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Screening History: “Samson and Delilah” (1949)

Well, I finally got around to watching my Blu-Ray edition of Cecil B. DeMille’s epic Samson and Delilah, and I can definitely say that it was worth the wait.  The color transfer is excellent, and it just reinforces my opinion that the only way to really enjoy a Technicolor film is to see it in Blu-Ray.  The chromatic richness of this particular presentation makes it worth purchasing, even if you already own the DVD copy (as I do, of course).

The film, based loosely on the events depicted in the Old Testament, follows the brief but tumultuous affair between the judge Samson (Victor Mature) and the Philistine noblewoman Delilah (Hedy Lamarr).  After Samson spurns Delilah for the love of her sister Semadar, the former becomes determined to bring down the Israelite strongman.  Conspiring with the Saran (George Sanders) and his fellow nobles, she lures Samson into a trap whereby he loses his great strength.  Upon seeing him blinded and forced to grind grain while bound to a mill-wheel, Delilah repents of her treachery and aids Samson in his destruction of the towering Temple of Dagon, killing Delilah, the Saran, and hundreds of other celebrating Philistines.

This film continues to be one of my favourites in DeMille’s entire extensive oeuvre, since it illustrates so clearly all of his strengths as a filmmaker and manages to leave aside most of his weaknesses (for example, it is significantly shorter than The Ten Commandments, which, truth be told, is a tad too long, even for an epic).  However, a few of the director’s more glaring faults still shine through.  The ending, featuring the milksop Miriam and the rather too-cherubic Saul, feels like something of a tacked-on addition, a final bit of moralizing that attempts to tidy up the energies unleashed in the scene immediately before, in which the entire Temple of Dagon is brought crashing down in ruin by the blinded Samson.  The scene does not even have the ponderous and condemnatory tone of DeMille’s introduction (delivered in his own voice) and this, coupled with the fact that neither character is anywhere near as compelling as the two leads, makes the ending feel rushed and slightly superfluous, in much the same way that (in my opinion), the ending(s) of The Ten Commandments feel quite rushed and almost beside the point.

It’s all too easy to dismiss films like these add mere camp, but as I’ve long argued, even the silliest of epics often contain at least a germ of historical awareness, and so it is with DeMille’s film.  From the very beginning, DeMille’s paints the world of antiquity as one haunted by the specter of primordial forces, the raging thunder and the unruly, terrifying energy of the sexual unconscious that always haunts this film.  Further, the film makes ample use of animal language and imagery, ranging from the lion that Samson defeats and the jawbone of an ass that he uses to overcome his Philistine oppressors and secure his freedom.  While DeMille, in his usual fashion, desperately wants to make all of this terror add up to some sort of moral message about the importance of freedom and man’s eternal desire for liberty, the political message gets a little lost in the fray.

Thus, for all that the film so clearly wants to condemn the sexual energies that have led to the dismay and destruction of the Temple and the ruin of two prominent and promising lives, it doesn’t really succeed in its moral message.  The sumptuousness and richness of the lurid Technicolor (to take but one example), mitigates against the moralistic flow of the narrative, inviting a contemplation of the erotic potential of the chromatic image that always seems in excess of the narrative designed to contain it.  The world of desire and the body, it turns out, is infinitely more compelling than the world of order and light, even if it is all the more dangerous because of that fact.

All in all, Samson and Delilah well deserves the place it now occupies as the film that jumpstarted the boom of biblical epics that swept through Hollywood throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s.  Somehow, it manages to perfectly tap into all of the anxieties and terrors haunting the world as the Cold War continued to escalate, the sexual unconscious of America’s psyche seethed and writhed with the challenges to gender norms provoked by WW II, and the threat of the bomb permeated practically every aspect of American culture.  This tale of dangerous and destructive desire, with its climactic destruction of the temple, shows just how perilous and viscerally terrifying the ancient world, and the modern one that succeeded it, could be.

Score:  9/10

Screening Classic Hollywood: “The Greatest Show on Earth” (1952)

Today on Screening Classic Hollywood, I’m going to be talking about Cecil B. DeMille’s film The Greatest Show on Earth.  While this tagline could have easily been used for any of his spectacular showpieces (either Samson and Delilah or The Ten Commandments would also come in for consideration as the “Greatest Show on Earth”), this particular film is set in the circus and details the fraught connections and personal relationships among its key participants.

