As much outrageous fun as DeMille's The Ten Commandments, at half the length. Paramount has released Samson and Delilah, the blockbuster 1949 religious epic directed by master showman Cecil B. DeMille, and starring Hedy Lamarr, Victor Mature, George Sanders, Angela Lansbury, and Henry Wilcoxon. Deliciously overripe and gaudily produced, Samson and Delilah is the kind of marvelously obvious storytelling that people laugh at for all kinds of reasons―then and now―but which is undeniably, insistently entertaining. No extras for this superior-looking full-screen transfer.
In the village of Zorah in the region of Dan, former Nazirite disciple Samson (Victor Mature, damp and fetid and hilarious when he delivers lines like, "You...daughter of Hell!") has rejected his early religious teachings and gone over to his Hebrew people's pagan masters, the Philistines, carousing and gambling and wenching with those who oppress his people. To top off his transgressions, he plans on marrying slinky, blonde Philistine warrior goddess Semadar (Angela Lansbury, looking dishy), horrifying his disapproving mother Hazeleponit (Fay Holden), who wishes he would marry good Jewish girl Miriam (Olive Deering). A foolish bet involving a riddle by the proud, arrogant Samson on his wedding night goads fellow Semadar suitor Ahtur (Henry Wilcoxon), the military general of Dan, into teaming up with Semadar's jealous sister, Delilah (Hedy Lamarr, gorgeous and delightfully grotesque in her posing), to trick Semadar into revealing the riddle's answer. When Samson learns of her betrayal, he leaves to settle the bet, only to discover later that Semadar instead married Ahtur that night. Destroying Semadar's house in the ensuing fight with his sneering, snickering Philistine wedding guests, Samson vows revenge on the Philistines when Semadar is accidentally killed. However, the Saran of Gaza (George Sanders) finds it impossible to rope in the wild ox Samson, who possesses super-human strength and who is wreaking havoc on the Saran's troops...that is, until the spurned, vengeful Delilah offers her services in capturing her beloved.
A gargantuan, contrasting cocktail of overblown, frequently ridiculous romance, faux-pious religiosity and Hollywood spectacle, Samson and Delilah is the kind of showboating blockbuster moviemaking that pleases the masses right down to the bone...while driving self-serious critics nuts. DeMille's reputation has always been in question, with critics either vilifying him for his excesses and blatant calculations...or vilifying him for his excesses and blatant calculations while giving him begrudging respect for creating compulsively watchable entertainment. I've never seen a reason to deplore those qualities in his work, however; what DeMille is able to accomplish here is as viable as "art" (whatever that term really means) as anything showing up on the screen by more critically "acceptable" directors of his time―and it's a hell of a lot more fun.
DeMille's "campiness," if you will (I dislike the term, but it fits for lack of a better one) is evident from the start of Samson and Delilah, with the director narrating his own self-serious, voice of doom narration/bromides about "human dignity perishing on the alter of idolatry" and such stuff...which works for me every time I hear him (it's like an Old Testament Jack Webb, squared). What his critics never seem to get (because so many of them like to think they've just discovered this carny's trickery) is that DeMille was fully aware of the overwrought tone of his work. His deliberately obvious, presentational, populist melodrama was calculated as hell, and yet critics hated him for his refusal to disavow this nonsense's faux-serious concerns and themes. His machinations, particularly his religious epics where scenes of balderdash praying was the price we paid for all that delicious sinning, were deliberate and coarse, and audiences loved it (the critics hated that, too).
What I particularly enjoyed about Samson and Delilah is its playfulness―an often neglected hallmark of DeMille's work, and one that is present, but less often, in DeMille's more famous religious epic, the massive remake of The Ten Commandments (Anne Baxter's entire performance could be considered an inside joke by DeMille). Whether it's Hedy Lamar wickedly flicking a plum pit to get some man's attention, or a beefy Victor Mature throwing out his arm in the grandest of theatrical gestures as he vaults over a wall, or just about every snide, bored expression on George Sanders' face, DeMille is having a marvelous time here playing broad to the spectators in the back row. Every detail of his blocking and framing is perfectly ridiculous (and, with all its whips, chains, straps and ropes, hyper-sexualized). The best example here is Mature's fight with the lion (famously careful Mature, to DeMille's disgust, refused to even be shot in the same frame with the tamest of Hollywood lions). Badly intercut with footage of a stuntman, Mature's scenes show him grimacing with abandon as the arms of the lion costume crinkle and wrinkle, before he vanquishes the beast. Enter Lamarr, heaving and panting in renewed sexual frenzy as she paws Mature, who laughingly demurs, "Hey! One cat at a time!" If this isn't enough, DeMille tops the scene by having Sanders enter the movie, looking every inch the snot he was, before he rides off again on a chariot, his one hand flamboyantly thrust on his hip (the spectacular temple destruction at the finale is played straight, and it's a highlight of early disaster movie filmmaking). This is storytelling as florid comic book come to breathing, hilarious life―it's wonderfully funny and energetic.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.