into Salome, which, says Hayworth biographer Caren Roberts-Frenzel, “sought to cash in on the current popularity of biblical films.” Cohn doesn’t seem to have done right by his errant actress; if AIT was thought bad, Salome was considered even worse. Bosley Crowther in his New York Times review described the film as “a lush conglomeration of historical pretenses and make-believe, pseudo-religious ostentation and just plain insinuated sex.” But then, nobody likes Salome. Hayworth biographer Barbara Leaming describes it as “a dreadful, Technicolor extravaganza”; Simon Callow in his biography of Charles Laughton (who plays the film’s Herod) calls it “madly misconceived”; and Charles Higham, in his own Laughton biography, says it was “amongst the worst of [the actor’s]” career. Rita herself, per Roberts-Frenzel, seems to have thought of the film as a low-point touchstone, once remarking, “I looked at all the parts I had done and realized that, no matter how they were sliced, it was still Salome.”
We at Grand Old Movies are here to give our own frank and fearless assessment of the film, and that is: It’s so bad, it’s good. Yes, Salome is a stinker, but it’s a fun stinker. It’s prime HBE (meaning Hollywood Biblical Epic; see our earlier post on Samson and Delilah); it has that genre’s vices and virtues, including lavish sets and costumes—part of the film’s fun is marveling at its neon-pink and sea-green fabrics, which we suspect were not seen in the Holy Land of two thousand years ago—characters made of balsa wood, lots of action, lots of beefcake and cheesecake on view, and a slew of hilariously clunky lines: A courtier warns Queen Herodias (a suitably haughty Judith Anderson) that “the Baptist has returned from the wilderness”; the Roman boyfriend protests, “I’m only being practical, Salome,” as he sends his lady packing to Judea (to which she answers, “You all come out of the same quarry!”); the Baptist exclaims, “There is no time to wait, the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!”; and Herod airily orders a soldier to “have John the Baptist brought before me in the morning.” It takes a rare kind of talent to write such lines—all right, maybe no talent, but it does take something.
The film’s plot elaborates and invents on its skimpy Biblical source. Salome returns to Judea on a Roman galley ship—which, like every set in this film, is vast, empty, and pristine, as if the folks of the ancient world, like the folks of the 1950s, went for building new developments in the vast, empty, and pristine suburbs—where she falls for Claudius, the hunky Roman commander (Stewart Granger), who, it turns out, is a secret Christian and follower of John the Baptist (Alan Badel, looking extraordinarily fit and clean for a guy living in the desert on a diet of locusts and wild honey). Once back in Galilee, however, Salome must contend with both Herod’s lust and Herodias’ plans to use her as bait to have the Baptist killed. Our desert Prophet, it seems, has been fulminating against the Herods’ illicit marriage, which Herodias sees as a danger to herself and to the throne (“The throne is more than life to me,” she declares). But Herod is reluctant to execute a holy man, since the latter’s demise could bring a curse down on the royal head. A similar doom had previously dispatched Herod’s father (“I can still hear him screaming!” the terrified king moans), and the son has no wish to suffer the same fate. Thus we have the set-up when, with the Baptist arrested, Herod and Herodias squabbling over him, and Claudius trying to save him, Salome, now a Christian convert, decides to dance in order to free the Prophet—even though, as Herodias affirms, dancing for the king means becoming his possession, an ancient custom of Judean droit du seigneur that we think dates back to circa 1953, but you get the point. Salome will risk body and virtue by performing, but, in true show-biz fashion, the show must go on.
And thus we come to the reason for any Salome production: The Dance of the Seven Veils. The name (and its implied disrobing) is not from the Bible but was actually an invention of Wilde’s (perhaps based on a Babylonian myth) that gave Salome, says Bentley, “nothing more—or less—than a striptease.” The striptease is now central to the Salome legend, and Columbia, like other post-Wildean adapters, followed suit, hiring the modern-dance choreographer Valerie Bettis to create Rita’s dance (Bettis also choreographed Rita’s AIT dances). What heightens viewer anticipation of Rita’s Seven-Veils dance is, of course, the memory of her “Put the Blame on Mame” number from Gilda (1946), probably the most famous striptease in all cinema. In that earlier dance (choreographed by Jack Cole), Rita struts, tosses her curls, waggles her rump, and peels off a pair of elbow-length black gloves (and nothing else); yet she creates an image of erotic abandon rarely equaled on film. It’s not much of a strip—it’s not even much of a dance—but it’s as sexy as all get out. If Salome had performed that for Herod, goodness knows what else he might have given her.
In contrast, Bettis’ choreography gives us the disrobing, veil by veil. Yet we must admit that Rita’s Salomeian effort was, for us, a bit of a letdown. In part, the Rita of 1953 is not the Rita of 1946; time, high living, and the birth of two children had eroded her technique and figure. But the dance itself fails to ignite. It’s not a bad dance, qua dance. It’s expertly constructed, with Salome artfully removing each brightly colored veil as the number builds to its climax. Bettis inserts choreographic motifs suggestive of Middle Eastern gesture, particularly in the port de bras (arms stretched sinuously above the head, with palms pressed together), and adds modern-dance touches such as angular pelvic thrusts and two-footed hops. Rita lunges, bends, spins, slides into a split, twirls those veils, then falls to the floor and provocatively writhes. Very Arty. And yet the effort seems too focused on having us count the veils, as they slip off Salome’s torso, rather than on arousal. The difference between Rita’s two dances recalls the argument that the French philosophe Roland Barthes made in his famous essay “Striptease.” Stripping, Barthes noted, is based on a contradiction: “Woman is desexualized at the very moment when she is stripped naked.” By the time the stripper gets it all off, she’s regained “a perfectly chaste state of the flesh.” In effect, the striptease follows a law of diminishing returns; the “ritual” of disrobing, said Barthes, makes the body “more remote.” But, as Gilda shows, maybe even the ritual is best left to the imagination. “Put the Blame on Mame” exposes very little, but no one who sees it ever forgets it. Less really does mean More, in terms of revelation. Perhaps, in Salome’s case, Columbia should have dumped the art and kept the veils on. A straightforward hootchy-kootch might have worked better.
