Last Tuesday marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Victor Mature, that sluggish hunk of pre-Stallone manhood. On November 9, it will be the turn of Hedy Lamarr, the Viennese love goddess often invoked as “the most beautiful woman in movies,” and later as the mathematically gifted co-inventor of an early technique for spread spectrum communications and frequency hopping – vital for military applications.
Mature did his best acting work as the melancholy Doc Holliday, enamored with Henry Fonda’s Wyatt Earp, in John Ford’s “My Darling Clementine” (1946). Lamarr’s finest performance was as the independent woman who refuses to become a housewife in King Vidor’s “H.M. Pulham Esq” (1941).
Together, they climbed to the pinnacle of Hollywood biblical erotica in Cecil B. De Mille’s “Samson and Delilah,” 1949’s biggest hit and the most lurid trash classic of the post-war years – its sexual reveries matched only by Vidor’s “Duel in the Son” (1946). The film was shot in Technicolor by veteran cinematographer George Barnes, who emphasized the emotional garishness with a palette of vibrant reds, blues, and patently fake silvers.
On March 13, presumably inspired by the stars’ joint centenaries, Paramount Home Entertainment will release “Samson and Delilah” on DVD for the first time in its history (apart from an unofficial 2007 disc); Blu-ray users must wait. The original nitrate three-strip Technicolor negatives were digitally scanned, registered, cleaned, and color-corrected, and DeMille’s original nitrate print was used to complete the music overture. The mono track was also enhanced.
According to the press release, “the restoration team noticed a shimmer effect in some of the scenes. Since they were simultaneously restoring ‘Sunset Boulevard,’ they looked at production photos of Norma Desmond’s (Gloria Swanson’s) visit to the ‘Samson and Delilah’ set and saw the enormously powerful lights that were required for the Technicolor production. This explained the shimmer effect, which was left intact.”
De Mille’s movie shimmers with sex, too. Samson’s lion fight and climactic destruction of the temple are fun (if inauthentic), but the movie is at its ridiculous best during the sustained interior scene in which Lamarr’s Delilah fools with a veil and slinks, come-hitherishly, around Mature’s apparently wooden muscleman until, on the verge of leaving the tent, he finally succumbs and kisses her.
No less titillating is their sylvan post-coital idyll, equally drawn out, in which the flushed seductress strokes Samson’s chest and presses up against him like a cat. De Mille decorously draws a blind over the lovers just before Delilah cuts Samson’s hair – as if aware that the moment is a symbolic emasculation. His blinding is the Oedipal culmination of his dalliance with a femme fatale who, unlike her contemporaneous film noir sisters, does her scheming in the open.
Mature was third-billed as Demetrius the Greek slave in Fox’s “The Robe” (1953), but was the star of Delmer Daves’s “Demetrius and the Gladiators” (1954), both epics shot in ’Scope. As Messalina in the latter, Susan Hayward is as lusty as Lamarr, though Delilah’s sultry vamping of Samson and the harmony of their brunette embraces makes it the guiltier pleasure. The Hollywood Code was still in effect when De Mille made “Samson and Delilah,” but he accomplished much through suggestion.
As gaudy as the Lady of Shalott in William Holman Hunt’s 1905 pre-Raphaelite painting, Lamarr’s Delilah is also as poisonous as the indolent wanton painted by the French Symbolist artist Gustave Moreau in the 1882 “Samson and Delilah,” or Moreau’s 1875 “Salome Dancing Before Herod,” though Hedy makes a more robust voluptuary than those wispy phantoms. In their triumphalist degeneracy, the man-eaters of fin-de-siècle art were all exemplars of anti-Semitic misogynistic terror and dread, as the author Bram Dijkstra has explained. Campness rescues De Mille’s “Samson and Delilah” from the same taint and renders the biblical tale as pulp fiction.
Born nine months before Lamarr, Mature died five months before her in August 1999. He must surely still be brooding about her as she caresses him in some alternative fever dream in which the temple is about to collapse.