Friday, December 14, 2007

SALOME (1953)

In Biblical lore, Salome, the stepdaughter of King Herod, performed a sexy dance for Herod and, when told he would give her anything she wanted, she asked, at the request of her mother Herodias, for the head of John the Baptist on a platter--apparently because John had been badmouthing the Herod/Herodias marriage as illegitimate. Though Herod was "struck sad," he complied with the request. The story is mentioned in Matthew and Mark (though she is not named) and in the writings of the historian Josephus. In the popular imagination, Salome is usually portrayed as wicked, but when Hollywood went to work on her story as a vehicle for Rita Hayworth, they softened her, almost turning her into a Christian martyr. When we first see John the Baptist (Alan Badel), he is indeed telling the crowds that Herod (Charles Laughton) is living in sin with Herodias (Judith Anderson)--I was never sure what about their relationship made it sinful; perhaps because she is happy to have Herod seek sex outside of their marriage. In Rome, Tiberius Caesar (Sir Cedric Hardwicke, looking a lot like he does as Sethi in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS) is bothered by the ruckus that John is kicking up, claiming that a Messiah is coming to overthrow Rome, so he sends Commander Claudius (Stewart Granger) to Galilee to give aid to Herod and Pontius Pilate (Basil Sydney). Caesar also banishes Salome back to Galilee because she's a bad influence (i.e., she's got a reputation as a slut) on his nephew Marcellus (the hunky Rex Reason).

When Salome and Claudius meet on a ship, they engage in a battle of wills but soon are striking romantic sparks. Meanwhile, Herod clearly has a thing for his stepdaughter, and Herodias is plotting the demise of John the Baptist. Claudius, it turns out, is a secret convert to John's teachings and after John is captured, he tries to talk Pilate into freeing John and letting history remember him as having been instrumental in establishing a new religion. Salome, who at first hated John, is brought over to Claudius' side and offers to dance for Herod in public; it will mean that she will become his possession, but it will also mean that he will offer her a favor. She intends the favor to be the freeing of John, but Herodias jumps in with the infamous request for John's head, and the rest is a strange expansion of the lore, with Claudius and Salome escaping the court; the last we see of them, they're listening to Jesus deliver the Sermon on the Mount. The end title: "This was The Beginning." The acting is bland except for Laughton and Alan Badel, both of whom needed some time to get going. Hayworth's Dance of the Seven Veils is effective except for her overly-toothy, Las Vegas-chorus girl grin. Sets and costumes, always important elements in a Biblical epic, are good. Hayworth is lovely, but this is not her finest moment. [TCM]

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