For their troubles Barrymore and Chatterton were nominated for Academy Awards. Such were the difficulties of early talkies, as Singin' in the Rain will show you, that Barrymore seems to have been honored merely for being competent, since his direction is really no more than that. Chatterton is a more interesting case in what now seems like a hopeless part. Hers is a modulated performance, though bipolar might be a more accurate word. She can turn on a dime from hard-boiled, or would-be hard-boiled, to hysterical and pathetic. "Madame X" is not an admirable survivor. She's a loser almost until the end, brutalized by men -- Chatterton goes to the floor twice to sell battery -- and a self-pitying boozer, scowling and snarling one minute, blubbering and whimpering in the next. One thing remains constant: an idealization of her son, a love for him that is ultimately self-denying. The film portrays this climactic self-denial as a redemptive act, but the modern viewer will most likely wonder how she or her son benefits from her withholding the truth from him. Isn't it cruel to keep him from ever knowing his mother? Won't he hate his father and his friends, including his governess, should he ever learn the truth? Today we seem to assume that he would, though the film ends on the assumption that he'll never know. But again, why shouldn't he know? This is where the alien nature of 1929 (or at least 1908) asserts itself.
Everyone watching Madame X in its original release would understand, and more importantly (since the film itself states the point) would empathize with the necessity of the heroine's noble lie. Everyone in the story -- the heroine, the would-be blackmailers, etc. -- understands that the Attorney General and his innocent son would be disgraced if the mother's sordid history were made public. No matter how forgiving the son seems likely to be, the social disgrace would be inescapable and would most likely retard his career in the law and destroy his prospects as a husband. The mother's lie is necessary to protect her son's honor, even if the father is unworthy of such protection. It's less important that the son know the truth than that society not know and use that knowledge against him. We're probably better off without that kind of honor code in today's society; few of us now would stigmatize a son for his mother's sins, and just as few, probably, would even stigmatize the mother for her affair. Candor today may prove embarrassing, but it doesn't seem to carry the risk of catastrophic disgrace that it had a century ago. Does that mean that there can be no noble lie where there is no sense of honor? I'm not sure. But if we don't share the sense of honor that prevailed when Madame X was made the courtroom scenes inevitably lose most if not all of their intended emotional power. Audiences at some point in history must have responded to those scenes in the way Barrymore or the play's original authors intended. Now, however, all we're likely to see is characters going to tortuous lengths to avoid telling the truth. We might understand intellectually or historically the effect that was intended, but the effect for us is most likely more like that described by that great dramatic critic Karl Marx: tragedy repeated as farce.