Hellfire in the Chart Room: The Unmasking of Madam Satan by matthew c. hoffman

“Who wants to go to hell with… Madam Satan?”

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Tonight (3/29/12) the Park Ridge Public Library had 86 patrons for our showing of Madam Satan (1930). Although attendance was down from the previous two weeks, the reaction seemed to be up. Things I didn’t think would play well seemed to work. There was laughter and even applause. What I thought was strained bedroom farce on the small screen turned out to be funny lines on the big screen. Once again we see that a film’s real impact can’t be gauged until it’s seen on a big screen with an audience. The film’s a hodgepodge of genres, but our screening highlighted the strengths of each. For instance, I keenly felt the drama of the film’s climax. The Titanic-like disaster aboard the zeppelin was so much more powerful than what I had previewed at home. People who prefer to rent these movies and (sadly) watch them at home are missing out on what everyone else who shows up every week is experiencing. Had this been shown in a newly-struck 35mm print– at the Portage Theatre, for instance– the film would’ve been even more amazing. Madam Satan isn’t the kind of film to be taken seriously– it’s NOT “camp” though– but I always knew it was an entertaining one. Tonight proved that. The following is the text from my introduction to Madam Satan…

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Madam Satan is a strangely fascinating film. It’s also an insane piece of filmmaking. MGM production chief Irving Thalberg, upon seeing the finished product, reportedly said, “It contained no semblance of reality.” There are some truly weird moments in this film, and it makes you wonder what Thalberg must’ve been thinking when he viewed it with his star director. It was directed by Cecil B. DeMille while he was at MGM for a three-picture deal. He did not stay there long and returned home to Paramount. C.B. must’ve felt like a square in a round peg at a studio known for assembly-line methods. But his contract stipulated that there would be no interference from the front office, so for better or worse, Madam Satan reflects DeMille’s style more than it does MGM’s. The blame– or acclaim– rests solely on DeMille.

By 1930, DeMille had reached a creative crossroad in the early days of talkies. He was in need of a hit. With Madam Satan, therefore, he returned to material that was familiar territory: farce and spectacle. And he made it a musical too because the genre had been so popular at the end of the 1920s. What could go wrong? The reality was that Cecil B. DeMille had a better understanding of historical epics than musical comedies. It wouldn’t be until 1932’s The Sign of the Cross that he would be back on track. I don’t think DeMille had a favorable opinion of tonight’s film. Speaking of the musical numbers, he wrote that the songs in his film would not have “perturbed the dreams of the young Messrs. Gershwin, Hammerstein, Hart, Rogers or any of the others who have delighted so many, including me, with good musicals.”

There are moments when it feels like the movie is going to become an all-out operetta. One of the composers was Wisconsin-born Herbert Stothart, whose best work is probably the background music for The Wizard of Oz. For that 1939 classic, he won his only Oscar– and the studio’s first in the musical category. One of his songs in this film is the very 1930s-esque “The Cat Walk” which is what the party guests are chanting as they board the zeppelin.

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Madam Satan might not be a good musical, but this isn’t a musical film series. I love Art Deco, and I love movies about zeppelins, so this film was inevitable. The good news is that it gets better once we make it to the masquerade ball; the bad news is that there’s about 50 minutes of bedroom farce before that happens. DeMille may have mastered the form in the silent era with films like 1920’s Why Change Your Wife?, but here the farce seems strained.

The plot involves a married couple whose relationship has dropped below zero. “Love can’t be kept in cold storage,” the husband tells his wife. “It needs to be recharged.” Heat and electricity become recurring motifs. So she sets out to warm things up and put some spark in their relationship. The wife resolves to win her husband back by breaking out an alter-ego and teaching him a lesson in love.  Being an MGM film, this is about an affluent married couple of high society. (I don’t think too many of you tonight will be sitting at your organ in the parlor, relaxing at home.) But DeMille’s excess as a filmmaker works to the advantage of the film. We see the excess and decadence of the rich in their floating dance hall. This is where the wife will make her stand amid the pleasure-seekers.