While it may seem counter-intuitive to think about a circus in epic terms, somehow DeMille manages to imbue this particular show with a certain larger-than-life scope and depth (in a similar way to which he took the relatively small narrative of Samson and Delilah and imbued it with world historical significance in the film of the same name).  In DeMille’s imagination, the circus is a vast beast with a mind of its own, a reflection (perhaps) of the very culture that produced it.  Indeed, it is precisely this emphasis on the personal and the sexual that gives the film its narrative energy.

Though surrounded by the typical DeMille-esque spectacle, the narrative itself is actually rather simple.  It involves a circus runner Brad (Charlton Heston) attempting to draw in paying customers with the help of the renowned acrobat Sebastian (Cornel Wilde).  In the process, however, he risks alienating his love interest, Holly (Betty Hutton).  This being DeMille, however, the two separated lovers finally come together again, though they are at first separated by a number of other catastrophes, including a thunderous train wreck that almost costs Brad his life.  There are also a number of other storylines woven through the film, including one involving the clown Buttons (Jimmy Stewart), who never removes his makeup (even when he’s not performing).  Though each of the storylines is compelling by itself, they do not quite congeal into a coherent picture.

While the narrative often struggles to hold together the sprawling spectacle, several of the actors do deliver exemplary performances. Heston is competent as always, and it’s actually refreshing to see him as something other than an epic hero (his roles as Moses and Ben-Hur were still ahead of him).  What strikes me as particularly significant, however, is the fact that his character, like so many other Heston heroes, ends up injured by the end of the film.  In fact, one of the film’s last shots shows him, incapacitated in a chair, his skin betraying a certain waxy and pasty pallor.  Such an appearance seems incongruous now, but as I have come to realize, Heston’s heroes often end their films incapacitated or injured in some significant way (consider, for example, El Cid, in which Heston’s eponymous hero perishes at the end, his lifeless corpse used as an inspiration for the remaining members of his army).

Further, Jimmy Stewart adds a note of humanity to this film as Buttons the clown, a fount of wisdom and mystery who never removes his makeup (even when he is not performing).  As it turns out, he was once a doctor who ended his wife’s life in an act of mercy.  Stewart is always a solid actor able to bring a great deal of depth to any character he plans, and although the persistence of the makeup makes Buttons a bit too creepy for my liking, he is also one of the film’s more fully-drawn and psychologically complex characters.

And, of course, no review of this film would be complete without mentioning the divine Gloria Grahame, that favourite moll of many a film noir.  She brings some of that femme fatale biting wit to this role as well, with a number of witty one-liners and a refusal to be dominated by any of the men in her life (including the hubristic and jealous Klaus, played by Lyle S. Bettger).

What strikes me the most after watching this film, however, is how it comments on the actual act of spectatorship.  DeMille had similarly commented on the act of viewing spectacle in Samson and Delilah, but this film brings it to the fore.  There are numerous shots of avid viewers of the circus, and while these are no doubt intended to register for the theater audience the sense of awe and delight in viewing the circus brought to Technicolor light, there is also something puzzlingly and disturbingly grotesque about them, an unsettling reminder, perhaps, of the fraught relationship that always exists between the viewer and the spectacle being consumed.

Overall, this is a thoroughly enjoyable film, though it does sag during a few of the more mundane bits.  It bears the dubious distinction of being one of the worst films to receive the Best Picture nomination (and I would agree that it is certainly not on par with DeMille’s more magisterial masterpieces such as S&D or The Ten Commandments).  If the Academy voters had known that DeMille would produce a truly fine film just four years later, they would have awarded the Oscar to a more deserving film, such as High Noon. 

Unfortunately, we will never know.

Score:  7/10

Screening History: “The Sign of the Cross”

Welcome to my official entry in the Pre-Code Blogathon!  Today, I will be focusing on Cecil B. DeMille’s (in)famous classic The Sign of the Cross (1932).  Released just prior to the implementation of the Code, this film utilizes that freedom to paint the ancient Roman world as full of dangerous yet pleasurable sexuality and violence.  The film tells the story of the virtuous Christian maiden Mercia (Elissa Landi), and the pompous, brutally masculine Roman soldier Marcus Superbus (Frederic March) who falls in love with her.  Their fraught relationship emerges against the backdrop of the reign of the villainous, corpulent, and childlike Emperor Nero (Charles Laughton) and his lascivious wife Poppaea (Claudette Colbert), who plots against Mercia in her attempts to claim Marcus for her own.

