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This is a strange film--a crazy quilt blend of bedroom farce, musical and
disaster all rolled into one, resulting in an outlandish oddity. Cecil B.
DeMille was adept at all types of films, everything from bedroom farces in
the silent days (notably those featuring Gloria Swanson) to sprawling
adventures to Bibilical epics-morality plays, but even the versatile
director appears to hit a snag with this peculiar production. To give fair
credit, he does quite well considering the highly unconventional material
and turns it into a fascinating curio; with a lesser director it may have
just been a curio, period. This is one film that if ever you have the
chance to see it, do not miss it! The first 50 or so minutes is a typical,
mediocre bedroom farce--long suffering, reserved, patrician society wife
Angela Brooks (looking every inch the prim WASP lady with her pale hair,
long nose, pursed lips and all) has all the material comforts but is made
unhappy by her straying, high-living husband Bob, who is carrying on with a
spirited man-eating strumpet named Trixie (no kidding). To win back her
hedonistic husband's full affections, Angela determines she must shed her
staid respectability and become a sultry siren, and from that point on the
real fun begins!
The main actions involves a lavish masquerade party aboard a dirigible during an electrical storm, which Angela secretly and anonymously attends with the dual purpose of enticing her man back and humiliating her homewrecking hussy of a rival, impressively and out-of-characteristically attired to the hilt in a spectacular Art Deco gown consisting of what appears to be a sheer body stocking with strategically placed bits of fabric over the torso to cover up the naughty, well, bits. Along with a masque and faux French accent, she completely fools her husband and all the guests into believing she is her alter ego, "Madame Satan," and achieves what she set out to do!
Regarding the actors: Kay Johnson (Angela Brooks)--Granted, she does play her part (or rather, parts) competently, but Johnson doesn't have much screen presence and she's quite homely with her long, large banana nose and small, plain, hard eyes (altho' this likely lends more credence to her role--her unsightly looks along with her character's stuffy outlook, make it understable as to why Bob readily and enthusiastically strays). Reginald Denny (Bob Brooks, and no, Denny is not the unlucky Reginald of the L.A. riots infamy) is handsome enough and makes a likable cad, but he's rather bland and also is "expendable." Far more interesting and "impressive" (tho' that's not hard to be considering the company they're in) are Roland Young as Bob's friend James Wade, since he's given most of the "funny stuff" to do; and particularly Lillian Roth (yes, the Lillian Roth of Susan Hayward's "I'll Cry Tomorrow")--she exhibits a catchy screen presence as the feisty, amoral party-girl Trixie. BTW, I was wondering about Roth's exact ethnic background as she has a distinctively marked, appealing mulatto look to her face.
As mentioned before, about the 1st half is an unexceptional bedroom farce, with comic scenes that are initially amusing but soon wear thin (e.g. James' constant, cloddish noise-making as he and Bob attempt to silently sneak back into Bob's house with Angela just a few yards away; James and Trixie's "pretend" marriage and their scene in the bed with Angela's interruptions; and the scene where James tries to stall Bob from entering Trixie's room). The 2nd half of the film is infinitely worth waiting for--the crazy costumes, the static and plodding but memorably weird "Electricity" musical number (replete with lightning bolt accents and enough silvery, bright costumes glary enough to practically blind the eyes) and the downed dirigible disaster. The scene where a young female guest lands on the roof of a high building, holding onto a large weathervane after parachuting down, and pleads to a fellow male guest floating down, to help her, whereupon he responds, "I'm just passing through," is an amusing one. Surely one of the strangest mainstream, old movies you'll ever see. It certainly was for me!
Difficult times for affluent married couple when wife interrupts her organ playing to put drunk husband to bed with his chum for the afternoon. To condemn their wasteful leisure time may lead viewers to consider the waste of our own, until suddenly the invitation to a masked ball on a zeppelin transpires into a black and white hallucination. No, it doesn't explode at its launch tower, but the zeppelin does break loose in a storm and crash, and before doing so, instructs us how to parachute out. The movie is unforgettable. Sorry for the obscure reference, but the Kate Bush "Babooshka" song summarizes the Noel Coward-like script. The wife's costume, her singing at the drop of the hat, her performance, and her general display of dignity alert me to the possibility of enjoying other deMille films. I used to consider his flat direction of dialogue scenes stultifying (like watching skulls dry) while falling off the chair at the sight of his special effects. No, the entire film is mystical and I'm interested in seeing more. 1930!
"Madame Satan" is one of those movies that is not sure what it is but is having a grand time trying to figure it out. Part bedroom farce (where in pre code days couples sleep in the same bed), romantic comedy, musical and at its climax a disaster film. Its basic plot follows the misadventures of a married couple as they try to relight the spark in their marriage. The climax is a costume ball aboard a zeppelin (the musical production numbers here are pretty spectacular) that eventually ends in the zeppelin's crash in a storm. The effects are all done with miniatures and they really are quite impressive. The cast , especially Roland Young, are quite good though at times hesitant. You get the impression that in this early talkie the actors are not yet comfortable with sound but that is a minor quibble. All in all it is a fun over the top film that rarely has a dull moment.
There are some directors who failed and faltered in the sound
revolution. There are others who made a success of the new form and
were even revitalised by it. Cecil B. DeMille is perhaps in a league of
his own, who with Madam Satan created a work suffering from all the
awkwardness of the worst early talkies, and yet one gloriously weird
and wonderful in a way that only his pictures could be.
It's true; Madam Satan is incredibly stilted and static in its construction. I'm not referring to the anchored camera DeMille didn't really rely on camera movement anyway. But like many early talkies it places too much importance on dialogue, and is structured like a stage play with very long and very wordy scenes. The sound recording is appalling and sometimes we can hear dialogue when characters are in long shot, which seems very unnatural. Like most early musicals the numbers are spoiled by indecipherable operatic vocals.
But never fear! Madam Satan was scripted by the delightfully barmy Jeanie Macpherson. What's more we find DeMille, ever with his finger to the wind, putting his own grandiose and unashamedly smutty spin on the bedroom-comedy musical genre that was making such a splash at his old stomping ground, Paramount. The result is one of the most unintentionally surreal pictures I have ever seen. We begin with some Lubitsch-esque bed-hopping comedy scenes, sprinkled with a few songs. We then decamp to a fancy-dress party on board a Zeppelin (why not?) for an extended musical sequence, which looks like the result of Fritz Lang hiring Busby Berkeley to direct a scene in Metropolis. Just as the characters' passions start to run away with them, it suddenly turns into a disaster movie a bit of a DeMille-Macpherson trademark, that.
Madam Satan is also special in that it is perhaps the only DeMille comedy which is actually rather funny. The occasionally witty dialogue was probably Gladys Unger's contribution to the screenplay, but what really makes it work is the excellent comic timing and rapport of Reginald Denny, Lillian Roth and Roland Young. In comparison to these three very satisfying cast members, leading lady Kay Johnson seems rather bland, and has "poor-man's Jeanette MacDonald" written all over her.
Most of the songs are by Herbert Stothart, who would soon rise to become MGM's in-house composer. Musically they are fairly forgettable, although it's interesting how they are used to define character and drive the plot forward in a way that later became standard but was by no means a given in the very earliest musicals. DeMille, always a very rhythmic director, shoots some great dance numbers, and shows great musical sensitivity for the "All I Know Is You're in My Arms" number, tracking along with the silhouetted dancers, and putting in a wonderful slow tilt when they are still, corresponding to the swell in the music. It's a shame this was his only musical.
Madam Satan has got to be one of the weirdest film experiences I have ever had, and after my first viewing I wasn't quite sure if perhaps I dreamt it. It was (sniff) the last significant contribution to a DeMille picture by Jeanie Macpherson, and while all his work after this was filled with adventure and spectacle, they were missing a certain something that only she could bring. Madam Satan is however an appropriately daffy swansong a boozy, art-deco, all-talking, all-dancing concotion that is worth watching for its sheer oddness.
MADAM Satan (MGM, 1930), directed by Cecil B. DeMille, marked the famed
director's second of three features under the MGM banner, and one of
his most unusual, or in the most common terms, bizarre. In spite of it
not becoming a box office success in its initial release, MADAM Satan
needs to be seen a few times in order to get the full concept of the
continuity. Once getting through some dull stretches taking place
during its initial 50 minutes, the movie delivers during its final
portion to this 115 minute production with its one of the most oddest
costume parties and inane production numbers ever captured on film.
The plot, which could very well be THE GUARDSMAN (1931, with Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne) or THE CHOCOLATE SOLDIER (1941, with Nelson Eddy and Rise Stevens, which in turn is based on "The Guardsman") in reverse, focuses on Angela (Kay Johnson), a boring but cultured New York City society woman married to the prominent but fun loving Bob Brooks (Reginald Denny). Her casual evening at home stirs some excitement after reading in a newspaper that she, along with Bob and his best friend, Jim Wade (Roland Young) were taken to night court for speeding. Wanting to learn more about what her husband has been doing, and who the woman masquerading as her husband's wife is, Angela's suspicions are soon realized when she finds a calling card in Bob's pocket signed by a Trixie. Feeling her marriage dissolved because of Bob's lack of interest in her, Angela decides to follow the advice of Martha, her maid (Elsa Peterson) to go out and recapture her own husband by fascinating him. During Jim Wade's elaborate costume party, which takes place in a gigantic airship, Angela enters the social scene disguised as the masked woman who calls herself "Madam Satan."
Categorized as a musical, the production numbers set during the masquerade party are of more interest than the songs that accompany them. With the music and lyrics credited to Clifford Grey, Herbert Stothart, Elsie Janis and Jack Grey, the songs featured include: "Live and Love Today" (sung by Elsa Peterson); "Low Down" (sung by Lillian Roth); "We're Going Somewhere" (sung by party guests as they enter dirigible); "The Cat Walk" (performed by guests); "Ballet Electrique" (performed by Theodore Kosloff as Electricity, surrounded by costumed dancers in an electrical ballet stimulating everything from spark plugs to lightning bolts); "What Am I Bid?/Auction Number" (recited by Roland Young); "Madame" (sung by Kay Johnson); "All I Know is You Are in My Arms" (sung and danced by Reginald Denny and Kay Johnson); "Low Down" (reprise by Lillian Roth, later sung by Kay Johnson); and "Madame" (reprise by Kay Johnson).
Not the usual Cecil B. DeMillion dollar spectacle for which he is most famous, but like his better known Biblical epics, this modern-day story has enough costumes to go around, especially the ones worn at the masquerade party. After repeated viewing, MADAM Satan comes across like a typical Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery drawing room comedy or something directed by George Cukor. At other times it leaves to the imagination of an Ernst Lubitsch sex comedy, but nearly fails on all counts. What saves this from becoming a total disaster is the oddball costume party. Without seeing his name on the credits, it would be hard to imagine MADAM Satan directed by DeMille, best known for religious epics, but it should be known that DeMille did specialized in this sort of comedy in the silent era with those starring Gloria Swanson, some years before director Ernst Lubitsch set the standard.