One of the highlights is Kay Johnson as Angela, the cultured wife who doesn’t know how to make whoopee yet turns herself into a French-speaking femme fatale. Johnson was the daughter of a Michigan architect and she became a Broadway actress. She spent most of her career moving between the theatre and movies, such as Frank Capra’s American Madness. She had starred in DeMille’s first project at MGM in 1929 called Dynamite. This film is mentioned in the book Screen Deco and noted for its Art Deco bathroom– an element of Modern set design that became associated with DeMille.

Kay Johnson

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Kay Johnson was married to director John Cromwell, but she left Hollywood in 1943 to concentrate on being a mother and raising their family. One of her sons is actor James Cromwell. Kay Johnson passed away in 1975, largely forgotten. That’s a shame because, like so many other actresses of her era like Ann Harding or Constance Bennett, she deserves more recognition. As assistant director Mitchell Leisen once said, “Kay was a very talented lady from Broadway, and a lot of fun to work with, but she didn’t quite set the screen on fire.” DeMille originally wanted his star from the silent days, Gloria Swanson, and I’m sure it would’ve been a much different film with her. A lot of modern viewers, however, prefer the other actress in this film, Lillian Roth, as the “Lowdown”-singing rival, Trixie. But Kay Johnson gets the highest bid at my auction. I think whatever emotion this film has rests with her; she is the emotional core of the film and the one the audience is supposed to identify with.

Throughout the first half of the movie there are these cutaway shots to Angela. She’s aware of what’s going on with her philandering husband and his best friend. They hide behind these really broad reaction shots more suited to silent comedy. Angela sees through their pretense as well as through Trixie’s charade. But then there are these discordant moments when she seems desperate and breaks down emotionally, pleading for her husband not to leave her. That’s more the writers than Kay Johnson’s performance. There were three female writers who contributed to this story: Jeanie Macpherson, Gladys Unger, and Elsie Janis. Perhaps the commentary on men—how they are like children chasing toy balloons– came from them.

Reginald Denny plays Bob Brooks, the husband in need of warm affection. He’s an unsympathetic character who makes indiscretions only because his wife is too sweet and logical. Bob Brooks aside, Reginald Denny was always an actor I admired. He came from an acting family in England. As early as 1908 he was touring the United States. He was also part of an Opera company that toured India. As an actor, he returned to the U.S. in 1912, and three years later he made his debut in American film. In 1917 he enlisted in the Royal Flying Corps as a pilot where he became the brigade’s heavyweight boxing champion. He settled in Hollywood in 1919 and appeared in dozens of silent films including comedies like 1925’s I’ll Show You the Town.

Roland Young, Reginald Denny, and Kay Johnson in Madam Satan

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Possessed with a good speaking voice, his career continued into the sound era, but he was more limited to what he could play due to his English accent. Though rarely the star, he was featured in many supporting roles throughout the ‘30s and ‘40s in films ranging from John Ford’s The Lost Patrol to Hitchcock’s Rebecca in 1940. Unfortunately, he was mostly typecast as an English stiff.

Outside the movie business, he became a model airplane enthusiast and opened up a model shop on Hollywood Boulevard. This was a popular spot for the kids of the neighborhood, and Denny became quite famous with this second career. His fascination grew and he became an innovator of drone technology, forming a company called Radioplane, which won an Army contract and specialized in military drones. This endeavor of his was a forerunner of what we see being used in today’s modern military. Denny’s acting career, meanwhile, continued into the 1950s where he worked in television. He even appeared in the campy Batman (1966)

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Lillian Roth plays Trixie, the rather shrill but energetic jazz baby, and fans of the Marx Brothers will remember her from her role as “Arabella Rittenhouse” in Animal Crackers. With a background in vaudeville, she was billed as “Broadway’s youngest star.” Lillian had been groomed by her parents, who were also of the stage. Her big break in movies came with Ernst Lubitsch’s The Love Parade. Tragically, in the early 1930s, she developed an alcohol addiction. Everything in her life went downhill from there. She went through eight divorces in her life. She eventually recovered from her addiction and became one of the first celebrities associated with Alcoholics Anonymous. Lillian made a singing comeback and turned her tragic story into the 1953 bestselling memoir I’ll Cry Tomorrow. (Her autobiography became the inspiration for a movie starring Susan Hayward.) Lillian once said that, “My life was never my own. It was charted before I was born.”

