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


Raquel Stecher said...

OH my goodness. I MUST see this movie. It is imperative. It looks like a film chockful of wonderful weirdness. Why isn't it on DVD?!

Very well-written post Jonas. One of your best. I like what you say about the start of a new decade. I'll have to watch for that more closely. I tend to look at the end of a decade as a sign of what's to come, but it's interesting to look at the very beginning to see what people were expecting

Jonas Nordin said...

Thank You Raquel. MGM lost about $250.000 on Madam Satan, making it one of their greatest flops ever. Maybe they simply want us all to forget it. I can't see any other reason not putting it out on DVD :)

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

"...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."

A wonderful post, Jonas, and a very interesting analysis of this phenomenon. I'm going to have to pay more attention to the movies made at the cusp of a new decade, and in 1930 particular. I hope to see this film sometime. Thanks.

Jonas Nordin said...

Thank you Jacqueline! I will comment on your typing exposé tonight...

Ginger Ingenue said...

To bad I'm so late on reading this...I was gonna say the same exact thing as Raquelle. :)

This really is a wonderfully written post, and I too MUST see this film!

I love weird late 20s and early 30s stuff...and nothing beats a pre-code musical!


Nice picture of Paulette Goddard in the tub!

If I could be bathed by a classic director, I'd want Frank Capra. ;)

Eric Stott said...

It's a jaw-dropping movie. Reginald Denny's American accent is a good try, but not quite good enough.

Marc said...

I've seen "Madam Satan" several times on television in the 80's and 90's, and I very much liked it. I hope one day it'll get a DVD-release.

Anonymous said...

I watched the always fascinating "Madam Satan" for the umpteenth time just a second ago. You don't need it on dvd. You can find it on a swell 1993 MGM/Turner "Forbidden Hollywood" VHS tape on eBay occasionally. The print is pristine, because it is authorized right from the MGM/turner Library vault.

Jonas Nordin said...

Oh yes, we really need Madam Satan on DVD. To say we don't is like saying we don't need CD's of The Beatles as their vinyl albums can be easily found, which of course they can.

Anonymous said...

What I meant, Jonas, was that murky homemade dubs of "Madam Satan" are not necessary if you want to view the film today in real nice shape. Sure, a dvd would be nice, but since sales of "Madam..." were most likely unremarkable when it was released on VHS by MGM/UA in the '90s (when tape was "King") there are probably no plans at the moment to re-release it on dvd. I've got swell material on laserdisc that may never see the light of day on dvd--the reason being money is tight in Hollywood these days and no one is willing to take a bath on most vehicles from the "Dawn Of Sound." As for dvd being the "last word"... take "Things To Come": No matter how many times this film comes out on dvd (including the current "best, longest version" extant) if the source material is poor, what you'll get on dvd is still only as good as it can get without going for the full "Metropolis" frame-by-frame museum restoration treatment costing megabucks. Don't assume that "Madam Satan" will be undergoing that kind of TLC very soon! In the meantime, I urge interested folks to spend a few bucks on Ebay and enjoy a pristine-looking print of "Madame Satan" on VHS until that dvd comes along!

Anonymous said...

I read an interview that DeMille gave in 1930 to a film magazine and he gave details about how much lighting was needed for the zeppelin sequences because they were being filmed in Technicolor and the process required extensive lighting in those days. The technicolor sequences were most definitely filmed according to the evidence available, but seems to have been abandoned for black and white because of the backlash against musicals in late 1930.

Will Pfeifer said...

If anyone's interested, "Madame Satan" is due out this week on a Warner Archives DVD. It's labeled as being "remastered," too.

Caren said...

Hi Jonas, I was searching for reviews of MADAM SATAN and found your blog which is quite admirable. I couldn't send a personal email so could you please go to our website and email me from there as I would like to ask you something regarding your review.



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