MADAM Satan might have succeeded had the story been shortened and vocalizing dubbed for Kay Johnson. Because Johnson at times resembles or plays like a slightly mature Irene Dunne, a movie like MADAM SATIN would have called for the likeness of Dunne, both actress and singer, then under contract to RKO Radio. Lillian Roth's performance as the fun-loving other woman does spark some life into her character, which is no different from the roles she performed at her home lot of Paramount at the time. On the whole, the one who comes off best and memorably in MADAM Satan is Roland Young as Jim, who assumes some of the film's witty one liners (Tyler Brooke: "I've never repented a sin," Young: "I've never repeated one,") and funnier actions. First to try to pass off Trixie (Roth) as his wife to Angela, who knows her husband's friend is only making the pretense to cover up for her husband's infidelity. The pretense reaches an amusing climax when Jim has to undress and get in bed with "his wife," with Angela's constant intrusions. Following the airship disaster where all the party guests must parachute from the dirigible, all landing around Central Park ranging from inside a convertible with another couple smooching in the front seat to the reservoir. As for Young's character, he lands on a tree branch inside a lion's cage in the zoo. Below he watches the lions roaring up at him. He then observes a sign that reads when the next feeding time is for the lions will be. He then slowly looks at his watch. Regardless of slow pacing, the redeeming quality goes to Young, who even has the final closing rather than the leading players.
MADAM Satan was distributed on video cassette in the 1990s, and can be seen occasionally during the late night hours on Turner Classic Movies. Movies dealing with wives putting their unsuspecting husbands to the test are usually fun to see, but while MADAM Satan might be categorized as one of the weakest of the lot, it does propose some redeeming qualities that make this one of the most unusual production by either or both DeMille and MGM. (**)
A desperate wife disguises herself as the mysterious MADAME Satan in
order to entice the attentions of her wayward husband.
In 1928, movie magnet Cecil B. DeMille, usually associated with Paramount Studios, signed a three-picture contract with mighty MGM. The most exuberant result of this new association--the others were DYNAMITE (1929) and THE SQUAW MAN (1931)--was this bizarre, florid, highly unusual and very entertaining musical-comedy-soap opera which almost defies categorization in any other way than to simply say it is a 'DeMille Picture.'
It was also the only musical he attempted (1930 was a year replete with singing stars enjoying--or abusing--the new sound technology) and perhaps that is a good thing, as the tunes here don't warble too well and are a bit of an embarrassment. Although the tale of marital infidelity which dominates the film's first half grows rather mawkish, DeMille awakes the audience in the second half by staging a naughty masquerade ball in a luxurious dirigible, no less, harbored high above New York City. Never one to let bad taste stand in his way, DeMille invites the viewer to wallow in Pre-Code purulence, before ending on a more moralistic note.
Kay Johnson, a very talented & lovely actress who is now sadly forgotten, gives a lively performance as the abandoned wife determined to win back her fickle spouse. She deftly weaves between drama & spoofery, making her dynamically diabolic appearance as the title character at the airship ball both mysterious and alluring. As her husband, Reginald Denny comes across as much more one-dimensional and unsympathetic, but then his role is supposed to register as rather bland when compared to that of Miss Johnson.
Owlish Roland Young is humorous, as always, this time playing Denny's best friend; his meek persona must hide a streak of wildness, however, to be able to host the truly bizarre zeppelin party. As Denny's young lover, Lillian Roth is all shrill, uncultured brashness--if this is what the director wanted, she hits the bulls-eye.
Movie mavens will recognize DeMille's own voice as the radio announcer at the end of the film.
I found Madam Satan a rather strange hybrid of melodrama and musical, with
elements of sex farce thrown in for good measure. It is divided into two
distinct halves: the first takes place at the home of Bob and Angela, and at
Trixie's flat. Then, it's aboard a moored Zeppelin for the second half for
the party and the bulk of the musical numbers. A few witty ripostes here and
there, some occasionally charming musical numbers, but overall a rather
tepid affair. I just don't think Reginald Denny and Kay Johnson have the
onscreen charisma to do this story justice. Roland Young is always amusing
with his befuddled manner, in a sort of warm up to his Topper movies, but
with Denny and Johnson to play against, he becomes the most interesting
character by default.