Here’s a clip of Rita in the Dance of the Seven Veils, which ends with a gruesome surprise:
Hayworth’s dance is not helped by a bizarre decision, made by either the scenarists, Jesse Lasky Jr. and Harry Kleiner, or the director, William Dieterle, to interrupt her number with another scene. Midway through the unveiling, Dieterle abruptly cuts to the king’s guards battling Claudius and his men, who are helping the Baptist to escape. The cut not only detracts from the dance’s impact, it’s also confusing. It’s not clear what’s going on here; soldiers run about and clash swords, but nothing seems to happen. Then it’s back to the dance, Salome tossing aside more veils, when suddenly a servant enters with the Baptist’s severed head on a platter. When or how the beheading took place is never indicated. It almost seems an afterthought; as a watching Herod salivates over Salome’s terpsichorean display, Herodias quietly requests the Baptist’s decapitation, to which Herod, with nary a glance, consents. Wasn’t his fear of the Baptist’s death the essence of the plot? Still, Laughton’s reaction to the lopped cranium is priceless: He heaves himself up from the throne and, in a gesture seemingly inspired by the dance he’s just witnessed, dramatically whirls his robe over his head and rushes out. Indeed, throughout the film, Laughton moves as if his own acting had been choreographed: Swinging, stretching, pointing, and flinging out his arms, like a traffic cop set to music. It’s a remarkable performance. Not that it’s a good performance—so much scenery is chewed up and spat out, it’s no wonder the sets look bare—but it’s surely not one to be missed.
Though Salome is entertaining to watch, its shoot was not a happy occasion for its principles. According to Leaming, Rita was unenthusiastic, taking off unannounced to Acapulco before filming began, much to Cohn’s consternation. She was also going through the proverbial messy divorce, clashing with Aly Kahn over custody of their daughter, while enduring FBI scrutiny for suspected political contacts (from the time of her marriage to Orson Welles). Laughton was having his own clashes with Cohn, who, says Higham, disagreed with the actor’s “canny, slick softness” in his portrayal of the Judean king. Granger’s own situation may have been the worst of all. As he recalls in his memoirs, the actor and his then-wife, Jean Simmons, were embroiled in a vicious contract dispute with the (to put it kindly) eccentric Howard Hughes: “I had everyone at Columbia warning me that I was fighting a losing battle.” He also had to suffer Laughton’s hammy scene-stealing; per Granger, Laughton “did everything to screw me up.” Yet Granger gives the film’s most sincere performance. His best moment comes when, in a long, complex speech, he recalls seeing Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead. The scene could easily have become risible—so many of the movie’s religious scenes are—but Granger’s conviction carries it; he persuades you that this man has witnessed a miracle. What a pity he had to share the shot with the sanctimonious Badel, who raises his eyes heavenward to indicate pious rapture. Badel’s acting is like that: He’s either gazing in religious ecstasy or he’s pumping his carefully built-up and shaved arm in righteous wrath. In either mode, he’s a hoot. You wonder if Herod’s real fear of the Prophet was of being stricken with a fit of giggles.
Salome itself does the same: intentionally or not, it induces giggles—it’s that kind of a movie. In its telling of the story of the girl who danced for a king and cost a man his life, the film had no artistic pretenses to begin with; but watching it today, stripped (so to speak) of its original religio-cultural associations, is still an experience. Whatever else, it won’t bore you. But then, why watch Salome? Why spend time with a 1950s film admittedly high on the cheesiness quotient? To answer that is like trying to give a reason for eating chocolate. You eat chocolate because it pleases; you watch Salome and movies of its ilk because they, like Salome’s dance for Herod, also please. If you enjoy big, bountiful HBE movies like Quo Vadis or The Ten Commandments or Ben-Hur or Samson and Delilah, then you will enjoy Salome. A fondness for HBEs is like a fondness for cheesy snacks or cheesy horror movies—you either like them or you don’t. But if you do like them, no excuses are necessary. Sit back, relax, open a bottle of beer, eat some chocolate, and go with it. As Oscar Wilde himself once noted in another context, the best way to deal with a temptation is to yield to it. And Salome is a temptation that abundantly earns its yield.
Barthes, Roland, “Striptease,” Mythologies, translated by Annette Lavers, New York: the Noonday Press, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1957, 1972
Bentley, Toni, Sisters of Salome, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002
Callow, Simon, Charles Laughton: A Difficult Actor, New York: Grove Press, 1988
Crowther, Bosley, “Salome at Rivoli, Stars Rita Hayworth as Enchantress of the Biblical Story,” The New York Times, March 25, 1953
GarboLaughs, “Salomé (1923),” June 8, 2011
Golden, Eve, Golden Images: 41 Essays on Silent Film Stars, Jefferson, NC, and London: McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers, 2001
Granger, Stewart, Sparks Fly Upward, New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1981
Higham, Charles, Charles Laughton: An Intimate Biography, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1976
Leaming, Barbara, If This Was Happiness: A Biography of Rita Hayworth, New York: Viking, 1989
McLellan, Diana, The Girls: Sappho Goes to Hollywood, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000
Roberts-Frenzel, Caren, Rita Hayworth: A Photographic Retrospective, New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2001
BONUS CLIP: Here it is: Rita, Gilda, “Put the Blame on Mame”: