Thursday, November 20, 2008

Madam Satan (1930)

At the beginning of every decade there seems to be some sort of overconfidence in what lies ahead. I remember when the 70’s turned into the 80’s everyone was talking about ”Big Brother” and that the dystopia of George Orwell’s book soon was to become reality. On top of that computers were soon to take over our lives completely. What I want to say is that the beginning of a new decade always is looked upon as something magic and that almost every aspect of our existence soon has to go through some sort of catharsis just because of this detail.

I figure they must have experienced the same thing back in the days. Maybe that’s why there were quite a few really strange pictures made in the magic year of 1930. All of a sudden there was a need to prove the 1920’s was over, and not with a whimper. Naturally I think of Fox’s Sci-Fi musical Just Imagine and why not Warner’s almost insane musical Golden Dawn. It seems almost every studio had a really weird picture out this year. Naturally, fairly conservative studio MGM didn't want to be less spectacular than the others, and with a million dollar budget and a really big director they felt sure to stir things up.

Let’s have a look at Madam Satan, as it's quite significant for the weirdness of 1930. Cecil B. DeMille had made his name at Paramount with biblical epics like The Ten Commandments and The King Of Kings. Brought over to MGM in 1929, he was given almost complete artistic freedom. Madam Satan is his second film at MGM and his first and last attempt ever at musicals. The writing credits goes to the all female screenwriting team of Jeanie Macpherson, Elsie Janis and Gladys Unger. Wonderful deco sets by Cedric Gibbons and fantastic gowns by Adrian. Madam Satan is in fact more of a musical drama than a full blood musical and it contains very few memorable songs apart from Lillian Roth's peppy rendition of Low Down shown in an earlier post.

Lillian Roth as Trixie the temptress.

Madam Satan sets out as a bedroom farce with a lot of slamming doors and hiding under beds, and as such it's quite amusing. The story circles around the marital problems of an upper class couple. Lovelorn housewife Angela Brooks is losing the love of her husband, Bob to a wild young showgirl named Trixie. While Angela is like a bird in a cage Bob lives a double life with Trixie downtown. However, Angela has a plan to win back her husband's affections by taking on the personality of the mysterious "Madame Satan".

"Love is "a battery that needs to be recharged every day."
Kay Johnson as Madam Satan.

We are now halfway into the movie. Suddenly everything turns in to futuristic operetta. At a magnificent masquerade ball given aboard a giant dirigible, Angela entrances her husband by her modish vamping, amidst a spectacular electrical ballet in which characters simulate everything from sparkplugs to lightning bolts. Hidden behind her mask, and wrapped in an alluring gown, Angela as the devil woman will to try to seduce her unknowing husband and teach him a lesson.

Kay Johnson and Reginald Denny in "All I Know Is You're in My Arms"

After she has successfully ensnared him, the dirigible is struck by lightning, and the guests are forced to parachute from the ship. The movie now takes a new turn and all of a sudden there's a lot of commotion. The catastrophe segment also contains some of the best special effects I have ever seen in a film this old. After Angela gives her parachute to the distraught Trixie, Bob, realizing his love for Angela, gives her his parachute and dives from the ship, suffering only minor injuries by landing in the Central Park reservoir. Husband and wife are blissfully reunited.

The bizarre mix of all the above ingredients makes it quite difficult to say if Madam Satan is a good picture or not as there is nothing to compare it with. It's grandiose, high budget melodrama but as such it often misses the point. DeMille favorite Kay Johnson doesn't convince as Madam Satan. DeMille uses too much of everything just because he can. There are great moments, some good dialogue and funny situations but they are just raisins in a too heavy cake. Its clear DeMille wanted to distance himself from the kind of movies he normally did but here he's too far out on a limb.

The Swedish poster to Madam Satan "The Tricks Of A Woman"

Rumors say that many musical numbers were cut from the movie before release and that it originally included several production numbers shot in color. I don't think this is true. There were some songs that didn't make it to the final product. Color scenes may have been planned, but I believe they were never shot. If they were, they were never included in the picture at any point or even shown in public. The film couldn't possibly have run much longer than the 116 minutes of the surviving print so I believe the Madam Satan we have today pretty much is the same picture that went up in September 1930.

A curiosity perhaps, but in almost every DeMille picture there is at least one luxurious bath scene. One could easily say he had a bath-fetish. Madam Satan starts out with a caged bird taking a bath and ends up with a swim in the Central Park reservoir so I think its right to say he wanted to try new paths (or tubs) before going back to Paramount and bath scenes of more biblical proportions.

Paulette Goddard in DeMilles tub

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Alphabet Meme

I just got tagged by Jacqueline at Another Old Movie Blog to participate in an alphabet meme of favorite films. Well, it's hard to say no to such an honorable task, so here goes:

I tried my best to keep my list in line with my blog which means silent or pre-code films, but as you can see there are quite a few titles way out of that line here. The simple explanation for this is that there are movies I simply had to add because they are such total classics for me.