If all of this sounds like a dangerously merry romp through ancient Rome, it is.  There is something sinfully delightful about this film, in keeping with DeMille’s penchant for combining the flagrantly sexual with a supposedly uplifting moral message.  There are points in the film, however, that definitely veer more toward the former than the latter, such as the infamous seduction scene in which Marcus convinces a famous courtesan named Ancaria to perform a lewd song and dance number.  Naturally, Mercia resists, but this moment highlights the film’s investment in showing ancient Rome as a place where sex remains inextricably intertwined with power and manipulation.

Ancaria attempts to seduce the humble (and virtuous) Christian Mercia.
Ancaria attempts to seduce the humble (and virtuous) Christian Mercia.

This all pales, however, in comparison to the arena scene, which serves to highlight the violent depravity of the ancient Romans and their attempts to squash the burgeoning Christian faith.  DeMille throws everything he has at the viewer, including a highly suggestive moment in which a gorilla assaults a vulnerable Christian maiden, much to the jeering and excited delight of the crowd.  Such scenes invite us as contemporary spectators to join in the fun, to relish the carnal nature of the Roman past, even as it also invites us to disavow that enjoyment, to remind ourselves that are (supposedly) live in a more civilized, order, and disciplined present.

The infamously suggestive gorilla scene.
The infamously suggestive gorilla scene.

As far as the characters go, Marcus and Mercia nicely complement one another, with Marcus providing the masculine hauteur that must gradually be tamed by the patience and everlasting virtue of the Christian maiden.  What sets this film apart, however, is the very incompleteness of Marcus’s conversion.  Even at the end of the film, when he decides go with Mercia and her fellow Christians into the certain death of the arena, he states that he will be saved not by faith in Christ, but instead through Mercia herself.  His excessive pagan masculinity can only be tamed and channeled into appropriate Christian morality through the body and soul of the Christian maiden, and even there it remains startlingly incomplete.

I have to admit that, before I first watched this film, I was a little skeptical of Claudette Colbert as the sultry and sensuous Poppaea.  I had already seen the 1951 Quo Vadis (based on the same source material as Sign), and was very much taken with Patricia Laffan’s heavy-lidded and sensuous depiction of the character.  However, Colbert managed to surprise me, though she is much more of a coquette than a traditional femme fatale (she would later adopt a similar persona for her interpretation of Cleopatra in DeMille’s film of the same name).   She pales, however, in comparison to Laughton’s delightfully corpulent Nero, who emerges her as a slightly pathetic man unable to control his own fleshly appetites and tempers.  As he later would in Spartacus–in which he portrayed the world-weary and hedonist Senator Gracchus–Laughton’s own pudgy physique lends Nero a certain child-like essence that makes him a study in pop Freudian psychology.

While seemingly uplifting, the end of the film is actually rather pessimistic in its worldview.  Unlike the 1951 Quo Vadis (in which the two main characters are saved by the arena and end up sparking the revolt that topples Nero from his throne), the two main characters meet their presumed deaths in the arena, the film fading to black as both Marcus and Mercia walk to their deaths.  Salvation, the film suggests, can never take place on this sinful earth, but must instead be achieved in the some other realm.

Like many other representations of antiquity, ancient Rome here is a world obsessed with the promise of death, though it takes on very different valences for the pagan Romans and the Christians.  For the former, death can be both combated and embraced by feverishly indulging in the pleasures of the flesh (Poppaea’s ass’s milk bath and seductive gestures toward another female bather is a case in point) and by watching the tortures of the arena.  For the Christians, however, death is a not a thing to be warded off nor to be encountered only through sublimation, but instead embraced as the escape from the confines of the flesh, the body, and the pagan Roman world.

Given the intensity of the images in this film, it’s small wonder that it was severely edited for its subsequent re-releases (one of which featured a brief introduction featuring soldiers fighting in World War II against fascist Italy).  However, the trends that it set, especially its visceral depiction of the ancient world, would re-emerge after World War II in renewed force.  Beginning with Samson and Delilah in 1949–yet another film directed by DeMille–the world of antiquity in all of its violent, splendid glory would come to reign supreme at the box office throughout the 1950s.  A golden age, indeed.