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Friday, October 23, 2020

Fox's Whale of a Biblical Blockbuster


David and Bathsheba (1951) Spells Out Sin

When any picture's a smash, there's question of why. Especially when you check in seventy years later and see nothing remarkable about it. David and Bathsheba is talky and long. Even Zanuck remarked at the time that it gabbed too much. There are no big battles other than one between David and Goliath, and that lasts scarcely a minute, just long enough for D to load up his slingshot and bring down G. And yet --- David and Bathsheba was biblically popular, bringing home $7.9 million in worldwide rentals, the best money a 20th Fox release had earned since Leave Her To Heaven. Brilliant selling had a lot to do with success. How David and Bathsheba was marketed merits its own post, maybe two. Of all bible stories, D&B had a biggest so-far unexplored sock for movies, and selling had for a model the brilliant forerunner that was Samson and Delilah, DeMille's definitive statement that a best Biblical resource was man-woman conflict properly heated.

Like S&D from rival Paramount, this had sex and shame and redemption, dealing as it does with the "Law Of Moses," which precludes adultery and fornication, just like Hollywood's still-in-effect Production Code. What could be more congenial than this ancient creed and Fox's modern interpretation? The picture tabs sex from a first reel when Gregory Peck as David spies Susan Hayward as Bathsheba in her bath. Their afterward discussion is almost clinical in setting up the illicit bed-down, dialogue oblique enough to evade kids watching, but clear as bell tone for titillated grown-ups. Bathsheba is later on knocked up, with David the careless party. They discuss ins-outs of that to gratifying detail. Voyeurs as of 1952 never had it so good. David even suggests that Bathsheba lie down with her home-from-wars husband for a night so they can tag him with the kid. For non-stop toga talk of sex, David and Bathsheba was like a Kinsey Report that came with admission, topic even a restless Zanuck could love.

You could get away with lots in a biblical context. So long as sin was punished, there was always that first two thirds to roll in hay with the miscreants. David and Bathsheba, like Quo Vadis of a year before (another incredible hit), avoided a bummer ending. Yes, David did a wrong thing, but he's really, really sorry for it, prays a lot (endlessly in fact ... Zanuck's issue), and prostrates himself before the Ark Of The Covenant, established as a Holy Relic that kills people who touch it. In the end, David/Greg's amends clear way for him to not only get the girl, but make it start raining again after months of drought. Even desert prophet Raymond Massey, channeling his John Brown persona, is mollified. A happy ending all around, back to bed for the sinners, and happy customers homeward-bound to do the same.


Blogger Phil Smoot said...

A really dull film. And it gives to the myth of Bathsheba being the bad girl rather than the victim. In a reality check, David essentially became the Harvey Weinstein of his day. It's also sad to see George Zucco playing such a small and thankless role. Nothing as steamy or fun here as was found in the entertaining nonsense of DeMille's far better Samson and Delilah.

12:12 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Recalling a later pair of biblical mock epics. "Monty Python's Life of Brian" was an object of controversy, even though it actually keeps its distance from real blasphemy. "Wholly Moses" explicitly mocks the deity and gives him a voice to argue with Dudley Moore, but as an American near-sitcom full of safe stars (John Ritter as a lovably harmless Satan, for one) it was ignored by religious watchdogs. In fact, it was pretty widely ignored all around.

Someday I will have to sit down and watch "Sodom and Gomorrah" all the way through. Supposedly a decent film, but all I remember was a scene of white-maned Stewart Granger, leader of Gomorrah, planning a joint defense against a common enemy. It involved his troops leading the attack, but somebody expressed concern over having Sodomites right behind them.

6:29 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

When I was a kid, my friends and I would occasionally play a game of questions: trivia, history, TV, stuff from school. The game always ended the same way. Someone would pose the perennial stumper -- "Name 7000 people in DAVID AND BATHSHEBA".

It brought down the house every time.

8:26 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Forget David & Bathsheba. Check out the unretouched still from "Double Dynamite". Jane Russell in her stocking feet so she doesn't tower over Sinatra! (Groucho doesn't matter here).

10:09 AM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

DBenson: "snort, snort." It could also cause a milk-out-the-nose calamity!

10:44 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer considers DAVID AND BATHSHEBA:

“David and Bathsheba” is a well-produced movie with a reverential approach to its subject. It is not bad, but it is disappointing, not because it substitutes papier mache for bronze and iron or stucco for stone, but because if falls short of the emotional validity necessary to tell such a story. The lovers must be possessed of a passion so profound that they knowingly traduce the law to consummate it. When they do appreciate their sin, the shame they feel must be devastating for them and the stuff of tragedy. Likewise, the prophet must be so offended by their behavior that he will speak truth to power, even if he is alone and even if it costs him his life. We must know that what they have done is a stench in his nostrils. In the movie, however, there is a certain reticence in the way the characters are played. There are actorly touches that mark the plot as it progresses, and these are not without merit, only they are not quite true to life. We hear the words spoken by them, but never feel the beat of their hearts. The final great gesture, as David takes hold of the Arc of the Covenant, is not the cathartic moment it should have been, for there is no heightened emotional tension requiring release. David lives, the rains come, and the story ends. Whatever changes occurred within him, to bring him back into favor with God, we cannot know, since we were never privy to that in the first place. The craftsmanship with which the movie was made is to be respected, as is its sincerity, but as an accomplishment, it is, as I say, disappointing, for not having come closer to its realization.

9:40 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Bathsheba was the mother of Solomon. From the moment she got it into her head to bathe on the roof it was God acting. As we are often told, God's ways are NOT our ways. That takes some getting used. I'm still working on it.

From THE I CHING: Two dangers threaten: a man may fail in his education to
penetrate to the real roots of humanity and remain fixed in convention-a
partial education of this sort is as bad as none- or he may suddenly collapse
and neglect his self-development.

Most of us stay rooted in convention. “There is a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder, and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served.”--Jane Jacobs.

That pretended order always crashes to the earth.It's crashing to the earth now.

7:53 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer notes misleading ad art for DAVID AND BATHSHEBA:

Looking at some of the posters online for "David and Bathsheba," I have to say that the image of a ripped Gregory Peck standing over someone in diaphanous duds who is not Susan Hayward would be misleading to the public, as is the Goliath prominently displayed. Folks would almost be to the end of the picture, wondering where the hell Goliath is.

If Raymond Massey had been able to channel what working with James Dean would be like, he'd come close to my idea of Nathan suggesting that this affair was stench in his nostrils.

2:50 PM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

Having just watched Errol Flynn in 1948's 'Silver River', I'm surprised how apposite this item is to that movie - as the story of David and Bathsheba is explicitly referred to, and several times too, during the course of that fine 1948 western.
As to why 'David and Bathsheba' itself was a huge hit upon release, or why that particular story seemed to be popular among Hollywood screenwriters of the period - who can say? Maybe it's as simple as storytellers knowing that good stories are worth repeating. Considering how very many movies are remakes, either explicitly so or "in disguise", and remembering how lazy some working artists can be, it might really be just that simple.

9:15 AM  

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