Madam Satan also stars Roland Young, the great character actor many will recognize from such films as One Hour With You, Topper— the film he is best known for– and The Philadelphia Story. He was born in England, and like Kay Johnson, had a father who was an architect. And, as with Reginald Denny, he was performing on the stage as early as 1908. In the United States, he found success as a Broadway performer, hitting the Great White Way in 1912. He became a U.S. citizen and served in the Army before making a career in motion pictures. His best work came in the 1930s and ‘40s. With his restrained comic touch and submissive demeanor, he seemed a natural for screwball comedy. Like many other stars whose movie careers began to decline by the late ‘40s, he found a second life in television.

Despite all the talents involved, Madam Satan isn’t remembered for its acting. It’s the sheer lunacy of the story that makes this a guilty pleasure. Madam Satan is remembered for the scenes on the dirigible; the set was designed by Cedric Gibbons and Mitchell Leisen. One of the weirdest moments is the Electric Ballet musical number. This is very much a visual theme of Art Deco– its association with technology, in this case, the modern airship. Out of nowhere, the spirit of modern power, Electricity, materializes like an Art Deco god in a dynamo. The sequence, with man mimicking the movements of machines, is in the same tradition as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, made only three years earlier.

Madam Satan’s Deco is also evident in some of the costumes that were designed by Adrian. He was known for designing every costume in the films he worked on. Madam Satan’s slinky, fire of Hell gown might remind the modern viewer of Cat Woman, and it’s the most memorable design in the film. Its sleekness of form and sequined brilliance is very much in keeping with Deco. I believe the original costume was on display recently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It just looked stunning in red, black, and silver.

The Madam Satan costume on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art…

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A drawing of the costume by Adrian…

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Madam Satan was originally going to have sequences shot in Technicolor. According to author Scott Eyman in Empire of Dreams, “the miniature of the dirigible had to be photographed at a high speed in order to get the effect of softly floating through the air. Technicolor couldn’t handle the high camera speeds, so DeMille’s only fallback position was hand-tinted color.” But this was abandoned. (Too bad because in the four years I’ve been doing this series, it would’ve been the first time I played anything in color!)

According to Eyman, in one scene Lillian Roth had to fall through a skylight made of candy glass. “She was nervous and complained to DeMille. Without saying another word, he walked over to a pane of the candy glass leaning against a wall, lifted it over his head and slammed it down. The glass shattered; the skull didn’t. ‘If it didn’t hurt my old bald head,’ he told her, ‘it won’t hurt your young back end.’”

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I’m not sure what you will make of this film. It’s a morality play of adultery and hedonism played out aboard a symbol of man’s progress –with an almighty retribution against it. Madam Satan says something else, perhaps, about the figurative masks we wear in public and who we pretend to be. Maybe I’m reading too much into it. You decide… It’s the kind of movie that could’ve only been made at a certain time in film history. The film was not a success at the box office, but over the years it’s become something of a cult favorite. Of course, to modern viewers who are used to seeing films in 3D and IMAX, DeMille’s 1930 disaster film probably feels like a dull antique. But I can sit through Madam Satan more times than I can Titanic. Tonight’s film actually beat out another oddity I was considering showing, Just Imagine, also from 1930. That film has the distinction of being the first ever science fiction musical comedy.

I think it’s about time now we all go to Hell with Madam Satan.

A rare Art Deco statue made to promote the film at theatres…

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One Response to “Hellfire in the Chart Room: The Unmasking of Madam Satan by matthew c. hoffman”

  1. Thanks so much for this great essay — a 21st Century recollection of a 20th Century Metro celluloid relic that deserves such scrutiny in our time of post-absurdist tragic farce.

    Also see: http://2010.newsweek.com/top-10/worst-predictions/graydon-carter.html

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