Guest post by Scott Holleran
From an opening narrative reference to the “unconquerable will for freedom“ to the final scenes’ observation that “the weak always band together to pull down the strong”, Cecil B. DeMille‘s 70-year epic Samson and Delilah remains a stirring moral fable in motion pictures.
Taking place a “thousand years before the birth of [Jesus] Christ,” Victor Mature as the slave Samson with his godlike strength and passion for “liberty for his nation” is an undeniably compelling figure. Mature’s performance centers not upon the character’s brute strength, though his muscular physique is on display throughout the movie, including in the artificial scenes in which Samson wrestles and kills a wild lion with his hands. The leading turn hinges on the use of his mind.
Mature’s Samson, despite the legendary Hedy Lamarr garnering attention for her sensually costumed portrayal of the sexually voracious and ambitious temptress Delilah, dominates the screen. They’re engaged as a screen couple, to be sure, and this matters in a brazenly candid, erotic and wholly successful pre-Fifties movie about heterosexuality.
But it’s the long-haired, bright-eyed stallion Victor Mature, decades before Sylvester Stallone emerged as Rocky Balboa or John Rambo, who elevates Samson and Delilah into an emotional depiction of the downed but unconquerable man.
Lamarr’s role is more melodramatic and predictable as the conniving, vengeful, scheming woman whose face in close-up at once reveals herself as the instigator. In one of his best and most popular movies in a league with The Greatest Show on Earth, The King of Kings and Union Pacific, DeMille goes for a piercing Bible tale with striking visuals in bold colors, costumes and sexuality.
Even before someone promises to match fire for fire, you know you can’t take your eyes off the screen. With Angela Lansbury (The Manchurian Candidate) as the sister from whom Delilah plots to steal Samson, young Russ Tamblyn (West Side Story) as a hero-worshipping slave boy and pre-All About Eve George Sanders as the slavemaster, the dialogue, action and direction are superb. This Technicolor epic is as absorbing now as the last time you’ve seen it, probably on TV.
That it screened in nitrate at TCM’s 10th annual Classic Film Festival in Hollywood, courtesy of the Egyptian Theater, made the 70th anniversary screening more rewarding (an appearance with Mature’s adult child, Victoria, added value to the historic screening). For those who’ve never seen half-naked Lamarr crawling all over Mature’s half- naked slave, Samson and Delilah offers more than eye candy.
For the depiction of oppression alone, with slaves being taxed for having admired the eventually captured, hogtied Samson, whom Delilah loves, entraps and betrays, Samson and Delilah stands apart. And it is no wonder his people see the divinely chosen Samson as a hero against the
tyrannical state. “Who else has stood against them?” Asks Miriam (Olive Deering) the woman who truly loves, abides and honors Samson.
The persecution of “one man“ by the slave state comes to define the movie’s conflict as the Philistines gather to celebrate Samson’s subjugation, chaining him to a millstone. The mob revels in his downfall. The mighty, cunning and heroic Samson must learn to “obey his master” and be tamed.
Samson will “have no master,” for his part. And this, not the spectacle, not the seduction, not the color, effects and tantalizing musical score, which evokes Renzo Rossellini’s 1942 score for Italy’s pirated version of We the Living, powers Samson and Delilah. Without this fundamental aspect, perfectly played by the commanding, dynamic Victor Mature and expertly directed by DeMille, the movie’s merely another biblical melodrama.
“It’s not stealing when you’re taking back what belongs to you,” a character points out when the slaves are forced to avenge. Reclaiming ownership of one’s life is the poignant Bible movie’s theme. Samson, unaware of his own beauty, blissfully attuned to the source of his godlike power, pays the highest price for being a man and wanting sex.
That it’s the woman who poisons him and puts him back in chains doesn’t tell the whole story. This, too, is crucial to the movie’s power and success. When Delilah draws the curtain on her seduction and its underlying scheme, she unknowingly, irrationally, draws down that which makes her life worth living.
This is the tragic moral theme of Samson and Delilah and why the 1949 film endures. Aside from its allure, entertaining spectacle and indelible performances all around, especially by Hedy Lamarr, George Sanders and Victor Mature, it shows that man and woman having sex in love can
cost one’s life.
How Delilah and Samson reconcile their flaws is the triumph of their union, underscored by the movie’s telling title. The point isn’t that Delilah tricks Samson and that he lets her or even that she gets away with it and regrets taking her man down, though it is tempting to see this as central in a culture in which the heroic is mocked for being heroic. The point is that, together, woman with man and vice versa (can and do) power and move the world.
This film was seen in nitrate on April 13, 2019 at Sid Grauman’s Egyptian theater on Hollywood Boulevard. The entertainer Victoria Mature appeared at the screening to discuss the performance and legacy of her father, Victor Mature, who plays Samson.
Ms. Mature discussed her father seeking company at the Pasadena Playhouse, which at first rejected him. She also talked about her father as an actor; his artistry, his sense of humor and his remarkable
dedication to his work. Victoria Mature, appearing at the screening for the TCM Classic Film Festival, included tales about her father’s friendship with Jim Backus (Thurston Howell III in TV’s Gilligan’s
Island) who would call the Mature residence and, when young Victoria answered, would entertain her by using the voice of Mr. Magoo. Today, Ms. Mature uses her own voice as a singer and actress.
But she also discussed a little-known aspect of her father’s life. Victor Mature, who lived in Los Angeles, was also the owner of a television and appliance shop in LA on Pico Boulevard, an enterprise with apparently minimal or modest success and one which he thoroughly enjoyed.
(c) Copyright Scott Holleran 2019
Scott Holleran began his professional writing career as a newspaper correspondent in 1991. He’s worked in a variety of media, including magazines, broadcasting and Internet ventures. His news, cultural commentary, sports and other topical articles has been published in the Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal and Philadelphia Inquirer. You can find Scott on Facebook, Twitter or on his website.