culture,       création,       critique
#4 peut-on encore parler d’art ?

Hedy Lamarr and the Deep Focus Characterisation of Delilah in Samson and Delilah (1949) :
A Cecil B. DeMille ‘Rule of Analogy’
par Anton Karl Kozlovic

Deep Focus Characterisation : Some DeMillean Antecedents

This auteuristic habit was evident in DeMille’s railway film Union Pacific when Andrew Jackson was played by Hugh Sothern, a real-life “descendent of one of Jackson’s uncles” (Rivers, 1996, p. 113). It appeared again in his pre-Revolutionary Americana film Unconquered :

Here’s how Cecil B. DeMille’s thinking went : Boris Karloff plays villains. Gyuasuta, chief of the Senecas, is a villain. Ergo, Boris Karloff would be ideal as Guyasuta, chief of the Senecas...Given titles like “King of the Monsters” and the “Titan of Terror,” Karloff had a standing as the consummate sadist, madman, and all-round miscreant that stemmed largely from the very mellifluousness of his voice. That someone as much a gentleman as Karloff could implant a malignant brain in a healthy man (The Man Who Lived Again), cruelly govern over the inmates of an insane asylum (Bedlam), and kill the boy princes (Tower of London) meant that anyone was capable of committing unspeakable acts. Karloff—friends always referred to him as “dear Boris”—is no gentleman in Unconquered. He’s a ruthless, bloodthirsty beast and a menace to white maidenhood. There were never any graduations of character in Cecil B. DeMille’s world (Bona, 1996, p. 55).

DeMille skilfully utilised his adopted daughter Katherine Lester DeMille in this deep focus way. She appeared in Madame Satan, The Crusades, Unconquered and other non-DeMille films “usually as a jilted, jealous, or just plain unhappy woman in second leads or supporting roles” (Katz, Klein & Nolen, 2001, p. 354). Why such morbidity and subdued prominence given the potential for DeMillean nepotism ? Because Cecil had an anti-nepotism ethic : “I have always believed that a son or daughter should make his or her way on the strength of his or her own abilities” (DeMille & Hayne, 1960, p. 275). But more importantly, Katherine had experienced real unhappiness in her private life.

She was haunted by private demons that made her “a hidden girl : frightened, insecure, timorous” (Quinn & Paisner, 1995, p. 133). For example, she was adopted and had bad orphanage experiences, plus awkward concerns about Cecilia DeMille (Cecil’s biological daughter), her dead parents, her rejecting biological family in England, and other emotional security issues (Edwards, 1988, pp. 74-76). This insecurity followed her into adulthood. On her wedding night (1937), Katherine was emotionally rejected by husband Anthony Quinn when he learned that she “was not the Shulamite of the Bible. She was not undefiled” (Quinn, 1972, p. 279). As Quinn confessed : “The white sheets after our lovemaking were like a dagger to my throat. My mind raced. What, no blood ?” (Quinn & Paisner, 1995, p. 139). His painful disappointment was soon followed by physical abuse : “The look on the poor girl’s face as I slapped her when I found out I wasn’t the first man. I felt betrayed, I felt cheated, I felt lied to” (Quinn, 1972, p. 282).

Quinn (1972, p. 143) “thought the idea woman had to be a kind of a virginal goddess,” and so the relationship was haunted thereafter by the ghosts of infidelity, “the other men she’d been with, even the imaginary men she might find in the future” (Quinn, 1972, p. 143). This marital stress was aggravated in 1941 by the accidental drowning of their son Christopher Quinn, nearly three years old, which brought intense sorrow and assisted her fanatical devotion to religion and the afterlife (Edwards, 1988, p. 157). Notwithstanding all this, DeMille successfully turned Katherine’s private insecurities into professional advantages by matching her dour disposition with roles that reflected elements of the same. A pinnacle of this auteuristic power was put to excellent use in the casting of Hedy Lamarr as Delilah in the OT biblical biography Samson and Delilah.

Hedy Lamarr in Ecstasy

DeMille’s Technicolor testament was a filmic adaptation loosely based upon Judges 13-16,1 “the story of sexy stories...always an entertaining and sacred scandal sheet” (Wurtzel, 1998, p. 38) involving “the paradigmatic case of woman’s wickedness” (Bal, 1987, p. 38). Historically speaking, Samson and Delilah was a “watershed film” (Schatz, 1997, p. 394) that sired the 1950s trend of biblical epics, and whose “reputation has by now stabalized into one of camp respectability” (Murphy, 1999, pp. 109-110). It also firmly entrenched Hedy Lamarr as the sexual siren of her day. As co-star George Sanders (1960) recalled :

[Hedy]...was so beautiful that everybody would stop talking when she came into a room. Wherever she went she was the cynosure of all eyes...Of her conversation I can remember just watched her mouth moving and marvelled at the exquisite shapes made by her lips (pp. 111-112).

Indeed, his adulation almost matched the sexuality of Proverbs 5:3 : “For the lips of a strange woman drop as an honeycomb, and her mouth is smoother than oil.” As critic Ronald Ecker (2000, p. 4) confessed : “Take it from me, that Austrian beauty could make eight-year-olds weak in the knees.” As screenwriter Jesse Lasky Jr. (1973, p. 221) confessed, Lamarr was : “Admired, adored, worshipped by all of us who worked with her.” DeMille certainly capitalised on her erotic powers on-screen. The Saran of Gaza (George Sanders) claimed : “No man with eyes could resist you Delilah.” Miriam (Olive Deering) referred to her “treacherous beauty,” while Samson (Victor Mature) said : “My eyes can never find more beauty than I see in you.” For critic David Thomson (1978, p. 16), even her name implied sex : “Delilah was lovely to say ; it opened the mouth-for a French kiss, perhaps.”

