Monday, September 7, 2020

G-d Week: She went out and said to her mother, "What shall I ask for?" "The head of John the Baptist," she answered.


Directed by William Dieterle
Written by Harry Kleiner and Jesse Lasky Jr.

Spoiler alert: high

The story of Salome, stepdaughter and niece of Herod Antipas, Tetrarch of Galilee, has been a recurring theme in Christian and Christian-descended art for about as long as there's been Christianity (indeed, as long as there have been the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, where this so-called "daughter of Herodias" appears), and it's pretty obvious why her story would attract such attention: it is totally metal.  Now, it could be deployed for very ugly purposes—the use of Salome as the embodiment of anti-Semitic tropes was a nasty medieval trend—but, at bottom, what it offers is rad sex and violence, and all mixed together, too.  If I said "Salome," of course you'd immediately think, "hot babe smiling next to the head of the decapitated holy man who spurned her," and it might not necessarily occur to you (even if you do know it) that some of what you're remembering is modern gloss.  It's simply that the new parts fit perfectly into the old, and also that it's easy to forget what a joyless summary the Bible can be, with each of Salome's gospel stories beginning more-or-less, "oh, and now John the Baptist is dead, here's how."  (It's only thanks to the historian Josephus that we even have the name "Salome," though given the time, place, and family, it would've been a good guess.)  The Bible's authors may have found this fascinating, or they may have not--as a rule, they're a little at odds with anything related to John the Baptist--but that the brief scenario sketched out in Mark and Matthew lent itself so readily to visual elaboration was not lost on subsequent artists, and we've gotten plenty of such elaborations ever since.

The new medium of film didn't waste much time adapting Salome's story for itself, either, and, if there weren't any before, by the year 1918 there was at least one feature-length Salome, starring Theda Bara, and we still get Salome adaptations at a reasonably steady clip (the most recent being Al Pacino's filmed stageplay thing with Jessica Chastain).  The best I've seen remains the second-oldest, Charles Bryant and Anna Nazimova's Expressionist-adjacent 1923 Salome (indeed, it's the earliest that isn't also lost), which has in the past few decades emerged from near-obscurity to take its rightful place as a silent classic.  There's also 1988's Salome's Last Dance, which asked the question, "How much more Ken Russell could a movie get?", and answered it, "none more Ken Russell," and this is pretty gobsmacking in its own right.  What these all have in common, of course, is that they were based on Oscar Wilde's hugely-influential 1891 play.  Virtually all Salome movies are: there is, to my knowledge, only one that isn't.  And while it's nice that somebody ever tried something different with the character, in retrospect, maybe this was its mistake.

I refer to 1953's co-production between Columbia Pictures and Rita Hayworth's Beckworth company, and—oddly or not—their mid-century Bible fad movie was rather more keen to reinterpret scripture than Wilde was, while also going further afield, even beyond the canon, in regards to what scriptural references to use.  If that makes Salome sound interesting, it isn't; I'm 99% sure any reflection of Salome's apocrypha was only ever an accident of the process.  For you see, this Salome was conceived of as a star vehicle for Hayworth; it thus goes to absolute pains to whitewash its Bible story in favor of her titular character, and while I tend to question the propriety of sending Hayworth any script where one of the central conflicts is that her father-figure lusts after her—because, ick, look it up—any concern we should feel on her behalf assumes that Salome even gets sufficiently deep to deal with its most on-the-surface elements.  Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, Salome stars Rita Hayworth because Rita Hayworth could dance (it plainly wasn't because Rita Hayworth could act), and that was the extent of the thought anybody put into it.

So: like many Bible movies, it features reams of extra-Biblical material, partly just to get the runtime up; Salome '53 might be only 103 minutes long, practically anorexic by Bible movie standards, but that's still long enough to make it by a considerable margin America's longest Salome.  (There is an Italian one that runs 105, and only God knows how—sex scenes, presumably.)  Anyway, this Salome begins not in Galilee, but in Rome.  This is where Herodias (Judith Anderson) sent her daughter years earlier, for, as the opening intertitles explain, so wanton was Herod's (Charles Laughton's) court, that even Rome was an improvement, and this is possibly the last joke this film makes on purpose.  Salome, now a woman, presently awaits the decision of Tiberius (Cedrick Hardwicke) regarding his consent to marry his nephew, Marcellus (an uncredited Rex Reason, whose ability to flawlessly evoke a whole series of Platonic solids would've, counter-intuitively, made him far more interesting to watch than the rather more imperfect squareness of the actual male lead we get). The emperor responds strongly in the negative, and his letter arrives with an imperial edict to send this presumptuous barbarian straight back to Judea.  In short order, Salome is packed off on the same boat that carries Pontius Pilate (Basil Sydney) as he prepares to take over the governorship of her troublesome province.