But the film is interesting in its moralizing about straying husbands and a wife's duty to spice up the marriage, considering DeMille's own unsatisfactory marriage and philandering ways. Setting the second half aboard a Zeppelin with its sinking ship analogies probably seemed very modern at the time, and it is interesting to note that even six years before the Hindenburg disaster, a Hollywood movie exploits the inherent danger to such a mode of transportation. Perhaps with a really sparkling script by a master screenwriter such as Robert Riskin, and more luminous leads, this could have been a major delight instead of a trifle.
Part sex-comedy/part domestic drama/part musical/part fashion parade/part
disaster movie - all De Mille!
This is outrageous - you will never see another movie like this one. Struggle through the boring first 45 minutes and you will be amply rewarded. A staggering special effects climax, magnificent costumes by Adrian and absolute decadence by all make this film unforgettable!
Here's a film with little redeeming social value-ok, the theme true love
triumphs is there-but with a lavish party scene on board a huge zeppelin
that is to be enjoyed on its own. The costumes are amazing and the set is
elaborate. This is a film from the days when Hollywood made pictures as a
feast for the eyes rather than as a main course for the mind. Certainly
worth a look for any film buff. A film that should be on DVD as a
historical artifact of 30's Hollywood and DeMille's ability to stage
The premise is almost worthy of Fitzgerald in that the idle rich are certainly idle and life is seen is an opportunity for wine women and song. All three are in this picture but don't hold out much for the song.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Madame Satan is De Mille's only musical. Perhaps one should be grateful in some respects, for what musical elements there are (as well as much of the dialogue and acting) in this oddity are negligible. In fact, apart from curiosity and for completeness, one could easily ignore the first 45 minutes or so of this film altogether, and miss little of any great consequence, save some slow-moving comedy and laboured sex-war business. It as if De Mille saved himself for the astonishing 75 minutes that follow by sleep walking the set-up.
The plot itself is simple, and what there is slow and drawn out - often attenuated and emphasised to the limits of the modern viewer's patience. Bob is having an affair with the floozie Trixie. Bob's wife, the cool ladylike Angela, wants him back. To do this she has to transform herself into a mysterious masked temptress, Madame Satan, during a costume ball given by Bob's friend Jimm. Jimm's extravagant event is held on a dirigible, which comes adrift during a storm and all parachute down to safety.
Indications of what is to come appear early in the film. Bob and Jimm crawl upstairs to bed after a night out on the tiles. Bob's hat falls off, and neatly onto, the head of the maid. She looks bemused, but keeps it on anyway and walks on. Further on in the plot, after some unconvincing mild farce work, Bob cannot recognise Angela as she hides herself under the bed covers. For her errant husband, this lack of identity gives Angela new sexual allure. This is part of the thread of disguise, of covering up, and of gender recognition that runs through the film. The film is saying that, in terms of sexual attraction, it is not who you are, but who you appear to be that creates the necessary frisson: a shallow but cinematically agreeable philosophy. This concentration on show and artifice comes to full outrageous expression during the masked ball on the airship when sexuality is transformed and paraded through costume.
Made at the end of the twenties and just before the Great Depression, Madame Satan's ridiculous hedonism is very much of its time. The gathering aboard the airship represents a fin-de-siecle extravagance, reminiscent at times of von Stroheim or Sternberg in the way the screen space is filled with decadence and sensuality. In her incarnation as the Madame, Angela offers mystery and sexual adventure in a way she could never before. Bob is transfixed, forsaking Trixie. The Madame offers her kind of 'hell' through pleasure and, at first, Bob is willing to follow her. But the overtly religious connotation of their encounter seems arch and dated. Our satisfaction lays elsewhere. In the midst of such splendour and campness, the viewer is offered visual pleasures that are more immediately fulfilling than any of Bob's over-heated sexual anticipations.
The storm breaks and the panic begins. The liner in the sky begins to sink and a whole artificial class of behaviour and dress has to be revalued or abandoned. As the revellers escape in their parachutes, they - and the audience - are both brought back to earth with a bump.
Madame Satan is a visually rich, emotionally shallow film. A fascinating camp experience for all that, and well worth a look.
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