25 November 2008

Samson and Delilah

Samson and Delilah Still Enchanting
By Kristin Battestella

So I’m up all night with the flu and lo and behold what’s on Turner Classic Movies but one of my all time favorite films: Cecil B. DeMille’s 1949 essential Samson and Delilah. This epic tale from the Book of Judges has lost none of its charm.

SAMSON AND DELILAH (1949) Imported for ALL Regions NTSCRespected and revered Danite strongman Samson (Victor Mature) falls in love with Philistine beauty Semadar (Angela Lansbury). They plan to marry, despite the objects of Gaza Captain Ahtur (Heny Wilcoxon). Samson is tricked by Ahrtur and Semadar’s scheming sister Delilah (Hedy Lemarr) and becomes an outlaw. After he defeats The Saran of Gaza (George Sanders) and his army ‘with the jawbone of an ass’, Delilah plots to destroy Samson and his legendary strength-by cutting off his long hair.

Alright, I’ll say it. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. I’m sure that phrase has been used to describe Delilah before. Hedy Lamarr had a relatively short film career, and today she’s probably more well known for later controversies and scientific work-if at all. There’s no mistake, however, that Samson and Delilah is Lamarr’s film. Although I sometimes wonder if her sultry delivery was dubbed, Lamarr’s vixen villainy and ruthless love give Delilah all the allure and power she needs. Heaven forbid we see her navel, of course, but the tight wraps and halter tops show plenty of cleavage and a lot of leg. What a delightful shock to post World War II America!

I’ve seen plenty of Victor Mature films (My Darling Clementine, Chief Crazy Horse, The Robe) but he’s not one of my favorite classic leading men. He’s a little too dramatic and droopy eyed for my tastes. However, as big and angry strongman Samson, these qualities work. In fine epic support is the young and beautiful Murder She Wrote star Angela Lansbury. As many times as I’ve seen Samson and Delilah, it’s still a novelty to see Lansbury beyond her spunky detective old lady. George Sanders (Rebecca, All About Eve) is his usual vile self, and DeMille staple Henry Wilcoxon (The Ten Commandments, Mrs. Miniver) always fits in historical garb. I must also note a fine Olive Deering as Miriam, a role she would reprise-sort of- in The Ten Commandments.

After spending my childhood watching Samson and Delilah almost daily (I had to make time for The Ten Commandments, too), I hadn’t seen the film in years. I’ll admit some folks don’t like old school classics because they think older films look hokey and people act over the top. Samson and Delilah, however, is as perfect today as it was in 1949. It’s a shame that later sprawling DeMille epics and sandal flicks seems to overshadow this fine film. Maybe they aren’t historically authentic, but the costumes are metallic, colorful, still gorgeous. The landscapes and ancient tents are lush as ever, and the action still looks cool. I was expecting Samson’s fight with the lion to look silly and the destruction of the temple cheesy. The beauty onscreen and the powerful story, however, forgive any jump cuts remaining.

There are old school tricks to be had in Samson and Delilah, of course, but this was a DeMille epic-top of the line stuff, none of that B production shoestring stuff. So we know it isn’t Victor Mature battling the lion, yep. Our titular couple is supposed to be so passionate, yet they only kiss a handful of times-and remember that three second kiss rule! I also love the color of these old bible sword and sandal epics. It’s so bright and rich. It’s literally like you can’t look away for all the flash catching your eye.

If the sights don’t get you, the sound certainly will. 22 time Oscar nominee Victor Young’s (Around The World In Eighty Days) score was nominated for an Academy Award. It’s instantly recognizable, and all the booms and strings come and go in the right places. I also love DeMille’s touch of onscreen music in Samson and Delilah. Lyres and harps and ancient feasts allow for more enchanting tunes for Delilah to bat her eyes to.

Last but certainly but not least, Samson and Delilah has a dang good story beneath all its Hollywood spectacle. Love and revenge, Israel versus the Philistines, Prayer, betrayal, Monotheism. It’s all there. The Bible doesn’t give writers Jesse Lasky Jr. (Salome, The Ten Commandments) and Fredric M. Frank (The Greatest Show On Earth) much to go on, but the essence of this tale speaks for itself. The dialogue is crisp and memorable. Despite its familiarity, the tale isn’t predictable and stale. On the contrary, Samson and Delilah has aged in reverence like a fine wine.

In this era or remakes and reboots, its refreshing to see only one major attempt has been made to recapture the story of the strongman and his vengeful woman. TNT’s miniseries Samson and Delilah received mixed reviews for length and content, further proving some classics are classic for a reason. Part of me wants to say that I would love a big screen lush and lavish biblical interpretation, but with the story such as it is, an update could quickly turn into a sex and spectacle fest. I find it amusing that we need silly role reversal films like Enchanted to empower women, but this classic Delilah is getting no respect.

I am very disappointed to see the limited availability of Samson and Delilah on DVD. Several editions have been previously released, but now these appear out of print. How dare Turner Classic Movies spoil me with a restored and perfect showing then make me return to my jumping and faded taped from TV VHS. It should be required that every film on the National Registry be preserved on DVD before Disney can make another direct to video release. Whatever version of Samson and Delilah you have, love it, cherish it, and share this wonderful morality tale with future generations.

No comments: