Bible Boffo Box Office: Samson and Delilah and the Hollywood Biblical Epic

Paramount’s 1949 production of Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah has today become a movie trivia question: What film is DeMille directing during his cameo appearance in Sunset Boulevard? (The answer, in case you’re stumped, is: Samson and Delilah.)

In 1949, though, S&D was hardly trivial. It earned over a whopping (at the time) $11 million at the box office and was the top grosser for that year. That was an extraordinary amount of money; the year’s second-highest grossing film, MGM’s Battleground, earned less than half what S&D did.  It’s even more extraordinary when you consider that Hollywood had, by our calculation, not produced a Biblical epic for about fifteen years. Public interest in the Hollywood Biblical Epic had waned over the decades. The last one before S&D was 1934’s RKO Studios’ The Last Days of Pompeii, which was not a financial success. Created by the producer-director team of Ernest Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper—the guys who brought you 1933’s King KongLDOP’s plot, like that of the duo’s earlier film, focused on an oversize hero; in this case burly Preston Foster as a gladiator who, in the course of an adventurous life, meets Pontius Pilate, witnesses the Crucifixion, and is living in Pompeii when Vesuvius decides to do the one thing it’s famous for.

But in 1949, the Hollywood Biblical Epic (HBE, henceforth) came roaring back. And the man who made it roar is the man whose name is most closely associated with the HBE—none other than Cecil B. DeMille. We earlier looked at DeMille’s flamboyant 1932 version of The Sign of the Cross, which featured decadent Romans frolicking in and out of milk baths and Coliseumed Christians encountering lions and tigers and bears. Nor did DeMille skimp on the excess when it came to his new epic. Bosley Crowther in his New York Times review described the film as “a spectacle that out-Babels anything [DeMille has] 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.” Indeed, S&D may be something of a historical breakthrough in cinema annals; per Crowther, DeMille had “[brought] together the Old Testament and Technicolor for the first time.”

S&D was big, all right. Its male star, Victor Mature, had been dubbed “The Hunk” by the press because of his spectacular pecs. DeMille’s first choice for the role was Burt Lancaster (who was a trained acrobat and had the build to prove it); he next looked at a young Steve Reeves, who would later make his own mark as another muscled hunk, Hercules. But by 1949, Charles Higham writes, Mature was more flab than beef; DeMille ordered him to the gym for a grueling six-week workout. When it came to recreating Samson’s exploits, Mature likewise proved flabby. In the scene of Samson wrestling with a lion, the star refused to grapple with the tame cat provided, much to DeMille’s disgust; when told that the lion was toothless, Mature replied that he didn’t want to be gummed to death. So instead we get close-ups of Mature, in the words of DeMille biographer Simon Louvish, “strangling a prop.” (A stunt man tangled with the real—elderly—lion in long shots.) Although the more critically minded might feel that this makes S&D too silly to waste time on, others might argue that such scenes are the whole point of watching the film.

We should mention here S&D‘s source, the Old Testament Book of Judges, chapters 13-16. The original text tells of Samson, leader of the Danites, whose divine-given strength lies in his hair. Seduced by Delilah, to whom he reveals his secret, Samson is betrayed to the Philistines, who blind and enslave him; however, he recovers his strength and destroys his enemies (and himself) by collapsing the walls of their temple around them. The story’s fascination lies its contrast between brawn and beauty—the beautiful, seemingly fragile woman who uses her sexual power to entrap the big, hefty man. DeMille even played on this contrast when he pitched his movie to reluctant Paramount executives. Admitting in his autobiography that “I ha[d] to use some device of surprise” in approaching the Paramount chiefs, he commissioned an artist to draw a sketch of “a big brawny athlete and, looking at him with an at once seductive and coolly measuring eye, a slim and ravishingly attractive young girl.” As Robert Birchard notes, DeMille “had all the instincts of a carnival pitchman in drumming up interests for his projects.”

The above incident well illustrates DeMille’s sense of showmanship; he understood what would sell at the box office. This sense also applied to the Bible. For DeMille, a sincerely devout man who daily read his Bible, Scripture was not something viewed through what he called a “stained-glass telescope,” but full-blooded human drama. “I’m sometimes accused of gingering up the Bible with large and lavish infusions of sex and violence,” he wrote. “I can only wonder if my accusers have ever read certain parts of the Bible….[Biblical characters] were men and women. And that is how I portray them.” Some thought that DeMille may have been a little too lavish with the S&V in S&D’s case. Crowther observed that “the romantic rendezvous between  these two highly virile people are much more seductively described in  Mr. DeMille’s plushy picture than they are in Judges.” Robert  Birchard notes that, while DeMille didn’t alter the Bible story, he “slicked [it] up a bit.” And the critic Terry Ramseye remarked that if “the distilled essence of sex” was called for, DeMille knew where to find it.