The multiple correspondences between the biblical account of this perceived seductive sorceress of Sorek and Lamarr’s realworld histrionics are impressive. For example, her 20th century sexuality fitted well with the public reputation of the biblical seductress. Delilah became “a symbol of woman’s wiles used to trip up good men” (Calvocoressi, 1990, p. 57), “a codeword for a seductive and traitorous woman” (Telushkin, 1997, p. 183), a name “synonymous with treachery and deceit” (Exum, 1996, p. 176). The biblical Delilah “is the epitome of all the unscrupulous women throughout history who have used their physical charms and deceitful hearts to bring strong men to their doom for personal advantage” (Thomas, 1982, p. 80). Indeed, she “is arguably the most famous woman in the book of Judges, her name a synonym for the mature seductive woman” (Leneman, 2000, p. 141). Delilah has also been tagged as the consummate “Philistine Mata Hari” (Murphy, 2000, p. 104), “a police spy” (Harcourt-Smith, 1951, p. 412), “the arch-betrayer...a snaky seductress” (Fraser, 1988, p. 9), “the female Judas of the Old Testament” (Lockyer, 1967, p. 43), “the Jackie Kennedy of Philistia” (Wurtzel, 1998, p. 41), and “the epitome...of betrayal, deceit, and allure” (Murphy, 1999, p. 111).

So, it is not too surprising to find Delilah also being tagged as “a temptress par excellence” (Smith, 1999, p. 113), or “the biblical “temptress” extraordinary” (Koosed & Linafelt, 1996, p. 175), the “femme fatale par excellence” (Fewell, 1992, p. 73), or the “classic femme fatale” (Guthridge, 1995, p. 22). DeMille certainly got this aspect of Delilah’s reputation right with his choice of Hedy Lamarr. His fastidious costume designer, Edith Head even admitted that Hedy looked like “the all-time femme fatale” (Head & Ardmore, 1960, p. 99). While Jacques Doniol-Valcroze (1989, pp. 41-42) considered her a “sophisticated vamp portrayed...with ravishing froideur, calculating femininity, and the coquettishness of a petulant bimbo.”

Delilah in Biblical Art : Keeping Abreast of the Issues

DeMille got Delilah’s signature character right, but there was one glaring physical omission that Lamarr suffered : “she is certainly a little bit stringy for the taste of those who like their Delilahs plump” (Holt, 1951, p. 251). Although there are no biblical descriptions of what Delilah actually looked like, within the tradition of classic biblical portraiture, she is portrayed as a voluptuous, big-bosomed woman. Indeed :

The phenomenon of visualizing a textual figure is almost indispensable while reading a narrative that contains references to love and sexuality. The stereotypic temptress is good-looking, quite young, saucy, inviting, ripe to overripe, seductively attired, with big breasts—a playboy centrefold girl (Brenner, 1993, p. 231).

It was an assessment borne out by many old fine arts masters. For example : Samson and Delilah (Peter Paul Rubens) depicted Delilah with large naked breasts and exposed nipples squeezed into focused prominence by her tight clothing (Brown, 1983, p. 2). The Taking of Samson (Peter Paul Rubens, oil sketch) displayed a half-naked Delilah with fully exposed breasts and nipples that were seductively ample (Brown, 1983, p. 8). The Capture of Samson (Christian van Couvenbergh) depicted a very inviting, round-breasted Delilah with exposed nipples (Solle & Kirchberger, 1994, p. 139). Samson and Delilah (Solomon J. Solomon) had a topless Delilah with prominent breasts and nipples (Bernard, 1988, pp. 90-91). Samson and Delilah (Adrien van der Werff) had a topless Delilah with large, fully exposed breasts and nipples (Solle & Kirchberger, 1994, p. 143). Samson Mocked by the Philistines (Jan Steen) had a buxomed Delilah with partially exposed breasts and one hidden nipple being fondled by a lusty courtier (Kirschenbaum, 1977, p. 199). Samson and Delilah (Jan Steen) her ample bosoms are covered more fully, but still with abundant sexual promise (Kirschenbaum, 1977, p. 202). Nor does the big-bosomed Delilah tradition stop here.

Delilah (Gustave Moreau) had exposed breasts and nipples which, if not very huge, were sensually exciting (Solle & Kirchberger, 1994, p. 135). Samson Betrayed by Delilah (Rembrandt) depicted a well-built Delilah with partially exposed, suggestively huge breasts (Bredius & Gerson, 1969, p. 402). Samson and Delilah (Andrea Mantegna) depicted prominent breasts fully covered by a form clinging dress that accentuated their voluptuousness (Wilenski, 1947, p. 21). Samson and Delilah (Sir Anthony van Dyck #1) displayed an amply proportioned Delilah whose breasts were strategically covered by her silencing hand (Martin & Feigenbaum, 1979, p. 57). Samson and Delilah (Pieter Soutman) depicted another ample Delilah and silencing hand (Brown, 1983, p. 18). Samson and Delilah (Sir Anthony van Dyck #2) has Delilah more subdued, with one breast exposed and the other covered (Solle & Kirchberger, 1994, pp. 146-147). Samson and Delilah (Jan Lievens) had an amply sized Delilah with clothed breasts strategically hidden by Samson’s prostrated head (Sutton, 1997, p. 223).

Even DeMille’s favourite biblical painter, Gustave Dore (Higham, 1973, p. 7) implied large breasts in his illustration entitled Samson and Delilah. Unlike the semi-naked Delilahs mentioned above, she is standing erect, fully clothed, with the strategic folds of her gown suggesting large bosoms. The prominence of her breasts was further accentuated by a sitting Samson staring directly at them, coupled with Delilah in a submissive posture with demure, partially closed eyes that allowed a sexually uninhibited Samson gaze. To further enhance her sexuality without being overtly sexual, Delilah focused upon her own breasts through three-quarter closed eyelids. Thus nonverbally inviting a decidedly interested Samson (and the viewer) to inspect her sexual wares and contemplate the promises entailed therein (Dore, 1974, p. 65). Dore’s design lessons in the art of sexless sex were brilliantly applied by DeMille, especially in his 1940s censor-controlled film world.

Overall, the prominence of Delilah’s breasts and nipples, her various states of undress, the intimate caresses by third parties, and the focused compositional invitations to stare at her sexuality heightened the erotic atmosphere. These artistic interpretations are consistent with the perceived reputation of Delilah-as-seductive-sexual-icon, the “treacherous wanton” (Margalith, 1987, p. 63) who bordered on whoredom.

Hedy of the Boyish-Build : A DeMillean Research Blunder ?

DeMille had a reputation for authenticity in research. As his scriptwriter Charles Bennett responded when asked :

Was he [DeMille] really concerned with research and accuracy, or was that just part of his self-promotion ? [Bennett answered] Oh yes, he had a research department working with him all the time. Everything had to be accurate, even to the kinds of plants that would be in a particular area. He was very thorough in that way...and very good (Server, 1987, p. 28).

In some instances, DeMille was more knowledgeable than religious scholars. Billy Graham once confessed to David Frost that DeMille was a great Bible student who once corrected his scriptural error regarding The Ten Commandment (Frost, 1997, p. 137). Therefore, after consulting all the historical paintings of Delilah as per his usual research thoroughness, one would image Cecil choosing an actress with similar anatomical proportions for this biblical story of a “first-degree fatal attraction” (Wurtzel, 1998, p. 40). Yet, DeMille chose Hedy Lamarr of the boyish-build to star as his Delilah.

Her flat chest was immortalised by Grouch Marx’s infamous quip : “First picture I’ve ever seen in which the male lead has bigger tits than the female” (Wilk, 1971, p. 177). Especially considering that critics saw her co-star Victor Mature as an “untoned Samson” (Bassoff, 2000, p. 56) whose chest was “unhardened by pectoral discipline” (Babington & Evans, 1993, p. 237). Marx’s quip became classic Hollywood folklore and repeated frequently thereafter (Adair, 1989, p. 139 ; Legrand, 1995, p. 556 ; Pollack, 1998, p. 13 ; Wilcoxon & Orrison, 1991, p. 169). Even contemporary reviewers bitterly noted this unmistakable Lamarr build. As George Chabot (2000, p. 2) complained : “All the revealing costuming lavished on her by [Edith] Head left me desiring her to put some clothes on ! There was really nothing to see ! I’ve seen more curves on [a] 2 X 4.” Indeed, DeMille in his day was chastised for not being a salacious cineaste. Simon Harcourt-Smith (1951, p. 412) complained : “More serious perhaps is the slackness with which de Mille has allowed the strings of sex to sag...Yet I suspect that Samson and Delilah will not make its money from its sexual appeal.”

Somewhat ironically, Lamarr’s agent Sidney (a pseudonym) urged her to do the film because he considered it a mixture of “muscles, tits, and sadism” or “Muscles and tits sugar-coated with religion” (Lamarr, 1966, pp. 168, 169) despite Lamarr’s mammary deficiencies. Even more amazing is that some contemporary critics still see sex where none actually existed. For example, it was claimed that : “C. B. DeMille’s spectaculars... gave legions of puritanical voyeurists a good excuse to watch Delilah romping in the near-buff. For one ticket, the audience got both sermons and tits !” (Greenberg, 1975, p. 8). Yet, Delilah is never sexually exposed or in a near-buff state, but it does testify to DeMille’s incredible filmmaking powers in the art of sexless sex.

Of course, any exposed nipples, floppy breasts or near-buff romping was considered indecent and banned by the censors of the day, along with flashing genitalia, bare bums and suggestive pneumatic gyrations. But DeMille-the-businessman had to appease a sex-interested, fashion-hungry public, as well as religious scholars, censors, art and film critics, and so he helped redefine feminine sexuality for a modern time. He asked his illustrator Dan Groesbeck to sketch Delilah looking at Samson “with an at once seductive and coolly measuring eye, a slim and ravishingly attractive young girl” (DeMille & Hayne, 1960, p. 364). Indeed, “DeMille pinned the color sketch on his office walls. On the back was the notation, “This sketch sold Paramount on making Samson and Delilah” (Koury, 1959, p. 196). Groesbeck produced an image of Delilah that would not be out of place in today’s vogue catwalks (DeMille & Hayne, 1960, between pp. 200-201) for it was nowhere near Dore’s “chubby, matronish female” (Koury, 1959, p. 196). Groesbeck’s Delilah had breasts that were not large but well proportioned. However, Hedy Lamarr did not match even this conservative bosom prescription which now required Edith Head’s Oscar-winning intervention :

For Samson and Delilah, we had sketched costumes with a voluptuous bustline Hedy couldn’t fill. “I’m not a big bosomy woman,” she said (she’s slim actually) ; “if you pad me I’ll look ridiculous. I won’t be able to act. I’ll feel as if I’m carting balloons.” So her costumes were not padded ; we achieved a voluptuous effect by line, by drapery, and nothing could have been lovelier than the Delilah I took to Mr. de Mille in a costume of mesh and beaten silver, so lovely he actually smiled ! For Mr. de Mille’s smile you almost forgave Hedy her predilection for the horizontal and the edible (Head & Ardmore, 1960, pp. 99-100).

As Lamarr’s own agent confessed to her : “When he [DeMille] sells sex...people buy because he wraps it in fancy paper with pink ribbons” (Lamarr, 1966, p. 173).

So, why did DeMille eschew the classical biblical portraiture tradition, his prescriptive pre-production sketches, and his own sexy film reputation by accepting a flat-chest actress who needed specialist costume deceptiveness ? Part of the answer lay in DeMille’s cardinal rule of pleasing the public first. “For the roles of Samson and Delilah, I selected two players quite deliberately because they embody in a large part of the public mind the essence of maleness and attractive femininity, Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr” (DeMille & Hayne, 1960, p. 365). DeMille was certainly aware of the Delilah of the old masters, but their centuries old definitions of plump feminine beauty did not jibe well with 1940s notions of “attractive femininity.” Especially with its re-focused emphasis upon thinness as evidenced by Dorothy Jeakins’s costume sketch for an anorexic Delilah (Maeder, 1987, p. 118). Indeed, why did DeMille stay with Lamarr when there were numerous other slim, attractive actresses who had more alluring breasts not needing costuming corrections ?

DeMille the Bipolar Biblicist

One could argue that DeMille was being an authenticity-stickler. He was conforming to a stream of interpretation for the name Delilah meaning : “weak” (Leneman, 2000, p. 142), “small” (Segert, 1984, p. 460), “small, slight” (Achtemeier, 1985, p. 217), “dainty one” (Lockyer, 1986, p. 293), or ““impoverished little woman” (paupercula)” (Sota 9b ; Midr. Num. 9:24)” (Richardson & Vance, 1992, p. 194). In which case, DeMille-as-cinematic-biblicist had correctly placed authoritative weight upon biblical naming tradition rather than painter’s sexy guesses about Delilah’s bust-line. It also jibbed well with the textual (and symbolic) essence of Judges 13-16 that emphasised power differences between the two competing protagonists.