A - Amélie Of Montmartre (2001) - A whirlwind of pure joy.
B - Broadway Melody (1929) - The first movie musical.
C - Citizen Kane (1941) - A film that never feels dated.
D - Doctor Mabuse (1922-60) - The greatest crime story ever told.
E - 8 1/2 (1963) - A stylish stroll through the mind of its creator.
F - Fanny & Alexander (1982) - The best Swedish film to date.
G - Gold Diggers Of 1933 - You can never overdose Busby Berkeley.
H - Horse Feathers (1932) - I'm a real Marxist in the truest sense.
I - It's A Great Life (1929) - Part color musical with Lawrence Gray.
J - Jean De Florette (1986) - French cinematic gobelin tapestry.
K - Kid Millions (1934) - Eddie Cantor at his best.
L - Last Laugh, The (1924) - Jannings at his very silent best.
M - Metropolis (1927) - The greatest sci-fi epic.
N - Noah's Ark (1928) - Underrated part talkie.
O - Othello (1948) - Orson Welles again, this time with no budget.
P - Private Lives (1931) - My favorite screen couple.
Q - Queen Christina (1933) - Garbo and Gilbert a last time.
R - Rear Window (1954) - A perfect Grace in a perfect film.
S - Sunrise (1927) - Brilliant silent drama.
T - Trouble In Paradise (1932) - Pre-code at its best.
U - Un Chien Andalou (1928) - Short but strange.
V - Vertigo (1958) - Fantastic, from credits to church tower.
W - Wizard Of Oz (1939) - A true classic for all ages.
X - Doctor X (?)(1932) - Synthetic flesh anyone?
Y - Yentl (1983) - Barbra and Michel Legrand can never go wrong.
Z - Zero De Conduit(1934) - Naughty boys in France.

The origins and rules of the meme can be found at the Blog Cabin

Gosh, almost all my blogpals have already been tagged at multiple ocasions. Let's try with these three...

I hereby tag:
Ginger at Asleep In New York
Jim at Trouble In Paradise
Jonathan at Cinema Styles

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Dancing Lady (1933)

As I have pointed out earlier, many of the early talkies has never been released in any form, not even on VHS. Here is one that luckily is available to us. Dancing Lady was MGM’s run at big budget musicals inspired by Warner’s success with both 42nd Street and Gold Diggers Of 1933. I think there might be a few reasons why this particular movie has been graced with a second life on DVD. I suppose the fact that it’s the movie debut of Fred Astaire really helped. Astaire plays himself as a specialty dancer and Crawford’s partner in the final number, but as a whole he doesn’t have that much to do and doesn’t stick out at all. Maybe he also had to under do his part to level with Crawford’s somewhat limited dancing abilities compared to his excellence.

Other reasons for a DVD release? Dancing Lady is the fourth pairing of eight for Crawford and Gable, perhaps not the best, but an important one. It’s also the screen debut of Nelson Eddy. We get The Three Stooges in minor roles working as stagehands slapping around as usual, and it’s the second last movie Winnie Lightner ever did. Voilà! I think everything mentioned above (save for Winnie’s part) helped making it to DVD.

The movie is based on the novel Dancing Lady by James Warner Bellah, serialized in the Saturday Evening Post during spring 1932. The Storyline is quite simple, Crawford plays Janie Barlow, a burlesque dancer who not only struggles to succeed, but strives for success and is dreaming of making it on Broadway. She’s being pursued by a rich boyfriend, Tod Newton (Franchot Tone), but is blinded by the footlights of Broadway. The film was originally to have starred Robert Montgomery as Newton but when filming was to begin Montgomery was busy elsewhere. The Jet-setter boyfriend helps Janie out by getting her into a show directed by tough guy director Patch Gallagher (Gable) who has a rough exterior but a kind heart. His hair constantly in a mess, ranting around muttering "save it, save it!" Naturally he tries hard not to show he's softer than his appearance. When he sees Janie’s talent and perseverance, he gives her the "top spot" in his show “The Dancing Lady”. Of course, he's attracted to her, too, and she to him. But then there’s the rich boyfriend lurking in the wings. Crawford is always charming and full of pep, even though I think she sometimes looks like Garbo's twin sister, let go a little more talkative and less mysterious.

Janie (Crawford) rehearsing in front of Gallagher (Gable) for the first time. The song Dancing Lady is performed by Art Jarrett.

Dancing Lady may not be the greatest musical of the 30’s, not even the greatest musical of 1933 but I like it and it’s fun to see Gable and Crawford in action even though a musical isn’t exactly their element. There are some good songs. Notably this one, All I Have Is Yours, beautifully sung by Art Jarrett (I don't know if Crawford's humming was dubbed or not):

As a back stage musical, Dancing Lady contains very little music and dancing apart from the finale which in every way makes up for this shortcoming. It is a visually stunning, no expenses saved, feast for the eyes, containing animation, all sorts of trickery and ending up in a kaleidoscopic carousel of chorines. Swell! Easily my favorite 10 minutes of the movie. The theme for the finale is a bit strange though. Let’s Go Bavarian seems a bit over the top in the year of 1933 when Hitler came to power, Crawford in valkyrie-braids and Astaire in lederhosen is almost scary. "Here in Bavaria, we'll take good care of ya'!" Look for yourself:

High Ho! The Gang's all here! Let's have pretzels! Let's have beer!

