Program Notes: Samson and Delilah (1949)
One may dispute Cecil B. DeMille’s claims of piety, but there was no arguing with his reputation as a master showman.
He was the godfather of the big Biblical epic, first transferring Scripture to screen with his silent versions of The Ten Commandments (1923) and The King of Kings (1927). Over the years DeMille (1881-1959) tackled other religious yarns in The Sign of the Cross (1932), Samson and Delilah (1949), and his final film, the blockbuster sound version of The Ten Commandments (1956).
Samson and Delilah nicely captures both DeMille’s strengths and his weaknesses.
He was a master of spectacle. He mixed lurid violence and big dollops of sex (or at least as much as the restrictive Production Code would allow) under the guise of delivering a morally uplifting story.
He favored broad, overstated acting (perhaps the result of working for so many years in silent film, where gesture had to substitute for spoken language). He favored grandiose dialogue: “Your arms were quicksand. Your kiss was death. The name Delilah will be an everlasting curse on the lips of men.”
DeMille’s films were hugely popular at the time; today they often seem campy. Either way, they’re heavy with entertainment value.
Samson and Delilah finds beefy actor Victor Mature playing the legendary strong man from the Book of Judges. He wasn’t DeMille’s first choice ... or even his fourth.
Initially Burt Lancaster was wooed for the role, but bowed out because of a bad back (it would have been a very different movie).
DeMille considered casting Henry Wilcoxin, who had appeared in many of his movies (and takes a secondary role in Samson...) but was now deemed too old for the role.
One of Billy Graham’s biographers claims that DeMille approached the then-young evangelist to portray Samson and was turned down. And the director looked very seriously at bodybuilder Steve Reeves, but found his chiseled physique too ripped. (Reeves would make his starring debut a decade later in the Italian-made Hercules.)
In the end Mature was forced upon DeMille by the bigwigs at Paramount. The director and his star did not get along.
DeMille was particularly incensed when Mature declined to wrestle a real lion for a scene in which Samson kills the beast with his bare hands. Told by the director that the animal had no teeth, Matured replied that he didn’t want to be gummed to death, either.
A stuntman ended up grappling with the lion in the long shots; Mature struggled with a stuffed animal skin in the close-ups.
On several occasions during the shooting, DeMille publically accused his star of cowardice. Mature, who appears to have been cynical and indifferent when it came to his show business career, shrugged it off.
(There’s a famous story about Mature applying for membership at an exclusive L.A. country club. Told that the club didn’t admit actors, Mature replied, “Then I’m in.”)
Early candidates to play the seductive and vengeful Delilah included Rita Hayworth, Jean Simmons, and Lana Turner. DeMille finally settled on the Vienna-born Hedy Lamarr, who wasn’t a particularly good actress. (She was, however, incredibly smart, holding patents on several original inventions and processes).
What Lamarr had going for her was one of the most beautiful faces and figures in the world; both are displayed to maximum heavy-breathing effect in Samson and Delilah.
Demille himself provides the opening narration, which poses the tale as less a story about faith than of a nation revolting against bondage. This was a spin guaranteed to resonate with mainstream American audiences.
And in fact the public ate it all up. With a $12 million gross, Samson... was the biggest hit Paramount had had to that time.
The film fared well during awards season, too, pulling down Oscar nominations for cinematography, special effects, and score, and winning for art direction and costume design.
At the movie’s premiere DeMille asked Groucho Marx what he thought of the it. The comic replied that he couldn’t take seriously a movie in which the leading man had more impressive cleavage than the leading lady.
DeMille was not amused.
Other films in the series “Tinseltown Testament”
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- July 2: The Nativity Story (2006) Rated PG
- July 9: Samson and Delilah (1949) Not Rated
- July 16: The Prince of Egypt (1998) Rated PG
- July 23: King David (1985) Rated PG-13
- July 30: The Sign of the Cross (1932) Not Rated
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.