Indeed, DeMille-as-cinematic-lay-preacher went to great pains to construct a bipolar difference between Samson and Delilah. Why ? Because this was a strong, intrinsic feature of the biblical saga itself. The “basic scheme fits feminine wiles against masculine strength, clever stratagems against physical prowess, words versus mute action,” “patriotism versus individualism, man’s strength versus woman’s cunning, religious vocation versus sensuous entanglement” (Solle & Kirchberger, 1994, pp. 138, 141). The story also contained oppositions that caused other tensions. For example : “the social versus the individual ; relationship by blood versus relationship by law (marriage) ; masculine versus feminine” (Bal, 1987, p.40), and “the Old World seducing the New World” (Lopate, 1989, p. 16). Indeed, the biblical text is full of contrasts to delineate the sacred characters. For example :

Pairings such as love and hate, friend and foe, strength and weakness, knowledge and ignorance, joy and sorrow fill the narrative. The verbs varad (to go down) and alah (to go up) feature prominently in the story, giving the words symbolic weight. As the flame and angel ascend to heaven, Manoah and his wife fall to the ground. The transcendent and the merely human are thereby effectively distinguished (Crenshaw, 1992, p. 953).

In fact, the stem Hebrew meaning for Samson’s name is sun (shemesh) and for Delilah it is night (laylah), therefore the drama is “between two cosmic poles, namely of light and darkness” (Simon, 1981, p. 157). This bipolar difference was further compounded because Samson’s “name may have meant “sun”, but he was not very bright” (Harris, Brown & Moore, 2000, pp. 246-247) and “his actions seem to be conducted in darkness and confusion” (Josipovici, 1988, p. 126). Whereas Delilah’s name might mean night, she was certainly not dull or left in the dark. Even DeMille’s actor names were subject to similar semantic playfulness : “As for Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr, they were not just names but meretricious poetry, announced lies. What sort of man could overcome a mature victor ? What headiness was there really in l’amour, even if this Hedy might mar it ?” (Thomson, 1978, pp. 16-17). DeMille-the-filmmaker accepted this scripturally-based bipolarism and artistically created the following binary oppositions :

1 Male (heightened masculinity) Female (heightened femininity)
2 Physically large/wide/tall/strong Physically small/thin/short/weak
3 (Danite) Hero, (Philistine) Villain (Danite) Villain, (Philistine) Hero
4 Danite/Israelite/Semitic/Naziritism Philistine/Foreigner/Philistinism
5 (Danite) Insider, (Philistine) Outsider (Danite) Outsider, (Philistine) Insider
6 Charismatic, Sacred Passionate, Secular
7 Leader of his people (Danites) Follower of her people (Philistines)
8 Formal power/authority/influence Informal power/authority/influence
9 Abuser-to-abused Abused-to-abuser
10 Murderer/killer Non-murderer/killer
11 Possessed many personal weapons Possessed no personal weapons
12 (Earthly) Non-betrayer (Earthly) Betrayer
13 Insensitive, wilful doer Sensitive, dreaming plotter
14 Forced to learn humility Comes to cherish humility
15 Rugged looking Beautiful looking
16 Intellectually dull Intellectually cunning
17 Child-like/innocent disposition Adult/worldly disposition
18 Rugged rustic background Sophisticated urban background
19 Austere, Brawler life Hedonistic, Seducer life
20 Simplistic daily life and relations Sensual courtly life and intrigue
21 Nature associations Culture associations
22 Shepherd reference Courtesan reference
23 Interacts with animals No animal interactions
24 Materially poor Materially rich
25 Steals things Does not steal/gives things away
26 Plainly dressed and bejewelled Opulently dressed and bejewelled
27 Pursued Pursuer
28 Actively engaged Idly depraved
29 No powerful earthly allies Powerful earthly allies
30 Powerful supporting true God Non supporting pagan god
31 Believer/spiritual/monotheism Unbeliever/non-spiritual/paganism
32 Intimate family background No intimate family background
33 Has mother and interacts No mother interactions
34 Associates with children No children associations
35 Lust-filled Passionate
36 Loses true God, finds true God No true God, finds true God
37 Riddler, Secret holder Non-riddler, Secret seeker
38 Cannot keep a secret Can keep a secret
39 Truth and Lie associations Lie and Truth associations
40 Physically captured Never physically captured
41 Eats infrequently Eats frequently
42 Water associations Sand associations
43 Fire associations Wine associations
44 Bull reference Dove reference
45 Bear reference Blossom reference
46 Ox reference Bee reference
47 Lion reference Monkey reference
48 Two-legged mule reference Peacock reference
49 Whale reference Cat and wildcat reference
50 Devil reference Thorn reference
51 Mouse reference Philistine gutter-rat reference
52 Ass reference Goat reference
53 Clown reference Turnip reference
54 Sun associations Night associations
55 No bed associations Repeated bed associations
56 Immature behaviour Mature behaviour
57 Impulsive Contemplative
58 Exhibits nobility Exhibits wickedness
59 Honourable Treacherous
60 Has no personal servant Has a personal servant
61 Has no private abode Has private abodes
62 Decreases in Danite social stature Increases in Philistine social stature
63 Physically tortured (loses sight) Not physically tortured
64 Publicly vilified and humiliated Not publicly vilified or humiliated
65 Not praised or rewarded Praised and rewarded
66 Suffers no visual hallucinations Experiences visual hallucinations
67 Mourned at death Not mourned at death
68 From victim-to-vanquisher From vanquisher-to-victim
69 To be officially buried Unofficially buried
70 Death achieved more than life Death achieved less than life

This bipolarism is even more significant and multi-layered considering Victor Mature’s Catholic background and Hedy Lamarr’s Jewish background. Mature’s lower class origins and Lamarr’s upper class origins. Lamarr’s Viennese-scented English and Mature’s Kentucky tones. Lamarr’s intelligence and Mature’s lack of high school education. Indeed, Hedy Lamarr is credited with co-inventing and receiving a government patient for frequency hopping (spread spectrum) communications technology. This kept Nazi ships from jamming allied torpedo signals (U.S. Patent Number 2,292,387 Secret Communications System granted on 11 August 1942 under the name Hedy Keisler Markey and George Antheil). This technology was shrouded in military security, eventually declassified in 1985, became public domain, and then helped the development of mobile telephones, cellular phones and advanced telecommunications security.