As you can see in the above clips, Dancing Lady is visually very elaborate. Cinematographer Oliver T. Marsh deserves a mention. Marsh did quite a few of Crawford's 30's movies including Letty Lynton and Rain. I should say that the visuals are the most important quality of the movie. All the sets are very art deco from start to finish, culminating in the finale which is a mind-blowing feu d'artifice. Apart from the finale I'd like to point out another sequence I really liked. In the beginning of the movie Crawford is chasing Gable around town desperate for an audition. This is shown in a flimsy but very nice montage that brings the editing techniques of the silent era to mind. As a whole, Dancing Lady is a refreshing picture with quite a few memorable moments.

Thanks to LordWham, JozefSterkens and Liftoffgirl for the clips.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Lillian Roth and I'll Cry Tomorrow

Recently, while on a business trip to Prague I had the opportunity to watch I’ll Cry Tomorrow on the plane. Thank god for portable DVD players! The movie is based on the autobiography of Lillian Roth, one of my favorite dames of the past. A detailed biography on Lillian Roth can be found here

I’ll Cry Tomorrow is not a bad film at all. In some ways it’s almost like a female version of The Man With The Golden Arm. Very tense, dark and dramatic. Apparently Hollywood had a minor obsession with cold turkey films in the mid fifties. There were a few of those weren’t they? Anyway, Susan Heyward does a great job indeed. She even received an Oscar nomination for her interpretation. Even though I really like the movie I have a few issues with it worth mentioning.

When I see a bio-pic I want it to be somewhat realistic and placed in the correct time frame. What I find hard to digest with I'll Cry Tomorrow is that it's so firmly grounded in the mid fifties from start to finish I simply don’t get the feeling of time passing. I wonder why director Daniel Mann took this approach. If it was made to tell the story of Lillian Roth which it obviously is, the movie starts off in NYC about 1920. But you still see 50’s cars and starched skirts all around. As time definitely passes, Lillian grows older but the surroundings seems to be frozen in time. The Sing You Sinners number is turned in to a “Fosse-esque” beatnik nightclub frenzy, quite contrary to the monumental mass scene of the 1930 original.

Sing You Sinners – Original version from the movie Honey (1930)
(We don't get to see Lillian until the very end of this clip.)

It could have been easy to avoid all this confusion by naming Susan Heyward's character something like Betsy Stone instead of Lillian Roth. It would at least make more sense to me since they don't even intend to show a realistic image of the life and times of the real Lillian Roth. I'm sure it would be equally confusing for many people if someone decided to make a bio-pic about the life and work of Kurt Kobain set in the 1930's!

Lillian Roth 1930.

Another thing I thought about was the scene when Susan/Lillian have a wild party night with her soon to be husband. When they finally crash in the wee hours, and are supposed to end up in bed steaming with gin infused lust, the scene quickly cuts to the morning after. We find the love birds decently hung over, in separate beds (there’s even a table between them). They wake up flat on their backs, fully clothed, hair almost in order. The guy even has his tie in place. How believable is that? Then it struck me that this is one of the reasons I like the pre-code cinema better. In a 1932 movie this particular scene would have been very different. There would have been one bed, the lovers would have been almost naked, possibly had one of them also ended up on the floor to further emphasize the wildness of what happened during the night. But in 1955 this behaviour was not suitable. Too bad...

I end this post with one of Lillian Roths finer moments taken from Madam Satan 1930.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

The first Swedish feature film in color!

Tomorrow will be grand! A newly restored print of the first Swedish feature film in color will be shown at the Swedish Film Institute as a part of the National Film Archives celebrating its 75 years. Yours truly will naturally attend this special occasion. The film, "Klockorna I Gamla Stan" (The Bells In Old Town) was shot here in Stockholm during the summer of 1946. The color system used was Cinecolor. 1946 is extremely late for a first color film, and in a two color process on top of that is almost pathetic.

The first all color full length feature was The Toll Of The Sea starring Anna May Wong, made in 1922. The first all color talkie was On With The Show which opened in february 1929. Swedish filmmakers took to sound quite quickly and the first all talking, Swedish made moving picture opened in august 1930. But color was apparently not interesting enough for us so it had to wait until 1946. Well, Klockorna I Gamla Stan is by no means a fancy film apart from an American cinematographer, James B. Shackelford who was flown in for the occation. It starrs Edvard Persson, one of Sweden's biggest stars who's carreer started its decline with this film. Persson was a jovial comic actor and singer who had been making movies since the 20's. By 1946 the Swedish movie-goers wanted newer faces and Persson approaching 60 was considered passé.

Cinecolor was an inexpensive two-color system derived from the Multicolor process used mainly for B-movies in the US. The result was apparently quite dissatifying according to period reviews. One of the critics spoke about skin tones that resembled "well fried porridge". So I guess that the Swedish audience was allready familiar with the full glory of Technicolor at this time. The story isn't that interesting either. But a first is a first.

The Theme song is quite nice though. It has a certain Italian flavor to it and Persson was indeed a great singer even though he had passed his prime. Enjoy!

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