Monday, April 17, 2017

Rita resplendent : Salome (1953)

Salome. Columbia Pictures Corporation; screen play by Harry Kleiner; produced by Buddy Adler; directed by William Dieterle. 103 minutes. Directed by William Dieterle. Performers: Rita Hayworth, Stewart Granger, Charles Laughton, Judith Anderson, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Basil Sydney, Alan Badel. Summary: the tale of Salome, the beautiful princess, daughter of Queen Herodias and step-daughter of King Herod, set during the perilous decadent days of early Rome and the events that led to the death of John the Baptist.

style ***
substance ***

In the pantheon of late Forties and early Fifties Biblical/Roman epics, Salome is usually thought of as decidedly second-tier, if it’s mentioned at all. Certainly it has more than its share of historical inaccuracies and camp elements. Moreover, the heavy-handed script, awash in somber piety, is pretty cringeworthy even by the standards of historical epics.

And yet …  even with the lapses in taste and history, Salome has aged pretty darn well, mostly due to the many delicious performances and the over-the-top costumes (by Jean Louis) and gaudy sets which are captured in glorious technicolor.

It’s no revelation to point out that Rita Hayworth was at least ten years too old for the title role, but her footwork is as nimble as ever as she performs the most notorious exotic dance in history. True, her interpretation is somewhat tame by today’s standards, but a delight nonetheless. When Rita slinks around with such panache, who cares? Anyway in an era when so much more was suggested than depicted it’s actually a little refreshing to view today through our more jaundiced, seen-and-heard-it-all eyes.

Judith Anderson exudes delicious evil in a one-note performance as Herodias and she too benefits from some splendiferous costumes. In a mostly understated turn as King Herod, Charles Laughton is effective because he underplays rather than overplays the role, thus suggesting a repressed, lecherous debauchery that’s just about to boil over.

There are a couple of exceptions to the generally primo performances. Alan Badel simply doesn’t have the dramatic heft to project John the Baptist, and as a result his interpretation mostly descends into righteous camp. Ditto for Stewart Granger as an earnest Roman centurion who becomes sympathetic to the Christian cause. He looks great but his lines and delivery are leaden.

This version of the Salome story doesn’t supplant the Oscar Wilde play and subsequent Richard Strauss opera as the grand champion, not by a long shot, but it’s a fun, entertaining movie, a polished studio product typical of its era and with the attendant virtues and excesses for this type of material. On balance, then, Salome is well worth a second look and especially noteworthy as a vehicle for a charismatic Rita at her alluring best. Also commendable are the widescreen technicolor look and some delectable scenery chewing from Charles Laughton and Judith Anderson. Another plus: we get a terrific epic score, not too bombastic, by George Duning.

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