In March 1997, Lamarr was belatedly awarded an Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award for this work. In October 1998 she was awarded the Victor Kaplan medal of the Austrian Academy of Science at Eisenstadt thus earning a deserved spot in the Inventors Online Museum (Mills, 1999 ; Scibor-Marchocki, 2000). On the other hand, as one anonymous commentator said of Mature : “Vic was no college professor, but who has ever seen one like that ?” (Anonymous, 1953, p. 3), while Prof. Cheryl Exum (1996, p. 204) actually complained that : “Victor Mature [is] seemingly almost as simplistic as the biblical character he plays.” No wonder Simon Harcourt-Smith (1951, p. 410) claimed : “We may not like what Cecil B. de Mille sets out to achieve ; but we must grant that he achieves it with absolute precision.”

If Bona’s (1996, p. 55) claim that there were never graduations of character in DeMille’s world is true, or believe that Samson and Delilah “has everything but subtlety” (Slide, 1983, p. 203), then these are actually defacto compliments. Because such a lack was the very essence of the Samson saga ! DeMille artfully reinforced it through his deep focus actor choices. Even the claim that it is an “unintentionally comic biblical epic” (Green, 1992, p. 69) is a defacto compliment. Why ? Because the biblical Samson “has the stock characteristics of the heroes of slapstick” (Murphy, 2000, p. 101). His “story is a comic adventure” (Thompson, 1999, p. 342) “which we might almost believe were collected from early copies of ancient Israelite boys’ comics” (Dennis, 1991, p. 98). In addition to “his cartoon mastery of city gates” (Murphy, 2000, p. 58), the whole Samson narrative “can be considered the most fictitious section of the book of Judges” (Segert, 1984, p. 455), and thus ripe for creative (re-)interpretation. No wonder The Weekly Variety reviewer claimed : “for the kids, Samson is the greatest invention since Superman” (Ringgold & Bodeen, 1969, p. 344).

DeMille’s sex-and-God trademark is also very appropriate here. Why ? Because this is a hallmark of the Samson saga, “a mixture of conflicting and inconsistent themes, a kind of potpourri of the holy and the extremely secular” (Mary Ellen Chase quoted in Preminger & Greenstein, 1986, p. 551). Or as Hedy Lamarr (1966, p. 172) called it, a “sex-and-scripture spectacle.” Indeed, Samson is Israel just as DeMille is Hollywood, or at least “one of the pillars of the Hollywood temple” (Doniol-Valcroze, 1989, p. 35). Blockbuster DeMille’s epic filmmaking signature style matched the fantastic events of biblical narrative whose “story has hyperbole from start to finish” (Crenshaw, 1992, p. 953). Former Jesuit Ian Guthridge (1995, p. 22) argued that Judges is “so full of sexual passion, and so positively reeking with blood and guts, that they sound more like incidents in a Cecil B. de Mille extravaganza than chapters in the holy word of God.” In fact, David Roper (1971, p. 1) of the Peninsula Bible Church told his congregation : “This morning we are going to study Samson together. Believe it or not, Cecil B. deMille didn’t invent this character,” but many critics must thought he did !

So, DeMille was being scripturally authentic on a much deeper level (scripturally and symbolically ; with textual quoting and extrapolative projection) than most film critics perceived, let alone gave him credit for. However, the reason for DeMille’s choice of Hedy Lamarr above all other potentially beautiful, big-bosomed actresses becomes clear when one (re-)discovers her infamous reputation prior to her DeMillean megastardom.

Hedy Lamarr as 20th Century Shady Lady

Lamarr was the teen star of the 1933 Czechoslovakian film Ecstasy which “sent Europeans sweating and panting from the theatres” (Young, 1978, p. 96). Its notoriety was especially enhanced when the public discovered that Hedy’s munitions magnate husband, Friedrich “Fritz” Alexander Mandl tried to buy and destroy all copies of it. This foreign film was banned from entry into the United States in 1935, modified and banned again in New York in 1937, and eventually shown in modified form in 1940. The U.S. Attorney, Martin Conboy banned it for two reasons :

...first, because “this film’s portraying in the most minute detail a woman’s facial expressions and reactions during orgasm accompanying sexual intercourse is obscene and immoral” ; second, because “the episode and theme of adulterous intercourse pervades and dominates the entire film and supplies the title and climax of the film...The federal jury that decided the case agreed with Conboy : the litigated print of Ecstasy was forbidden entry into the United States and, before an appeal could be made, burned by a federal marshal (de Grazia & Newman, 1982, p. 48).

The 10-minute sequence of a nude Eva (Hedy Lamarr [then Kiesler]) swimming in a lake and then running naked through the bushes also upset Conboy, but it was not deemed as offensive as the mesmeric orgasm scenes. Indeed :

“It was the close-ups of [Lamarr’s] facial expressions which chiefly shocked the jury,” the New York Times reported after the trial. Hollywood magazine concurred : “All you see, all the camera gives you, is Eva’s face. Hundreds of feet of Hedy’s face, covering the whole range of love. You get it from her expression or you don’t get it at all” (de Grazia & Newman, 1982, p. 48).

Another copy of the film was procured and subsequently modified to appease the critics. It now included a diary scene “and across the screen were the words : “Adam and I were secretly married today.” Also, just to stress the fact, a heard to say in measured English : “I’m so lonely. I must tell father we are married”” (Young, 1978, p. 96). Thus, the previously illicit sexual affair between Hedy and her younger lover Adam (Aribert Mog) was converted into acceptable husband-wife sex following the suicide of Eva’s elderly first husband Emile (Jaromir Rogoz). Interestingly, during 1937, the Hays Office under Joseph Breen also refused to give Ecstasy a seal because :

It is a story of illicit love and frustrated sex, treated in detail without sufficient compensating moral values, the portrayal of a mare in heat, and of a rearing stallion, the actual scene in the cabin where the woman’s face registers the varying emotions of the sexual act—all are designed to stimulate the lower and baser elements and are suggestive, lustful and obscene. [It] is designed to glorify sexual intercourse between human beings and between animals, and to arouse lustful feelings in those who see it (de Grazia & Newman, 1982, p. 49).

