Sunday, February 23, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: MADAME X (1929)

Whatever happened to the noble lie? In the 21st century people seem less convinced than ever that there are ever good reasons not to tell the truth. Total candor is the ideal, however unrealizable. The point of something like Madame X, directed by dilettante Lionel Barrymore and adapted from a famous French play of twenty years earlier, must seem unfathomable now, the film itself more alien yet than its often strange contemporaries. The whole point of the picture is that a mother must never reveal her identity to her son. The mother (Ruth Chatterton) is a fallen woman. Her fall begins when she cheats on her husband (Lewis Stone), who spurns her when she returns to see her sick boy after her lover dies. The fall is steep and carries her from the Orient to the South Pacific to South America. Even in Pre-Code times you can't quite state this plainly but it's pretty clear that she's become a prostitute. Finally she returns to France in the company of a schemer who suspects a scandalous background that could prove a goldmine. His guess proves correct, for by the time she returns her husband has become the country's Attorney General. Rather than let this man blackmail the old boy she shoots him in the back. She refuses to defend herself in court but is assigned a public defender, a novice lawyer handling his first case, whom we know to be her grown son (Raymond Hackett). The tension builds when the father appears in court to watch the boy argue his first case and he and she recognize each other. She finally addresses the court to explain her action in a way intended to convey to Stone that she doesn't want the family name dragged through the mud. When the presiding judge calls her attorney to speak by name she recoils in horror while he, moved by her speech, gives a stemwinding oration unwittingly denouncing his own father for having mistreated the poor woman. Defendant and defender retire to another chamber while the jury deliberates. Stone and other friends who know our heroine join them but she again makes clear that they shouldn't do anything to make obvious her relation to her lawyer. She resolves the dilemma by dropping dead, leaving her son none the wiser yet convinced that she was a fine mother to somebody.

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.

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