Cecil B. DeMille is best remembered for his biblical epics, even though in a forty-year, eighty-film career he only made four of them. It wasn't just that the bible pictures gave him some of his biggest hits; it was in these features that DeMille seemed most at home, and the one genre in which he had unique ability.
Samson and Delilah brought an end to a long phase of epic-cum-adventure movies from DeMille. This period, beginning with The Plainsman in 1936, had some of the weakest pictures of his career for a number of reasons. For one thing, DeMille was not really very good at individualistic action scenes, and there was too much DeMillean historical grandeur and not enough of the free-spirited feel of the Errol Flynn or Tyrone power swashbucklers he was to some extent an trying to copy. What's more, these were mostly original stories or, at least, ones which were not well known, and DeMille's poor choice of source material and screenwriters meant the new characters and situations tended towards the feeble. DeMille's strength lay in his staging and presentation of a familiar tale, and as such his return to Sunday-school moralising, stuffy and pompous though it may be, is apt and welcome.
You see, DeMille was probably aware on some level that although these fables were well-known in a largely Christian society, to a modern audience they were also historically distant, emotionally neutral and even ridiculous when presented literally. But DeMille never attempted any humanity or realism in his features, instead turning the remote, mythical nature of the stories into a virtue, portraying his subject matter with a kind of dignity and grace. Of course most ancient world epics do this to some extent, but DeMille did it the most effectively because he never demanded that the audience sympathise with the characters, merely that we marvel at their deeds.
Specifically, DeMille composes the picture with overstated gesturing and painterly tableau, like a Gustave Dore print come to life. This is combined with the vivid colours of a bible stories illustration, coded with drab shades for humbleness and virtue, garish ones for extravagance and sin. Throughout, DeMille's flair for dreamlike, rhythmic motion keeps the images flowing, most notably in the establishing tracking shot at the wedding feast - although if you watch closely you'll see one of the two men engaged in a mock swordfight is actually camply slapping his opponent with a feather duster.
And DeMille was perhaps unique in that he even used the imagery to turn God into a character. You can see from one of his much earlier religious pictures, 1929's The Godless Girl, that DeMille associated God with natural beauty, and in Samson and Delilah God makes several key "appearances" as a breathtaking skyscape. This touch would be expanded upon in the 1956 version of Ten Commandments.
It's a pity DeMille didn't associate God with good acting, because even the theatrical presentation on offer here could do with at least some half-decent hamming. The trouble is DeMille chose his actors for their physicality, not for their ability to qualify their job description. In this respect Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr are natural choices. DeMille's business associate Henry Wilcoxon, whom the director unbelievably used to cast in lead roles, is as wooden as ever, and the somewhat hit-and-miss Angela Lansbury, misses this time. The only standout is George Sanders who proves, just as Herbert Marshall did in DeMille's Four Frightened People, that bad dialogue becomes bearable if you underplay it.
Fortunately when it came to crew DeMille always procured the best. Samson and Delilah boasts Oscar-winning costumes and art direction from no less personages than Edith Head and Hans Dreier respectively. The Technicolor cinematography is great, with some remarkably clear night time shots. Some of the effects may be a little dubious; whenever Victor Mature lifts up something heavy it's obvious it's being hoisted from offscreen, and that woolly-rug/lion tamer scene is actually betrayed by bad editing, but overall this is a solid, high-quality production.
Yes, Samson and Delilah is as corny as anything, but it looks great, and above all it entertains. Don't be too harsh on DeMille's staginess or his archaic moralism, for as his willing appearance as himself in Sunset Boulevard proves, he probably didn't have a sense of irony. And his earnestness was probably his greatest asset.
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