Along for the ride comes Pilate's old comrade, Claudius (Stewart Granger, our aforementioned highly-dull actual made lead), now a diplomat to Rome's Levantine satellites.  Claudius is immediately smitten with Salome, but as she's finished with Romans, she brushes off his harassment.  What she doesn't know is that Claudius has gone native, and secretly fallen in with the radical Jewish sects preaching revolution—particularly the one belonging to John the Baptist (Alan Badel).  Not that this would endear Claudius to her any further, of course, for John's sermons have lately turned towards a constant excoriation of Salome's own household: her stepfather, for his collaboration and tyranny; and, more worryingly, her mother, for her extralegal marriage to Herod, which to John's mind makes her an adulteress in the eyes of God.  And, at this point, I assume we know what the Tanakh intends for adulteresses.  This sets Salome against the holy man, but fearful Herod is hesitant to silence the popular prophet.  The question soon becomes whether Salome will recognize that John is an agent of God in time, and, when she dances before her stepfather, whether she'll dance to condemn John—or to save him.

I mean, let's not be coy, this Salome tries to save him.  There is, I think, a perfectly reasonable reimagination that does make her the hero, but it would almost necessarily have to accept that John is a villain—and, considering that his ministry leans on violent misogyny as much as it does the innovative use of tvilah, it wouldn't be too hard.  Still, this was beyond anyone's ken in 1953.  Instead, we get this: a wildly inconsistent Salome story that audibly creaks and shudders in order to fit in the obligatory Biblical material (the dance, the beheading) while smuggling in Salome's last-minute conversion to proto-Christianity.  The latter could still work, in a longer, richer, fuller, more well-defined story, and, indeed, there are pieces of apocryphal Christian writing that identify the Salome at Jesus's tomb, named as such in Mark, as Salome "the temptress."  It's a short walk if you felt like taking it, then, but this Salome is dissuaded by the difficult terrain it would have to traverse to get there, and it has nothing like the guts it would need to fathom how its protagonist could go from slayer of John to disciple of Jesus.  And since it disowns any other point of view on the text, it leaves it without much of a reason for existing in the first place.

It finds something, at least, in Herod, probably not solely because Herod is played by Charles Laughton, though that undeniably helps, and Laughton finds the right notes of self-loathing and childlike pleasure-seeking that drive the tetrarch.  He's the one human-feeling character we get here, even if he's a jumble of some of the worst and most craven human traits imaginable, and even if Laughton's mostly just here to have hammy fun with a lecherous scumbag who keeps drooling over his own flesh-and-blood.  (Some manuscripts go all out and just say "Herod's daughter," and I have to wonder: have I missed all the modern-dress productions of Salome that seemingly must have been staged since 2016, or has everyone just agreed it's simply too obvious?)

In any event, Herod winds up the only figure of any real narrative dynamism here, too weak to stand up to his own atavistic impulses, but also terrified of his God.  He's terrified of John the Baptist especially, whom he has identified as the messiah—not that he was alone in that.  The Gospels bely such a fear of this rival messiah, and they do their own level best to co-opt him; yet there has to this day survived a sect called the Mandaeans, who consider John their anointed one.  Unsurprisingly, Salome is less-than-keen to take on this controversy as it might have presented itself in the First Century, and I suppose it would be too much to ask it to do so (though it does bring the issue up in those aforementioned opening intertitles).  Still, the same kind of blandly textureless presentation attends to everything else.  Anderson is asked to navigate a Herodias who must devolve from protective mother to gleefully-manipulative pimp without any stops on the way.  Likewise, her interplay with her husband is pitched at the level of a Lockhorns cartoon, and while that's hardly unique to this Salome—it's the basic situation of every Salome—the expanded canvas and conscious retreat from mythic archetype would seem to suggest some desire to deepen these characters.  Nevertheless, neither Anderson nor Laughton do much of anything with the subtext of the desperate lovers they started out as, despite the existence of several exchanges that point precisely in that direction.  In fairness, those exchanges appear forgotten by the screenwriters just as quickly.  At least Herodias's hatchetman Micha (Arnold Moss) has a very interesting face; too bad he didn't play John!

