January 29, 1913 – Victor Mature:
“I was a marvelous freak.“
A much passed-around anecdote has Groucho Marx at the premiere of the Cecil B. DeMille‘s Biblical epic Samson And Delilah (1949), the story of Samson, a strongman whose secret lies in his uncut hair, and his love for Delilah, the woman who seduces him, discovers his secret, and then betrays him to the Philistines. It stars Hedy Lamarr and Victor Mature in the title roles, plus George Sanders and Angela Lansbury in supporting roles. Posters of the massive, bare-chested Mature were used as a backdrop as people entered the theatre that evening. After the screening, DeMille asked Marx what he thought of the film. To the director’s consternation, Marx replied:
“No picture can hold my interest where the leading man’s tits are bigger than the leading lady’s.”
The quote is more than just a clever Marxist quip. It says something about the discomfort of the Biblical epic as a cinematic experience for straight males. Lured by the promise of Lamarr in the most revealing and diaphanous costumes of the great designer Edith Head, a straight dude watching Samson And Delilah was confronted with 128 minutes of a nearly naked Victor Mature.
In the Biblical epic, the male body, stripped to a loincloth, or clad in muscular but decidedly short-skirted armor, is as gazed-upon as the female. The prospect of a typical male gaze staring at the muscular bodies of Mature, Charlton Heston, or Yul Brynner charges these films with homoeroticism, a decidedly gay male gaze.
The queer subtext of Biblical epics doesn’t always come from the hotness of the main male characters, but from the films’ campiness, sometimes knowingly, often unknowingly. It takes an audience with a taste for the decadent and the gay gift for finding the double meaning to understand the subversive possibilities of a film like DeMille’s.
Plus, there needs to be something wicked for religious people to be against. The match that lit the fire of God in these films is the decadence of the ancient world, broadly pictured with wild animals, orgies, and the heaving chests of both men and women with a suggestion of gender and sexual variation. Violent and sexual spectacle is exactly what movie fans have expected from Biblical films from the earliest silent movies to modern day special effects laden blockbusters. The subversive secret of the camp elements of Biblical epics is that they make the film seem ”Biblical”. After all, Bible history gives us men who look like they hit the gym hard and women who possess blinding beauty.
The Samson And Delilah special effects were supervised by Gordon Jennings. The most spectacular special effect in the film is the toppling of the Temple of Dagon, the god of the Philistines. It is the penultimate scene in the film, cost $150,000 (a million and a half in 2021 dollars), and took a year to shoot. The temple was constructed full-scale, with a separate 37-foot-high model. The model was destroyed three times so it could be shot at different camera angles.
With his hair in a ponytail, and wearing a head band, he seems to prefer Lansbury to Lamarr. Coming across a lion, Samson says: “I don’t need that spear. It’s only a very young lion“, and then tackles it with his bare hands.
Mature was frightened of the animals and mechanical props used in the production, including the lions, the wind machine, the swords and even the water. This infuriated DeMille, who bellowed through his megaphone at the assembled cast and crew:
“I have met a few men in my time. Some have been afraid of heights, some have been afraid of water, some have been afraid of fire, some have been afraid of closed spaces. Some have even been afraid of open spaces — or themselves. But in all my 35 years of picture-making experience, Mr. Mature, I have not until now met a man who was 100 percent yellow.”
DeMille reassured Mature:
“He’s a very sweet old lion. “When you fight him, I’d like you to put your head in his mouth. Now, don’t worry, he has no teeth.”
“Mr. DeMille, I don’t even want to be gummed.”
Despite the success of this iconic Biblical film depicting their battle against the Philistines, the oppressed people represented by Samson are never once referred to as “Israelites”, “Hebrews” or “Jewish” people. This avoidance occurred during the nation’s witch hunt into Communism, often Jewish, influence when Hollywood studio heads were very sensitive to the fact that most Americans thought showbiz was run by Jews.