No wonder DeMille chose Lamarr for Samson and Delilah. This connection also explains why DeMille had Delilah romantically swim in an oasis pool, although scripturally unsupported, and why he had focused on intimate facial shots with her and Samson in their love-nest tent. They were resonant throwbacks to Ecstasy encompassing Eva’s nude lake swim and her climactic moment with Adam in their love-nest cabin, albeit now transplanted and sanitised for American domestic consumption, but still exciting for the knowing aficionados.

Indeed, at film’s end, Delilah’s (scripturally unsupported) rejection of the older Saran of Gaza (George Sanders) for a younger Samson, based on emotional grounds, paralleled Eva’s rejection of the older Emile for the younger Adam based on passionate grounds. Emile (like the Saran) was a rich, powerful man that Eva (like Delilah) did not want to be wedded to despite the incredible material advantages on offer. Emile, being heartbroken at his rejection by Eva suicided, and the shadow of this tragic event was repeated in Samson and Delilah. After Delilah’s public rejection of the Saran, he did not try to escape the crashing Dagon idol. Instead, he stoically saluted Delilah before resigning himself to his immanent crushing death, the physical correlate of Emile’s crushed emotions. Just as Eva had deliberately slipped out of Adam’s life at the end of Ecstasy, Delilah deliberately slipped out of Samson’s life at film’s end. Both Eva and Delilah were remorseful about their past deeds. Both Eva and Delilah fondled the hands and kissed their loved ones just before departing. Both Eva and Delilah’s nights of ecstasy resulted in death and lives of sorrow. Both films were bitter testimonies to the symphony of love, one secular, one sacred, both devastating.

Ecstasy was an underground sex classic. One suspects that DeMille cunningly utilised it as a form of free pre-publicity by virtue of choosing Lamarr to play the seductive Delilah, even if he had to tolerate her small breasts. The two films Hedy starred in prior to Samson and Delilah did not diminish her naughty persona. In 1947’s Dishonored Lady (a film title which directly prefigured Delilah), she played the psychologically troubled Madeleine Damien, a lady with a pleasure-seeking past whose promiscuity caught up with her. While in 1948’s Let’s Live a Little (which also resonated with Delilah), she played a cool, bewitching psychiatrist, Dr. J. O. Loring, who was involved in a love triangle with her patient and his ex-lover. In fact, the themes of pleasure-seeking, bewitching promiscuity, love triangles and moral comeuppances were also strong plot features of both Samson and Delilah and Judges 13-16. Lamarr was cast to type. Her two previous films now appeared as consistent precursors to her OT biblical epic, to be thematically reconstituted to complete a filmic trinity of emotional despair. Not only was this an excellent example of deep focus characterisation, but it demonstrated DeMille’s master capacity to tap into the pop culture substratum of his day. It also proved his business canniness because he tapped into a market segment that might not see religious films, but who would voyeuristically watch Lamarr, even if wrapped in gorgeous biblical garments.

Overall, DeMille could legitimately claim historical authenticity, scriptural accuracy, reasonable textual extrapolation and interpolation, fine art precedence, and plausible extracanonical speculation. While simultaneously generating the support of Churches, the adulation of audiences and not be hypocritical when he claimed to financiers : “We’ll sell it as a story of faith, the story of the power of prayer. That’s for the censors and the women’s organizations. For the public it’s the hottest love story of all time” (Koury, 1959, p. 206). This was also classic auteur-DeMille because his signature trait was “the irresistible formula of having one’s cake (sin) and eating it too (piety)” (Lopate, 1989, p. 16). No wonder Darryl F. Zanuck (1971, p. 81) enviously claimed that the public would “accept a biblical picture providing it is loaded with box-office ingredients and showmanship. Samson and Delilah is basically a sex story and when you can get one in biblical garb apparently you can open your own mint.”

Further Delilah-Lamarr Resonances

DeMille’s selection of Lamarr was astute, but his a priori awareness of the depth of match between Delilah and Lamarr is uncertain. Nevertheless, she embodied many more layers of deep focus characterisation than is at first apparent. For example, Delilah associated with “the lords of the Philistines” (Judg. 16:5) and it is stretching the point to note that Hedy associated with similar higher echelon peers after her marriage to industrialist Fritz Mandl. Such as “Prince Gustav of Denmark, Prince Nicholas of Greece, Benito Mussolini, Madame Schiaparelli, Hungarian playwright Oedoen von Horvath, and writer Franz Werfel and his wife, who was the widow of composer Gustav Mahler (Young, 1978, p. 18). Her on-screen Philistine sophistication definitely showed through, especially compared to Samson, the rustic rebel of Dan. Indeed, Victor Mature also had a humble background. He was the son of poor Swiss immigrants who made good and then “opened a television store the year after television began and shocked the English actors in “Samson and Delilah” by selling marked-down sets in his dressing room” (Harmetz, 1970, p. 2).

Another stream of interpretation for Delilah’s name is : ““weaken” or “impoverish” (Sota 9b ; Midr. Num. 9:24)” (Richardson & Vance, 1992, p. 193), “” (Lockyer, 1967, p. 42), “poured out ; exhausted ; weak ; pining with desire ; lustful pining...longing” (Unity School of Christianity, 1931, p. 169), just as DeMille had depicted her on-screen. These naming interpretations could also be referring to her effect upon Samson. As indicated by another stream of interpretation for Delilah meaning : “to hang, to let low” (Leneman, 2000, p. 142), “to enfeeble” (Bronner, 1993, p. 92), “the weakening or debilitating one” (Graham, 1996, p. 205), or “She Who Makes Weak” (Weldon, 1995, p. 79). These sexual connotations are especially enhanced when Delilah’s name is also translated as : “flirt” (Garber, 1986, p. 261), ““flirtatious” ...“small”, “humble”...[that] could indicate a submissive woman” (Segert, 1984, p. 460).

Another interpretative stream for Delilah’s name is : “languishing” (Klein, 1988, p. 226) or “to be languid” (Gray, 1986, p. 335). Solle and Kirchberger (1994, p. 141) suggested that her name “which means “the languishing one,” became a common term for a “seductress”.” Technically speaking, “languishing” refers to someone who is weak, feeble, lacking in strength, energy, vigour or intensity, disheartened, listless, melancholic, one who affects a wistful, pining or languid air, especially to gain sympathy (Halsey, 1979 ; Hanks et al., 1982). But how do these possible descriptions of the biblical Delilah relate to the actress Lamarr ? According to her costume designer Edith Head :

...Hedy Lamarr, during fittings for Samson and Delilah spent a great deal of time in a horizontal position. In the middle of the fitting she would say, “Edith, I must rest. When you have had children, you have backaches.” And she would lie down as relaxed as a Persian cat and have something to eat sent up. She ate constantly ! She had no temper, just an enviable ability to relax. Hedy knew what she looked like and didn’t work at it (Steen, 1974, p. 253 ; see also Head & Ardmore, 1960, pp. 98-99).

