Saturday, December 12, 2015

Pre-Code Parade: MADAM SATAN (1930)

Describe Madam Satan as Cecil B. DeMille's semi-musical comedy-disaster movie and the uninitiated will assume that nothing good could come from such a concept. They're not far from the mark, but it's not what DeMille's contemporaries would have thought before the film first appeared. In 1930 his Jesus biopic The King of Kings was still an exceptional work in his filmography, the Bible scenes in his first go at The Ten Commandments only a prologue to a modern story. Memories of all his supposedly sophisticated society comedies were still fresh, and Madam Satan is like those, if more heavily farcical and dubiously musical. As it turns out, the part that's most DeMille-like to modern audiences is the best part, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.

DeMille started the talkie era at a new home, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, after a stint as an independent producer. Madam Satan was his second M-G-M picture, conceived at a time when movies were ideally All-Singing as well as All-Talking. The story I heard at a festival screening last month was that the studio pressured DeMille to make Madam Satan a musical. It's sort of a musical, with most of the songs and dances concentrated in one section except for an out-of-nowhere bursting-into-song moment near the end of an interminable-seeming first act. "Sort of musical" would describe the quality of the music, too. Music isn't the real problem with the picture, however. While DeMille wasn't saddled with a "dialogue director," he probably could have used one. Look at the rest of his career and you might argue that he never really figured out how to deal with dialogue in a way that made it look normal. Look at some of his silent films and you can see how much more efficient he was at storytelling before sound. Had Madam Satan been silent the story still would have been dumb but he probably would have nailed the farce aspect of the first act with little trouble and some panache. With sound the farce is leaden; everyone's timing seems off and the story seems to go nowhere slowly.

Bob Brooks (Reginald Denny) is coming home from a night of hard partying with his millionaire buddy Jimmy Wade (Roland Young). They strive with drunken industriousness not to wake up Mrs Brooks, Angela (Kay Johnson), a stay-at-home wife on whom Bob is cheating with one Trixie, a showgirl (legit singer Lillian Roth). Bob never stays at home long; he's grown bored with Angela, and Angela is boring. Bob is equally boring, by the way, but he's more aggressive about it. Denny played Bulldog Drummond's sidekick Algy in a series of films later in the Thirties; Algy is described by Drummond himself as a "driveling idiot," and you see that quality in Denny's performance here. Roland Young's character is supposed to be a wild and crazy guy, but movie buffs familiar with Young's work -- he was the original Topper, if that means anything to anyone -- will see the problem here. Anyway, things get more farcical when Angela calls on Jimmy Wade to meet his new fiancee. The engagement's a cover story, since Bob uses Jimmy's place for trysts with Trixie, who now has to feign intimacy with Jimmy in Angela's presence. A knock on the door from Bob forces Jimmy to hide Angela in the closet, but she manages to learn the truth about Bob and Trixie. Now she remembers the song her maid sang to her all of a sudden about fighting for her happiness, and by God, she will!

Jimmy Wade is rich enough to hire out a dirigible and a dance troupe for his next big costume party. We're starting to enter the territory of DeMillean spectacle here; the miniature effects for the moored dirigible, with skyscrapers in the distance, look quite good on the big screen, while the antics inside show the influence of DeMille's aesthetic henchman Mitchell Leisen. Early musicals have little to offer in terms of virtuoso dancing or choreography, but sometimes made up for that lack with pure conceptual nuttiness. So it is with Madam Satan's Ballet Mecanique, a dance interpretive of mechanization, the dancers so many cogs presided over by the lightning-bolt wielding Spirit of Electricity. But it really defies description, so look at it instead. This clip was uploaded to YouTube by one absurdomundo, some spiritual kin of mine.

After the entertainment the revelers are to remove their masks, but one latecomer refuses to do so. This is the stunning, the incredible, the irresistible MADAM SATAN! whose true identity is a mystery to none in the audience but all on the blimp. The idea, you see, is that Angela  (did I spoil it???) is so atypically, unprecedentedly brazen that none of her acquaintances would suspect that this gorgeous monster is the once-mousy housewife. It might work on paper, but on film the premise hits a high hurdle early; Kay Johnson in a mask and a slinky costume still isn't as sexy as Lillian Roth; nor can she sing like that legit talent and future biopic subject. Let's compare. Here's Roth rehearsing a number, as uploaded by WMMDN:

Now here's Johnson in her Satanic majesty, at the climax of her re-seduction of Bob. This one was uploaded by ray85milan:

Maybe Bob gets off on novelty. All such speculation is moot, however, as there's a storm coming. Lightning blasts the mooring tower and sends the dirigible adrift into the turbulent sky. Again, on the special-effects level this is all stylishly if not quite realistically done, especially if you see it on a big screen as it was meant to be seen. Fortunately, Jimmy Wade has well-stocked his balloon with parachutes, setting the stage for comedy rather than suspense. Madam Satan climaxes on a mock-epic scale like It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World as passengers are tossed from the dirigible to make slapstick landings, the most spectacular Pre-Code Moment of the Film being Trixie's entrance through a skylight into a men's club locker-room. That stuff you'll have to see for yourselves someday.

Length works in Madam Satan's favor. At nearly two hours, you have time to forget the terrible first half-hour and appreciate the often-inspired art direction and overall madness of the picture. Kay Johnson's failings as a demonic seductress don't really detract from the quality. If anything, the way all the men fall for her -- it's like the way the men of Metropolis drool over Brigitte Helm's lead-footed hoochie-koochie dance -- enhances the film's satire of the mentally-idle rich. It just so happens that, with the Depression descending, people didn't find it quite so funny as DeMille or Metro hoped. The director never really worked in this mode again, unless you count his rarely-remembered 1934 castaway comedy Four Frightened People. He may have realized that sound had taken his comedic touch; most of the subsequent laughs he got would be unintended. He may also have realized that this sort of story, the kind that helped make his name, had become obsolete, and adapted in order not to go obsolete himself. The destruction of the dirigible is a symbolic farewell, if not a Viking funeral, to one stage of DeMille's career. It's the triumph of spectacle over wit in his work, and in this case it's a deserved victory that makes Madam Satan worth seeing today.

1 comment:

dfordoom said...

It is a mess but the Ballet Mecanique and the zeppelin scenes make it a must-see picture. It just shows that films that are inspired failures are often a lot more fun than uninspired successes.