|Jimmy Wade …
|Madam Satan …
Cecil B. DeMille
Madam Satan: Hell in a Handbasket
Who wants to go to hell with Madam Satan?
Cecil B. DeMille’s Madam Satan is many things, but ‘forgettable’ is not one of them. Its climax involves a song and dance number at a masquerade ball attended aboard a zeppelin full of debauchery and suggestive meanings with the titular Madam poking away at the morals of an immoral man with one of the worst French accents ever perpetrated on the screen. Can you even imagine.
The titular Madam Satan, as it turns out, is not so much the devil brought to alluring life (see the top picture for an idea of her getup), but the disappointed wife of a philandering no goodnick. Under her mask, she’s Angela, and, yes, naming the character ‘Angela’ is pretty much par for the course in a DeMille picture. She adores her rich playboy husband Bob, but he resents Angela for not putting out, as he spells out for her in remarkably candid terms. He’s taken up residence in the bed of Trixie in retaliation, and his best friend Jimmy must try to keep Angela’s suspicions from being confirmed.
The film stampedes across genres as it stumbles along, beginning with a bedroom farce, moving onto Art Deco musical, and ending in a full fledged disaster movie. Bob and Jimmy try and trick Angela into believing that Trixie is actually Jimmy’s mistress, but Angela only lets them keep up their charade as it amuses her to see them so blatantly panicking. She later follows Jimmy back to Trixie’s place and those two must keep up the facade until Bob arrives and accidentally makes the truth plainly clear.
The plot may be recognizable to anyone who’s seen Ernst Lubitsch’s The Smiling Lieutenant, which similarly sticks its main character between two beautiful women, with the wife needing to learn to ‘jazz up [her] lingerie’. It was released a year after Madam Satan, but what Lubitsch’s film lacks in zeppelins and Satan, it makes up for in charm.
Unfortunately for Madam Satan, it’s made by Cecil B. DeMille and not Lubitsch. That means there’s a heavy hand moving us along, and the film’s 120 minute running time drags on as we careen on our way to the film’s centerpiece, the magnificent art deco zeppelin and its doomed voyage.
DeMille is well known for his Biblical epics (the Charlton Heston Ten Commandments is probably the one with the longest legs), and the fact that Madam Satan traffics in the same schtick of moral outrage while eagerly serving up sins for the audience to vicariously experience shouldn’t be much of a surprise.
The party aboard the zeppelin is kicked off with a musical number by a man portraying Electricity, and two dozen dancers carefully reenacting what a turbine and a generator to a bevy of costumed and lecherous guests. This pagan ceremony in no way will be punished later in the film, obviously.
Just as the masks come off, it’s time to auction the prettiest woman off. Whoever brings in the most money is the Queen of the Ball, and so Trixie, portraying a weird sort of peacock woman, is almost selected until Madam Satan makes her alluring entrance.
Bob, being the lout he is, is instantly smitten with Madam Satan, and pursues her until he realizes that under the mask is his wife. He blows up; the nerve of some people, pretending to be sexy Satan and all.
As noted before, the design of the zeppelin’s interior and the many costumes are luscious and incredible to take in. It’s difficult not to enjoy the outlandishness here, as costume designer Adrian, allowed to make these people as debauched as possible, really lets himself go wild. Don’t worry; I’ve got plenty of screenshots below to give you a case in point.
Usually in these reviews I avoid spoilers, but I’m pretty sure the back of the box gives away the fact that the zeppelin is doomed. A lightning bolt breaks it free of its moorings and it soon spins it out of control.
I have no doubt that DeMille’s use of lightning here was meant to reflect back to the earlier musical number where the revelers danced in the praise of electricity. The false god they worshiped betrayed them; yawn, Cecil, we get it.
The fealty of the wife is also emphasized. As the disaster looms, Bob threatens Madam Satan (with rape, naturally) to reveal herself, and when she does, to say he’s bitterly disappointed is an understatement. I mean, if my wife dressed up as the Devil in a crazy attempt to out-whore the woman I was seeing behind her back, I would, at the very least, be impressed with the stitch work on her dress. No such luck here, though.
The zeppelin, incredulously equipped with enough parachutes for the party goers, starts to unload them. Most of the guests leave in undignified positions, with much panicking and several funny landings. Bob gets the best of it, as the ship runs out of parachutes and he must, and I am not making this up, jump out of the crashing dirigible and land in the city reservoir. Luckily he emerges unharmed and even unfazed.
The couple makes up at the end, and Trixie finds a spa full of wealthy men who will take care of her. Jimmy’s business and zeppelin are ruined, but Jimmy’s the comic relief character so no one takes much stock in that.
This is a 1930 picture, so we’ve got a couple of trends to contend with. The most noticeable is the rather stiff acting, mostly coming from Johnson and Denny as the main couple. Their plight is also quite insane, as no one a generation later would dare advocate that Angela even try to assuage the pain of such a cad, but DeMille’s Biblical morality dictates that the man is the one to be pleased above all else. It would be more revolting if it weren’t so unremittingly silly on the surface.
Before it sounds like I’m taking too much of a piss out of DeMille, let me put in some positive notes. For a high budgeted motion picture, Madam Satan sees every dollar of it. DeMille packs the film full of stunts, special effects, and costumes. His staging is wonderful, and he knows how to use crowds of people to make a film feel alive and electric. This may be why the first section of the film drags since it contains none of the manic energy of the second half.