This suggests that the choice of the boyish Lamarr with her personal languishing attributes (with seductive overtones) was possibly more than chance occurrence. Indeed, DeMille had put Lamarr’s personalistic trait to good use at the oasis love-nest. When Delilah is throw onto her animal-skinned bed by Samson she instantly relaxed and exuded erotic charm, including a curvaceous cat-like posture full of sexual promise.

Alternatively, one could argue that Lamarr was aware of the meaning of her character’s name and acted it to secure her the starry job, or secondly, as on-going actor preparation-cum-immersion into the role. The first possibility is unlikely as both DeMille and his scriptwriter-lover Jeanie Macpherson “despised weakness in men and women...Both...celebrated the hero and the heroine—biblical, historical, or fictional—and praised their courage and perseverance (Foreman, 1998, p. 254). Since Hedy was awarded the part of Delilah, there was no need to impress DeMille afterwards during costume fittings sessions with an underling.

The second possibility is more probable, but still unlikely. There was no need to impress Edith Head because Lamarr was the heterosexual star of the picture, and Edith Head was not a man to be seduced by Hedy’s considerable feminine allure. However, some have suggested that Edith Head was a lesbian (Hadleigh, 1994), in which case the heterosexual Lamarr had even less reason to flirt with her (even if the reverse behaviour was a logical possibility). Lamarr’s languishing appears to be a genuine personalistic trait that etymologically jibbed with the scriptural Delilah, and so DeMille synergisticly built this trait into his film. Indeed, he did this again concerning Lamarr’s personal eating habits.

The Lamarr-Delilah Eating Habit : Tasty Teasers

The fact that Hedy Lamarr “ate constantly !” (Steen, 1974, p. 253) in real life was used by DeMille in yet another example of deep focus characterisation, only this time reversed. DeMille used Lamarr’s personalistic traits to embellish the on-screen Delilah. There is no biblical reference to Delilah’s culinary habits or any plot point revolving around the same, yet DeMille had his Delilah frequently eating throughout the film, even at potentially inappropriate moments and places. For example : (a) while Delilah is sitting on the perimeter wall in Tubal’s (William Farnum’s) garden she flicks a plum pit at Samson and Semadar (Angela Lansbury), and then later grabs another plum and lusciously bites into it. Sitting besides her feet on the perimeter wall is a basket full of fruit. (b) Later, an awed Delilah passionately bites a plum after Samson’s powerful spear-bending demonstration before Semadar and Ahtur (Henry Wilcoxon). (c) Prior to leaving for the wild chariot ride, Delilah drops an old plum and picks up another one. (d) During Samson’s wedding feast, Delilah sits among the riddle-stumped Philistine guests and pops some food into her mouth while she mischievously suggested using Semadar to extract Samson’s riddle secret. (e) During the deliberations of the Philistine wedding guests, Delilah picked up a spoon covered in honey. She popped it into her mouth and savoured it (paralleling both Samson’s mischievous behaviour, and his own prior moment of spooned honey savouring). (f) While the Saran of Gaza is visiting Delilah in her private rooms, he romantically popped a morsel of food into her mouth, which she ate gleefully. (g) In the middle of her mischievous Samson-capturing negotiations with the Saran and his Philistine lords, Delilah inexplicably grabs some food from the back of one of the beasts on the Saran’s chair. Apparently, DeMille reconfigured it as an ancient form of food dispensary that allowed her to parallel her eating behaviour before the Philistine wedding guests. (h) When Samson and young Saul (Russell Tamblyn) spied upon Delilah’s camel caravan prior to her oasis encampment, Samson used a fruit analogy : “Looks like a Philistine plum ripe to pick.” In addition to demonstrating DeMille’s common touch and an ironic prefigured reversal of events to come, it linked her with the young plum-eating Delilah in Tubal’s garden. This fruit analogy also resonated with the concepts of juicy and tasty, just like the alluring Delilah herself, which Samson was later to devour with as much relish as the young Delilah did with her plums. Allowing Lamarr to constantly eat throughout the film shoot no doubt kept her happy and reduced any prima donna displays that may have hampered production.

The Lamarr-Delilah Relaxed, Unexcitable Trait

Edith Head’s comment that Hedy Lamarr “had no temper, just an enviable ability to relax” (Steen, 1974, p. 253) was also borne out throughout Samson and Delilah. DeMille’s Delilah is cunning, treacherous, determined, and passionate in her hate and possessiveness of Samson, but she is never depicted losing her temper in any child-like tantrum. She was certainly aggressive when Samson spurned her as his substitute, consolation wife at the wedding feast, and she showed an earnest desire to humiliate Samson when she found out that he had been captured by Ahtur. She was also hurt and fleetingly enraged (which she quickly suppressed) when Samson, baiting, called her a “courtesan” (i.e., a high-class prostitute) in her oasis love-nest trap. However, this is understandably so considering that Delilah is frequently considered “a witch, a bitch, a termagant, a whore” (Wurtzel, 1998, p. 47). She even menacingly gloated when Samson was a shorn and bound Philistine prisoner. This was the perfect opportunity to release her long pent up wrath upon him, but there are never any moments where she degenerated into a verbal tirade or temper tantrum.