That such ‘gingered’ elements appear in DeMille’s Biblical adaptations is not surprising. Per Louvish, the director’s reputation was not just as a Bible interpreter but as the creator of “Hollywood’s most adult-themed entertainments.” DeMille’s 1920s productions included a sprightly series of “husband-and-wife-divorce-and-remarry satires,” with titles like Don’t Change Your Husband and Why Change Your Wife?, many starring a glamorous Gloria Swanson revealingly draped in the hautest of couture. Their stories, Louvish writes, reflected a “carefree dalliance with the burgeoning jazz age, replete with the syncopations of desire and pleasure—and delicious orgies.” But the director had also discovered “the potent power of presenting modern dilemmas in their ancient settings.” Early S&D scripts, says Louvish, focused on “the ways in which the ancient story could be told for a modern movie audience.” Much of that modernizing seems focused on Delilah, played by a delectable Hedy Lamarr, who slinks through the role clad in garments apparently designed to appeal to the discriminating patrons of a burlesque house, assuming such institutions existed in ancient Philistia. She also spends much of the movie reclining on cushions and fanning herself, like a Philistinian version of a desperate housewife. If Delilah were with us today, she would probably have her own TV reality show.

DeMille modernized S&D in other ways, mainly through its enjoyably overripe dialogue. Unlike Howard Hawks who, when making Land of the Pharaohs, worried what an Egyptian Pharaoh should sound like, DeMille had no such problem with ancient speech. “I have to translate the Bible’s glorious and hallowed English into the crudest vernacular,” DeMille wrote; “It shocks,” he added, “but it makes [it] real.” Take Samson’s introductory scene, where he’s being scolded by his mother for running after girls instead of doing his chores. “I ought to turn you over my knee the way I used to,” she shouts. This is hardly the language of King James. One might almost think DeMille had wandered into a suburban sitcom, except that there’s no laugh track (although viewers can supply their own). And then there’s Delilah’s defiant declaration, “I cannot fight against his god—but no woman will take him from me”—a line that beautifully sums up her character. Our own favorite, though, is when a youthful Saul (played by a very young Russ Tamblyn) expresses his disappointment because Samson refuses to leave the fleshpots and return home: “Awww, Samson.” We’re not sure what DeMille is trying to make real here, but the  line, coming as it does from the future King of the Hebrews, does indeed give shock. Not for nothing does S&D rate an entry in that essential guide to schlock cinema, The Psychotronic Video Guide.

The film’s best lines, however, go to George Sanders, in an elegantly feline-like performance as the Philistine king (or maybe it’s just that actors who speak with cultured English accents always sound as if they get the best lines). “Delilah,” he purrs in one scene to his pouting inamorata, “what a dimpled dragon you can be.” Does a Philistine ruler talk like that? Does anyone talk like that? Sanders’ best moments are concerning the jawbone of an ass. For those not familiar with the Biblical source, the “jawbone of an ass” comes directly from an incident in Judges, in which Samson defeats the Philistine army using said object as a bludgeon. DeMille first gives us the battle (Mature busily whacking away, accompanied by loud sound effects), then he gives us the follow-up, when the enraged king, learning of his army’s defeat, humiliates his surviving general (Henry Wilcoxin) by contrasting the might of his troops (who have “Scattered the Hittites! Swept the Amorites!”) with Samson’s primitive weapon (“a jester’s toy”), ending each comparison with the phrase, “beaten by the jawbone of an ass.” The line sounds ludicrous to modern ears, but we have to admire DeMille’s handling of it. He doesn’t shy away from the words; instead he rubs them in by having Sanders say them over and over, in the most scathing tones imaginable, until the unhappy general squirms. (If you haven’t heard Sanders’ acidic enunciation of “jawbone of an ass,” you haven’t lived. Trust us.) The scene is a prime example of DeMille’s theatrical instincts—he always went for the boldest, broadest stroke possible, “us[ing],” as Ramseye notes, “a big brush on a big canvas.” (Ramseye also sums up this scene best: “Mr. DeMille and his research have done more for the ass on the screen than any of his striving contemporaries.”)