There’s a bevy of musical numbers, too, though each is less comprehensible than the last. Sound was introduced to film slowly over the 1920’s, and while The Jazz Singer was a big hit in 1927, one can hardly say it’s an aural masterpiece. This may be a cruel complaint, but often it seems that every song in a 1930 musical sounds identical to each other. Whether it was a symptom of the recording technology, the trends at the time, or just a rampant urge to copycat everything, the songs in Madam Satan constitute that dreaded cinematic white noise, with two notable exceptions.
Both numbers come from the supporting actors, and both of them handily walk away with the film. Roland Young, who you hopefully do not remember from Pleasure Cruise, and Lilian Roth, who I do not remember from Animal Crackers, are the two star attractions here. They both get a humorous number, and their interactions with the other characters are by far the film’s acting highlights. Roth in particular does some splendid dancing, and as well as a few things with her hips that Elvis could only dream of.
As a film, Madam Satan is often interminable but sometimes dazzling. The look of the film is top notch, and the humor, when present, is breezy and fun. Its first hour, however, the domestic comedy portion, limps on and retouches on the same jokes so many times it’s shocking more wasn’t cut. Everything beneath the look and dialogue creaks noisily, especially its wheezy morality which has dated the picture more than the art deco insanity and zeppelins ever could.
The editing here is rigid too, which give a film about free flowing madness the weird aura of a dirge. There’s a reason why DeMille’s name isn’t nowadays much associated with musical comedy, and this is probably Example A. These flaws end up making Madam Satan a lousy film, but still a one-of-a-kind experience.
Proof That It’s Pre-Code
- So many lines are delivered with an eyebrow waggle and wink that it’s completely ludicrous.
- The film’s premise is that the wife doesn’t put out (and is called almost explicitly ‘frigid’), but the mistress does. The mistress is also in it for the money, as she must be since the man is such a damn cad.
- Some of these outfits are… suggestive, to say the least.
- It may be Prohibition, but that’s not stopping anyone from drinking to excesses beyond reason.
- One man recognizes Trixie by her appendectomy scar. He’s dressed as Caesar, too, just in case anyone was momentarily worried that DeMille would try subtlety.
Here are some extra screenshots I took. Click on any picture to enlarge!
Trivia & Links
- Judging from most of the reviews I’ve read of this, there seems to be a small but vocal subsection of movie writers who will watch any movie with an exploding zeppelin. I’ve heard of a dedication to exploding helicopters, but this is ridiculous.
- The zeppelin scene in this film was apparently shot in Two-Strip Technicolor, but, because the film was already expensive (apparently budgeted at $1,000,000), it was decided to print it as black and white instead. I don’t quite get the rationale behind that– wouldn’t you want to increase your chance of getting butts in the seats?– but the film was a flop, so it doesn’t much matter.
- Fashion blog Van Paris (maybe a bit NWS) has some great stills, as well as this original design of the Madam Satan dress. Apparently DeMille had to add flesh colored netting into the final version of the outfit to please the censors.
- It’s always fun to find a blog entry that’s not a review, but here’s a breakdown from igetakickoutofyou of the early 1930’s fashion trend of the Snake Lady and how Madam Satan represented a culmination of that trend.
- Arts Meme talks about one of the more amusing items of note about the film. Actor James Cromwell, he of Babe, Star Trek First Contact, and L.A. Confidential among many others, is the son of Kay Johnson. Now that’s an interesting legacy. The blog also touches on the recreation of the ‘Electricity’ character in a 2008 Italian dance production and the origins of the film’s ideas of futurism.
- Burl from the blog Ha ha, it’s Burl! only speaks with exclamation points. It’s not a fantastic review or anything, but I couldn’t not share it as I’ve never seen someone censor the word as ‘rib*ld’ before, and probably will never see that again.
- In considerably less weird blogging, here’s Jonas with All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing! who talks about the film’s lack of musical finesse and DeMille’s failed attempt to try something new.
- One example of the expense of this film: the costume picture below was crafted from dozens of balls of silk. It took a costume designer a month to make, and in today’s money would run about $100,000. Wow.
- She Blogged By Night goes into a bit how paternalistic the film’s message and themes are, and is completely stupefied at how horrible everyone in the film are.
- For more detailed background information, both the inscrutable Movie Diva and go into the film’s production and its stars’ history. She dotes upon Lilian Roth’s tragic life story; sadly, she followed this movie with eight divorces and a steady bout with alcoholism. Uh, Roth had the divorces, not Movie Diva.
- You know, I’ve quoted Mordaunt Hall from the New York Times on many occasions before, but I think this may be the nastiest review of his I’ve seen. I’m also amused that “DeMillian” is an accepted adjective. Anyway, some choice quotes:
It is an inept story with touches of comedy that are more tedious than laughable.
In the earlier stages of this hodgepodge, Angela’s maid starts to give her advice about managing husbands, and after talking for sometime, the woman evidently decides that Angela will be more impressed if she delivers her counsel in song.
Although the characters are no more than DeMillean puppets, the players try their best, first to carry out DeMille’s instructions, then to act as well as they can in the circumstances. But every now and again they are called upon not to hear or see that which one thinks they ought to.
- There are some flippin’ great posters for this one. Turns out when you tell someone, ‘hey, I have a movie named Madam Satan, go all out’ they really do:
Awards & Accolades
- On the Wikipedia List of Pre-Code Films.