Even after the fiery death of her sister Semadar and her father Tubal there were no tirades. She is also passive while watching her home burn and hearing the confirmation of her financial destitution. While still presumably the object of wrath by the non-smited Philistine wedding guests, and those who lost their crops to Samson’s arsonism (Judg. 15:4-5). Her eventual anti-Samson vow is also emotionally muted. Not only did it lack intensity and duration, but it quickly transmuted into bodily relaxation, presumably borne of emotional despair and physical fatigue. Lamarr’s muted personalistic trait was masterly used in the following scene :

[Delilah has her back to the audience. With her arms behind her back, she is staring at the burning fields and her far off home while Hisham (Julia Faye) is seated, side-saddle, behind her. Hisham gently grabs Delilah’s left hand]

Hisham : [gently] Turn away little mistress...don’t look any more.
[Hisham gently removes her hand]
Hisham : All you have in the word is ashes and death.
[Delilah slowly turns around to face the audience]
Delilah : [mutely] Samson lives.
Hisham : May his flesh rot from his bones.
Delilah : Be still old fool !
[Delilah flicks her left arm towards Hisham to silence her and then replaces it behind her back]
Delilah : If it takes all my life I’ll make him...
[Delilah threateningly raises her left hand into a fist, if weakly, and then more loudly says]
Delilah : ...curse the day he was born.
Hisham : He called you a fork-tongued adder.
Delilah : He’s going to feel its sting.
[Delilah then lowers her clenched fist and Hisham gently grabs it]
Hisham : What strength can these hands have against him ?
[Hisham then places Delilah’s hand upon her own forehead]
Delilah : [weakly] Perhaps greater than a lion’s and softer than a dove’s.
[Delilah removes her hand from Hisham’s head]
Delilah : [listlessly] I’ll find strength Hisham...
[with increased volume but a still muted voice]
Delilah : ...strength to destroy him.

DeMille-as-master-craftsman took what dramatic potential he found in the personality of Hedy Lamarr and put it to work in his film, while minimising the violence to Scripture, his auteur desires, or taxing Lamarr’s acting abilities. He had turned potential disadvantages into advantages once again. They were masterful acts of deep focus characterisation (from actor to character) that generated multiple resonances in the honourable tradition of extracanonical extrapolations or Midrashic emendations. No wonder biblical scholar Prof. Cheryl Exum (1996, p. 204) enthusiastically claimed : “De Mille’s Delilah is such an impressive creation, outrageous but still convincing...his film is so brilliant, not just as cinema but as interpretation.”

Lamarr’s Delilah-Like Behaviours

Hedy Lamarr’s own sexual reputation was certainly reinvigorated (for the knowing) and enhanced (for the unknowing) by Samson and Delilah, and it followed her way beyond its release. She continued her career outside of DeMille’s orbit but without the same level of success. She unwisely rejected the trapeze artist role in DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth because it “required very strenuous work, which she turned down in favor of spending more time with her children” (Young, 1978, p. 45). As Lamarr (1966, p. 179) confessed : “He took too much out of me.” But this was not surprising given her backaches, her relaxation habits and her clash of temperaments with DeMille, who at one point had to forcefully remind her : “I don’t act, you don’t direct” (Lamarr, 1966, p. 174). The aerialist part of Holly went to Betty Hutton instead, ironically, an early consideration for the role of Delilah (Lamarr, 1966, p. 179).

Despite a few more films, her career was effectively over and a reminiscent Lamarr considered “her performance as Delilah the best of her career and Samson and Delilah the best film in which she appeared” (Young, 1978, p. 45). However, “her name was kept alive more by the foibles of her personal life” (Parish & Bowers, 1973, p. 410). For example, in “1965 Hedy’s fans were stunned when she was arrested for shop-lifting in a Wilshire Boulevard department store. She was found guilty but despite several marriages to wealthy men and a career that spanned continents, Hedy was having real money problems” (Cohen & Cohen, 1984, p. 87).

This public notoriety continued right through to the end of her career. She tried to sue her publishers for her sexposelike autobiography Ecstasy and Me : My Life as a Woman (Lamarr, 1966). Within it, she confessed to enjoying acting in the courtroom claiming : “Everyone acts all the time. I was my most natural and also most convincing in court.” Her seductress reputation also followed her into the next decade for in November 1971 :

...Hedy had failed to show up in court in a false arrest suit brought against her by a machine repairman. The workman had gone to her home to adjust her air-conditioner, and Hedy brought suit charging attempted rape. The repairman counter-charged that the actress had willingly accepted his advances. When Hedy did not appear at the court hearing, she was ordered to pay $15,000 (Parish & Bowers, 1973, p. 410).

Delilah-the-troublemaking-nymph lived on in Lamarr, and no doubt, many of her paramours would have sympathised with Samson’s filmic claim : “The name Delilah will be an everlasting curse on the lips of men.” Unlike DeMille’s crushing ending, Delilah only suffered a textual death in the Bible. We never know what happened to her after she received her Philistine money (post Judg. 16:18-19). Despite some biblical scholar’s belief that at the Temple demolition “3,000 Philistines, including the treacherous Delilah perished” (Lockyer, 1967, p. 44), “Delilah, no doubt, among them” (Guthridge, 1995, p. 23).


Deep focus characterisation is an artistic DeMillean auteuristic strategy grossly under-appreciated today. His interactive casting tactic added depth and authentic resonance to Lamarr’s performance that was reflected in the critical praise she received. It is also indicative of how masterful DeMille-the-filmmaker was in working within the multiple limits of his day, and still remain the classic auteur director. No wonder biblical scholar Prof. Cheryl Exum (1996, pp. 13, 228) enthusiastically proclaimed : “Hedy Lamarr, with all of her trappings, is Delilah for me...For all its hokeyness Samson and Delilah is a brilliant film” being “the most fully developed portrayal of Delilah in popular culture I know of.”


1. I would like to thank Prof. Richard Maltby (Flinders University) for his comments on an earlier draft of this paper, however, all errors reside solely with the author.

2. All scriptural quotes refer to the Authorised King James Version of the Bible.



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Bedlam (1946, dir. Mark Robson)

The Crusades (1935, dir. Cecil B. DeMille)

Dishonored Lady (1947, dir. Robert Stevenson)

Ecstasy (Ekstase) (aka Symphonie der Liebe - Symphony of Love) (1933, dir. Gustav Machaty)

The Greatest Show on Earth (1952, dir. Cecil B. DeMille)

Let’s Live a Little (1948, dir. Richard Wallace)

Madame Satan (1930, dir. Cecil B. DeMille)

The Man Who Lived Again (1936, dir. Robert Stevenson)

Samson and Delilah (1949, dir. Cecil B. DeMille)

The Ten Commandments (1956, dir. Cecil B. DeMille)

Tower of London (1939, dir. Rowland V. Lee)

Unconquered (1947, dir. Cecil B. DeMille)

Union Pacific (1939, dir. Cecil B. DeMille)

© Anton Karl Kozlovic / Organdi 2000-2007



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