What that leaves us with is the dance of the seven veils, choregraphed by Valerie Bettis and sold as the big reason for you to see this film, though you'd be disappointed if it were.  Despite Hayworth's own assertions that it was the most difficult dance of her career, it never really transcends the "exotic dance" sequences that were slotted into virtually every 50s Bible movie.  The main distinction here, I suppose, is that this one has narrative stakes, and is performed by a bona fide sex symbol of her age.  Not that Salome would help you understand why, for it's about as un-erotic as a movie with a striptease could get.  (Every last piece of promotional art and photography for Salome is hotter than anything in the actual movie.  The Greatest Story Ever Told's dance is hotter, and there it has no narrative function, and it happens mostly in the background of its shots!)  Hayworth's not even too bad here generally—miscast as an ancient Jewish teenager and unable to do much with this script, sure—but this?  This isn't even acting.  No matter how many rehearsals and retakes went into this dance (and even with all that work, there's at least one shot where Hayworth still has visible trouble with one of the veils, and for some reason the editors left it in), no actual effort was expended on how to communicate her character through it.  And so what we've got is Hayworth gyrating in her cumbersome rainbow-hued lingerie, spending the first nine-tenths of it with a vacuous chorus girl grin plastered on her face, and doing nothing that tells us about either Salome's emotions, or, until she finally just splays herself on the floor, even how she intends to arouse Herod's.  That it's tied to some extremely clunky plot mechanics, so that Herod accidentally does the one thing Salome does not want him to do, doesn't do it any favors; the intercutting with an attempted prison break in John's shadowy dungeon can be reckoned as a game attempt by director William Dieterle at trying to infuse some violent sexual urgency into the scene, but this doesn't quite come off, either.

The very best thing Salome does, then, in all its 103 minutes, is offer us a pretty bitchin' severed head prop for 1953.  Which isn't nothing, and I'm also fond of the combination of painted backdrops and scale-model midgrounds for the epilogue at the Sermont on the Mount, as well as some fun art direction otherwise, like the Olympian blue void that Tiberius's palace appears to exist in, or the metallic complexion of Herod's own castle.  But as spectacle isn't really this story's principal operating mode, there's only so much spectacle to be had; mostly, there's a lot of wheel-spinning, with just-good-enough cinematography and barely-good-enough acting, and while it easily could be more boring than it is, it doesn't really find any reason to tell Salome's story the way it tells it, beyond "well, we were able to get somebody really famous to play her."

Score: 5/10

Reviews in this series:
The Bible: In the Beginning (1966) (בְּרֵאשִׁית/Genesis)
The Ten Commandments (1956) (שְׁמֹות/Exodus)
Samson and Delilah (1949) (שופטים/Judges)
The Story of Ruth (1960) (רות/Ruth)
David and Bathsheba (1951) (שְׁמוּאֵל/Samuel)
Solomon and Sheba (1959) (מלכים/Kings)
Esther and the King (1960) (אֶסְתֵּר/Esther)
The Prodigal (1955) (Λουκᾶν/Luke)
Salome (1953) (Ματθαῖον καί Μᾶρκον/Matthew and Mark)
The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) (Ἰωάννην/John)
The Robe (1953) (Ρωμαιους/Romans)
Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954) (Κορινθίους/Corinthians)
Barabbas (1962) (Ἑβραίους/Hebrews)
Quo Vadis (1951) (Αποκάλυψις/Revelation)! Ben-Hur (1959)


  1. I briefly misread the header and thought you were reviewing Salò. Probably would have been a more interesting watch, huh?

    1. Conceivably. At some point I guess I'm obliged to watch Pasolini's Gospel of St Matt what with that having the critical reputation it does. Because yay I love Italian movies.

      Say, I need to send you some sci-fi schlock, don't I?

    2. You certainly do. My arms are wide open!