In the reign of emperor Tiberius, Gallilean prophet John the Baptist preaches against King Herod and Queen Herodias. The latter wants John dead, but Herod fears to harm him due to a prophecy. Enter beautiful Princess Salome, Herod's long-absent stepdaughter. Herodias sees the king's dawning lust for Salome as her means of bending the king to her will. But Salome and her lover Claudius are (contrary to Scripture) nearing conversion to the new religion. And the famous climactic dance turns out to have unexpected implications...
Rita Hayworth ... Princess Salome
Stewart Granger ... Commander Claudius
Charles Laughton ... King Herod
Judith Anderson ... Queen Herodias
Cedric Hardwicke ... Tiberius Caesar (as Sir Cedric Hardwicke)
Alan Badel ... John the Baptist
Basil Sydney ... Pontius Pilate
Maurice Schwartz ... Ezra the King's Advisor
Arnold Moss ... Micha the Queen's Advisor
Asoka ... Asian Dancer
Sujata ... Asian Dancer
Forget the critics and concerns over over-acting, under-acting, script quality, and historical accuracy. Relax and settle back with your favorite snack and enjoy this opulent visual feast. Charles Laughton as a pleasure-obsessed Herod and Judith Anderson as a scheming power-hungry Herodias delightfully chew up the scenery, while Jean Louis' costumes alone make this movie worth watching. But the crowning achievement of this film is the electrifying Dance of the Seven Veils as performed by Rita Hayworth. Both earthy and ethereal at the same time, she commands our fascination as well as Herod's. As she effortlessly glides- minus 6 veils- up the steps to place herself at Herod's feet- offering him the promise of unimaginable pleasures- she is stunningly photographed and glowing with a golden aura. Had she made no other films, this dance performance alone would have ensured her place as Hollywood's reigning Love Goddess.
At thirty-five, RITA HAYWORTH was obviously not the right age to play the youthful Salome, but Columbia knew that audiences would forgive them by making sure that it was well advertised she would do "The Dance of the Seven Veils" long before the film premiered. Taken strictly as a Rita Hayworth vehicle, it manages to be one of her better assignments after returning to films from a broken marriage as a princess.
She's still an eyefull in her Salome costumes but the main problem with SALOME is the ludicrous script which has her dancing the famous number in order to save John the Baptist--so that the evil one will be seen as JUDITH ANDERSON (Queen Herodias). Miss Anderson does make a fine villainess and she and CHARLES LAUGHTON at times seem to be overcoming the inadequacies of a dull script. STEWART GRANGER has one of his less rewarding leading man roles but, as usual, looks striking in his period costumes and photographs well with Hayworth.
As for her dance--well, it's probably the high point of an otherwise bland film and she does quite a job of undulating gyrations under the lecherous eye of CHARLES LAUGHTON as King Herod. Rita still had all of her dancing abilities well under control and does a nice job of--here at least--trying to spare John the Baptist (ALAN BADEL).
It's gaudy and Technicolored and Rita's fans at least got to see her do some exotic work--but the film itself is about as banal as any Biblical drama of the '50s (with the exception of BEN-HUR) with no regard for historical accuracy.
Although other films from the same period might be expected to receive a higher priority because they remain more significant today, it seems amazing that this film has never been released as a DVD. Salome is highly viewable, and anyone simply wanting to pass an evening by watching a light entertaining film without regard to its message or social significance would probably find it an excellent choice. Such films are among the most successful in video rental stores or as casual purchases from store displays - consequently they bring in the greatest returns for companies creating new DVD's from old films and are often selected in preference to much more significant works.
What does Salome have going for it?. Firstly a good Technicolor print of the type which provides endlessly enjoyable images of the seas, skies and scenery so plentiful in the Mediterranean. Next a very popular duration of around 100 minutes, a story which is widely known and a one word title equally readily recognised. Thirdly a cast largely composed of great Hollywood stars of the period - a major selling point usually far more important than the filmscript, direction or historical accuracy; and finally an electrifying near striptease performance by a star who has been referred to as the Hollywood love goddess of the period. To set against all this were the very poor reviews by most critics who condemned it for gross overacting, poor dialogue, unimaginative direction and historical inaccuracy - all of which experience suggests is of less importance than the cast for most viewers (even those who study the critics), when they are simply looking for an enjoyable and relaxing evening.
Furthermore some of these criticisms are not easily sustained. 'Overacting' is a qualitative term which first became important when the introduction of talkies in the 1930's made the exaggerated actions and gestures of the silent era no longer necessary. Stage actors are trained to overact so the distant members of their audience seated far away 'up in the gods' can better follow what is going on. Done carefully this type of overacting can be very effective in films with rather melodramatic story lines, and is often referred to as 'chewing up the scenery'. There is a lot of this in Salome, not only from John the Baptist but also from both Herod and Herodias. Watching Charles Laughton, as a very lecherous Herod, lasciviously rolling his eyes and drooling at the mouth when Salome dances is one of the great joys of this film. It is true that Rita Hayworth was probably too old to play a character historically believed to have been so much younger, and she certainly did not look the part of a Semitic princess, but she was trained as a dancer from infancy and it is unlikely that the film would have the same appeal today if any other Hollywood star of the period had been given the role.
Historical inaccuracies are much more controversial. I take a very strong objection to incorrect representations of what is factually established history unless it is made clear that this is being done. Here however historical records seem to be rather limited and not entirely self consistent, so some judgment is called for. Most of what we believe we know about Salome probably comes from records that are more literary than historical. For hundreds of years much current literature comprised re-writing and fleshing out known stories which might have originated as oral history, legend, myth or pure fiction. In this case an additional complication is that the most widely known contemporary reference come from the Bible rather than from a work solely written as history - something that often leads to public reactions based more on emotion than on fact. Herod, Herodias and Herodias's daughter are well authenticated historical characters, but doubts have even been raised as to whether the latter was actually named Salome (some sources refer to her having the same name as her mother). History points to her age at the time as being 13 or 14 but this is by inference rather than definite records. The account of Salome dancing before Herod occupies about 200 words in each of the gospels of Mark and Matthew in the Bible. There is also a brief historical record of this dance and its outcome written by the Roman-Jewish historian Josephus. The story in this film reverses the biblical story which indicates that Salome had no idea what reward to seek from Herod after dancing for him, but at the request of her mother agreed to ask for John's head. The reversal was demanded by a Columbia Studio head who did not want his star tagged with the label of a very bad girl, but historically it can also be found in Jules Massenet's opera "Herodiade". In a film intended purely as a piece of entertainment this reversal would be justifiable artistic licence so long as the change from the normally accepted story was clearly indicated. Since this was not done, the film has been mercilessly but rather unfairly shredded by critics and viewers ever since. Nobody today would view it to learn the story and for those merely seeking an enjoyable evening's viewing, it is inconsequential. If a similar film had depicted a legend about which little was known historically, there would have been much less controversy and, despite all its faults, the film would probably have remained much more highly regarded right up to today (with copies on DVD readily available in almost every video store). Anyone who wishes to view a more structured reconstruction of this story should watch the fine Ken Russell film based on the play by Oscar Wilde (or even Nazimova's 1923 silent film), but for an evening's light, enjoyable entertainment without heavy psychological musings choose this 1953 film.