Born in Louisville, Kentucky, the son of an Austrian knife grinder, Mature left school when he was 15 years old, taking a string of odd jobs to support himself. When he was 18, he headed to Hollywood.
Mature started his acting career at the Pasadena Community Playhouse, appearing in more than 60 plays there. His first role was a tiny one in The Housekeeper’s Daughter (1939), a comedy directed and produced by Hal Roach, starring beautiful brunette Joan Bennett, and handsome, elegant Adolphe Menjou.
His first important role was in One Million B.C. (1940). The part consisted of grunts, groans and gestures as a Stone Age man in a loin cloth that was obviously woven with modern textiles, and seemingly being able to shave each morning. He made an impression as he fought off prehistoric monsters and was taught manners by a peroxided Carole Landis. It made him a star and was the start of many roles that showcased his good looks and his hot muscular body. Mature was to the toga as Dorothy Lamour was to the sarong.
In the early 1940s, Mature appeared in many genres of film: Comedy, Adventure, Drama, and Noir. He even appeared in musicals, including No, No, Nanette (1940), Seven Days’ Leave (1942) with Lucille Ball, and My Gal Sal (1942), opposite Rita Hayworth. Mature starred in a series of movies opposite Betty Grable, including I Wake Up Screaming (1941) and Footlight Serenade (1942). The press called him ”The Hunk”. He became an extremely popular star with many adoring female and queer fans.
Mature was worried about the direction of his career, claiming: “…nobody was going to believe I could do anything except grunt and groan.” So, he went to New York City to try to get work in the theatre. In 1941, he was cast in the musical Lady In The Dark with a book by Moss Hart and a score from Ira Gershwin and Kurt Weill; Mature kept his shirt on as the film star boyfriend of the show’s lead character played by Gertrude Lawrence. Mature:
“First, this secretary came out saying ‘What a beautiful hunk of man!’ Then Danny Kaye topped that with a long, long introductory musical number. Finally, I made my entrance. John Barrymore told me I was the only person who could have followed up all that. “
The musical was a smash hit, making a star of Kaye, and giving fresh appreciation for Mature’s talents. His performance was well received, Brooks Atkinson, drama critic for The New York Times called him “unobjectionably handsome and affable”. The description of his character in the musical, “Beautiful Hunk of Man”, would be used to describe Mature throughout his career.
Mature joined the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II. After the war, he returned to Hollywood and gave two of his best performances. In John Ford‘s Western My Darling Clementine (1946), Mature plays the legendary Doc Holliday alongside Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp. In the noir Kiss Of Death (1947), he is an ex-con who tries to go straight, but is menaced by someone from his criminal past.
Next, Mature had his most famous roles, continuing to be a much in-demand leading man in the 1950s, appearing in more Biblical epic films The Robe (1953), where he is imposing and touching as a Greek slave to Richard Burton‘s Roman centurion, and as a pharaoh in The Egyptian (1954) opposite Jean Simmons and Gene Tierney.
When he was 46 years old, Mature retired from Hollywood. He moved to Rancho Santa Fe, just outside San Diego. He returned to acting a few times over the years, appearing such films as Vittorio de Sica‘s After The Fox (1966) with Peter Sellers and the comedy Every Little Crook And Nanny (1972) with Lynn Redgrave. Coming full circle, he made his television debut in the made-for-television movie Samson And Delilah (1984), playing Samson’s father. This role was his last.
Mature had fun lampooning his own image. In After The Fox (1966), he plays a hammy actor on the skids, in sunglasses, trench coat, and a hat from the 1940s; in Bob Rafelson‘s trippy Head (1968), he is billed as ”Big Victor”. He suffers the surreal indignity of having The Monkees playing with his greasy hair. His large girth, hooded eyes and solemn bass voice often teetered on the absurd.
Mature was taken by cancer in 1999 at 84 years old. I have heard no rumors that he was gay. He married five times, and besides his many marriages, Mature had affairs with Rita Hayworth and other several other female stars.