Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Salome (1953)

You might think that a 1953 Hollywood movie about Salome, with Rita Hayworth in the title role, is going to be pure 1950 Hollywood kitsch. And of course you’d be dead right. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing depends on how you feel about kitschy 1950s Hollywood epics. Personally I think the kitschier they are the better, and Salome is about as kitsch as you can get. And it has Charles Laughton as Herod!

To say that the screenwriters have taken liberties with the biblical story would be an understatement. For starters they’ve made Salome a good girl. She’s just a sweet all-American small-town girl with a weakness for handsome hunky Romans. Her first love affair with a good-looking Roman guy with bright prospects (he’s the nephew of the emperor) gets her banished from Rome by the Emperor Tiberius. She was sent to Rome by her mom Herodias in order to keep her away from her stepfather Herod.

After her banishment she returns home to Galilee on the same galley that is bringing the new Roman governor Pontius Pilate, and his second-in-command and old military buddy Claudius (Stewart Granger). Salome has sworn off handsome Romans, but she can’t help taking a bit of a shine to Claudius. Her arrival in Galilee is a bit of a shock. There’s a madman named John the Baptist preaching against her mother Herodias (Judith Anderson), accusing her and her husband the tetrarch Herod (he wasn’t really a king, unlike his father Herod the Great) of all manner of moral wickedness. And she soon discovers that Claudius has become a follower of the Baptist.

Herod won’t take action against this crazy preacher because of a prophecy, but Herodias has her own plans to dispose of him, plans that involve her daughter.

You might think that making Salome a pure good-hearted girl sounds like a really dumb idea. And it is. It’s not as if Rita Hayworth couldn’t play a vamp so making her an innocent really does qualify as a bizarre decision. Her Dance of the Seven Veils demonstrates her potential for vampiness but sadly that’s the only chance she gets to be vampy.

But if you’re worried that all the perversity has been drained from the story you needn’t despair. Charles Laughton is on hand, and he provides the much-needed sleaze factor as Salome’s lascivious step-dad. And Judith Anderson, as you might expect, makes Herodias delightfully evil and perverse.

The religious elements are handled in the ham-fisted way you expect in a 50s Hollywood epic, with Alan Badel giving an awesomely atrocious performance as John the Baptist. Maurice Shwartz renders him able assistance, delivering an excruciatingly cringe-inducing performance as Herod’s chief religious adviser. And yes, there’s tacky choir music whenever a Significant Religious Moment occurs. Connoisseurs of bad taste are faced with an embarrassment of riches in this film.

Stewart Granger is somewhat wasted, not getting to do any of the swashbuckling heroics at which he excelled. Rita Hayworth tries her best, but as with many of her 1950s films she’s saddled with such awful dialogue and her role is so underwritten and ill-conceived that it’s an uphill battle for her. Really she does remarkably well given the incredible lameness of the script.

It goes without saying that even screenwriting deficiencies on this impressive scale don’t trouble Charles Laughton. The same can be said for Judith Anderson. You can’t keep a good ham down, and these two chew every available piece of scenery and manage to make what could have been a truly dire movie-going experience into a camp triumph.

There’s no way you can argue that this is anything but a bad movie, but if you approach it in the right frame of mind it’s highly entertaining epic trash. I enjoyed it anyway.

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