This use of the big brush is, no doubt, why cineastes view DeMille as a vulgar purveyor of lowbrow entertainment. His plots seem crudely overdetermined, with dialogue and characterization spelled out too explicitly. But DeMille was never one for subtlety. He understood film as a mass medium for mass audiences, bringing to his stories what Ramseye called a skill “for a clearly limned tale of motivation and action” (no DeMille customer, Ramseye wryly noted, “ever ask[ed] for his money back on the ground he didn’t know what the picture was about”). Note, for example, the above-mentioned scene with Samson and his scolding mother, as he casually lifts her into the air when she reminds him of his duties. DeMille gives us the set-up right there: Samson is big and strong, he likes girls, he doesn’t like Philistines, and he’s expected to be a leader but he doesn’t behave like one. It’s hokey, but it’s economical; we know the who-what-why of the main character and we know it in terms of our own experience (who hasn’t been scolded by his mother?). What we learn about Samson in this first scene is worked out through the film—Samson remains an irresponsible ladies’ man enjoying the fleshpots, until a conniving Delilah gives him what a critic called “the most expensive haircut in history.”

It’s helpful to look at DeMille’s background. The son of a 19th-century actor and playwright who was also a lay preacher, DeMille was exposed to both theatre and religion from an early age. His sensibility was thus a potent blending of old-fashioned theatrics and piety. This is not as contradictory as it seems; if we recall that the roots of drama lay in religious ritual, then Church and Cinema were obviously destined to merge. A former playwright himself, DeMille wanted his film plots to show the reasons for human behavior; for him, character motivation was primary. He wrote in his memoir that establishing a vengeance motive for Delilah’s betrayal gave the story dramatic unity; “Drama,” he wrote, “answers the question ‘Why?’” In a 1951 article on S&D, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze astutely perceived how DeMille “develops his plot as would a playwright. There are exactly three acts, and there are precise and purely theatrical locations where the action unfolds—the palace, the desert, the temple, the tent…The curtains falls, then rises to reveal that we are in another place.” This three-act structure gives the story a dramatic arc not present in its source. What seems in the Biblical narrative a series of discrete incidents becomes, in DeMille’s handling, a purposeful story of desire, revenge, and redemption.

When all is said and done, though, we must acknowledge that S&D is still a supremely silly film. Louvish notes that, although S&D “did not set new benchmarks in vulgarity, sexuality, lewdness, piety, spectacle, violent action, sadistic whipping, the presentation of wild animals and divine miracles, costuming, props or special effects,” yet “all these elements are present in the picture.” DeMille basically made what Louvish calls “a great sex and tough-guy story”; but the formula re-ignited the public appetite for Biblical spectacle. The 1950s through the early 60s saw a wave of HBEs—Quo Vadis, The Robe, The Prodigal, Demetrius and the Gladiators, The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, King of Kings, just for starters—usually in glorious Technicolor and wide-screen Cinemascope, with all-star casts and lengthy running times, and utilizing the vast creative expertise of the major Hollywood studios that made them. (The irony is that all this expert activity was happening when the studio system itself was in decline.) Just about all these films are as silly as S&D, expressing a similar manufactured piety and hyped-up religiosity as shiny and crass as mass-produced Christmas ornaments. The cycle would come to a crash-and-burn finish in 1965 with George Stevens’ gargantuan disaster, The Greatest Story Ever Told, which must be The Lousiest Bible Flick Ever Made.

However, we’re not complaining. Whatever else it is, S&D is great, cheesy fun. We get splashy Technicolor, sumptuous sets, colorful costumes, lots of action, a cast of thousands, a socko climax with Samson destroying the Temple, and George Sanders sneering. If that doesn’t grab you, then you’re mighty hard to please. 1949 audiences certainly were grabbed; they may have forked over 11 million of their hard-earned dollars to see DeMille’s corny epic, but in return he gave them their money’s worth.

Sources:

Wikipedia Web site: “1949 in Film,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1949_in_film; “Samson and Delilah (1949 film),” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samson_and_Delilah_(1949_film)

Birchard, Robert S., Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood, Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2004

Crowther, Bosley, “The Screen: Lavish DeMille Film Arrives,” The New York Times, December 22, 1949

DeMille, Cecil B., The Autobiography of Cecil B. DeMille, Donald Hayne, ed.; New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1985

Doniol-Valcroze, Jacques, “Samson, Cecil and Delilah,” Wide Angle, October 1989, Vol. 11, #4; originally published in Cahier du Cinema, 1951; transl. by Martin Trapp and George Lellis

Higham, Charles, Cecil B. DeMille, New York: Scribner, 1973

Internet Movie Database Web site, “Samson and Delilah,” http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0041838/

Louvish, Simon, Cecil B. DeMille and the Golden Calf, London: Faber & Faber, 2008

Ramsaye, Terry, “The DeMille delivers Samson and Delilah,” Motion Picture Herald, December 10, 1949, Vol. 177, #11

BONUS CLIP: Here’s the trailer for Samson and Delilah. “Shattering thrills! Earth-shaking excitement! Savage drama!” 

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