"Who Wants to Go to Hell With Madam Satan?"
December 2, 2015
So questions Kay Johnson as the film's title character.
Answer: I do, I do!
And so did a large number of people in Los Angeles, judging by the attendance at a screening at the Egyptian Theater in March 2014.
Yes, that was over a year and a half ago, and I'm just writing about it now, I know. The film, released in 1930, celebrates its 85th anniversary this year, so I figured I should write about it before we welcome 2016 in a few weeks.
I volunteered at the screening at the Egyptian, so I saw firsthand just how many people walked through the doors; I actually wondered why so many opted to spend a beautiful Saturday afternoon inside. Well, that could probably be explained by the rather outré reputation and curiosity that precedes the film and the comprehensive presentation that followed focusing on director Cecil B. DeMille and dancer Theodore Kosloff, both of which I'll touch upon below.
What a wonderful and slightly unnerving poster for Madam Satan.
I've personally wanted to see Madam Satan ever since still shots from the film in Mark Vieira's excellent Sin in Soft Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood mesmerized me many moons ago. For years, I thought the movie was unavailable - and it was for a time - but the wonderful Warner Archive released it on DVD about four years ago. So, now there's no excuse for missing out on Cecil B. DeMille's sole musical in all its racy, bizarre glory on the small screen.
To be honest, my opinion of Madam Satan has probably been heavily influenced by my first viewing, which was on the big screen. At the Egyptian Theater. With a presentation by dance critic Debra Levine. And with cast member Mary Carlisle sitting directly behind me.
Cute note on Carlisle: I walked in right before show time and just happened to sit directly in front of her without knowing who she was. After she was introduced, she enthusiastically addressed the audience and said she was thrilled to be there. She comically forgot her age – 100, not 90, as one of her companions joked: “Now’s no time to lie about your age!”
Angela (Kay Johnson) tries to convince her household staff that her husband Bob (Reginald Denny) is away on business, but the truth speaks otherwise when he stumbles in wasted that morning with sidekick Jimmy (Roland Young), and Angela finds a card from Trixie (Lillian Roth) setting a date for later that night. When Angela approaches the men with this evidence, they lie and tell her that Trixie is Jimmy's new wife, which she certainly doesn't believe.
Oh, hey Angela (Kay Johnson). Don't mind us showering - Jimmy (Roland Young) and Bob (Reginald Denny).
Bob storms out after forgetting about a concert date with his wife, mumbling something about 'work.' Angela's (rightful) chief concern is that he'll seek solace in another woman's arms. "I'm going to fight for my happiness!" Angela chirps to her maid Martha (Elsa Peterson) as she exits. Though seriously, we can already tell she should be much happier without him.
Meanwhile, Trixie rehearses a song and dance number, gushing about Bob between breaths and steps.
Trixie (Lillian Roth) busting some moves.
Trixie assumes the interrupting knock on the door is Bob, but Jimmy rushes in instead: "This is a matter of life and death!" Before Jimmy can explain, Angela walks in. Clueless Trixie struggles while Jimmy tries to kiss her, and only when Angela confesses that she's Bob's wife does Trixie fall into line.
This staredown between the ladies is making Jimmy nervous.
Angela convinces Trixie and Jimmy to let her stay over. Keeping 'husband and wife' on their toes, Angela casually mentions that she may come back if she gets nervous in the middle of the night. Naturally, she uses every excuse to barge in.
Angela's not going to make this easy for Trixie and Jimmy.
Jimmy locks Angela in her room just as Bob sneaks in, pounding on the door looking for Trixie. An overly intricate attempt by Jimmy to blockade the door so Trixie can escape buys some time, but Angela, who's heard everything, finds a door that leads to Jimmy's room and is tackled under the covers as Bob barges in.
Trixie sneakily re-enters the room as Bob insists on meeting the mystery woman, Jimmy's "girlfriend," but Jimmy refuses. Trixie suggests that Bob go home with Jimmy, and Angela faces Trixie alone for the first time.
Let the cat fighting commence...
Ladies in lingerie. Well, Trixie and a lady.
Angela declares that all Trixie has is her body:
Angela: All you've got is a -
Trixie: - Is a body, made out of flesh and blood, is that what you mean? Well I'm not ashamed of it. It's gotten me to where I am today.
Angela: Alright, I'll be flesh and blood too...I'll get my husband back from you...You made him sick of virtue, I'll make him so sick of vice he'll scream for decency...He wants them hot, does he? Alright, I'll give him a volcano! They'll have to call out the whole fire department to put me out!
(this last part of dialogue occurs over a few exchanges between Angela and Trixie).
Welcome to the party. That thing looks secure, right?
Part two kicks off with Jimmy's masquerade ball held in a zeppelin. Lines of revelers chant as they dance down the catwalk to the floor. There, they are interrupted by an unwieldy dance reminiscent of a running motor led by the commanding Theodore Kosloff as Electricity. It's all pretty bizarre.
What an entrance! Theodore Kosloff as Electricity.
An auction for the cutest woman at the party takes place, because why not? Each contestant saunters out with a little rhyme and song, ending with Trixie, who commands Bob's attention. But wait, a mystery woman appears out of nowhere! Meet Madam Satan, aka Angela in disguise. Naturally, Bob races over to her without recognizing his own wife.
Trixie's got the men occupied pretty easily...
...until this one makes her grand entrance.
Bob wins Madam Satan much to Trixie's dismay, and she commences her taunting/testing/flirting. Trixie threatens to expose Angela as the woman under Jimmy's covers, which drives Jimmy to confess to Bob that Madam Satan is his girl. However, when Angela unmasks while Bob's back is turned, Jimmy hands Madam Satan right back to Bob!
Crew members spot lightning in the distance and advise Jimmy to end the party, but he shoos them away. Meanwhile, Angela finally removes her mask, boasting to Bob: "You told me I was below zero, so I raised my temperature!" He counters: "Yes, but you seemed to raise it a little too high." Men: never satisfied.
This seems to be going well...
Uh, no. It's the wife. Never mind.
Remember that lightning? Well, it strikes, releasing the dirigible from its chain and throwing the party into chaos. Everyone is instructed to take a parachute, but naturally there aren't enough. Bob gives one to Angela and runs off for more. While he's gone, Angela tells Trixie she'll hand over her parachute if Trixie promises never to see Bob again. "I don't want your husband; I want your parachute!" So that's a yes?
The lightning has caused some chaos aboard the blimp.
People flying everywhere! (I'm pretty sure this is 16 year old Mary Carlisle).