"Who Wants to Go to Hell With Madam Satan?"
December 2, 2015
Angela and Bob are among the last remaining guests onboard as the blimp breaks up. Bob throws his wife off and goes down with the zeppelin, safely jumping into a reservoir as it approaches the ground. Everyone else lands in random places, like a tree in a lion's den (Jimmy) and a Turkish bath (guess who?).
Trixie probably feels right at home here.
Bob recovers at home with Angela. Somehow, he's still mad at her because she learned to sing and dance and make herself more desirable to him. Jimmy, all bandaged up, swings by and tells Bob that if he divorces Angela, well damnit, he'll marry her. No worries though, as Bob finally - FINALLY - admits he's been an awful fool and makes up with Madam Satan. I mean Angela.
Happily ever after? Probably not.
Though dance critic Debra Levine's presentation focused largely on dance and the relationship between DeMille and Theodore Kosloff, she also provided some interesting background on the film's production.
In 1929 DeMille found himself down on his luck, months before a large part of the country joined him. The reason for this stretched all the way back to 1923, when DeMille's first attempt at The Ten Commandments went so spectacularly over budget that he ran into trouble with Paramount and was fired, even though the movie turned out to be a financial success. In 1925, he started his own company, Cecil B. DeMille Pictures, which was a "fiasco," and afterwards the director signed a three picture deal with MGM. During production on the second of the three contracted MGM films, DeMille received his next assignment: a musical. Though MGM would later become well known for their contributions to this genre, in 1929 they hadn't dominated the field just yet (nor had any other company, for that matter).
Screenwriter Jeanie Macpherson, Kay Johnson, and Cecil B. DeMille on set.
To assist him with Madam Satan, DeMille furiously began to telegram friends for help, including Cole Porter and Gloria Swanson. DeMille also turned to longtime friend Theodore Kosloff, who wanted in. Kosloff, a Moscow born graduate of the Moscow Ballet School, had a more successful career than most dancers in the film industry. After sharing the stage with the likes of Diaghilev in Paris in the early 1900s, Kosloff traveled to America. He ultimately landed in Los Angeles where he was introduced to DeMille, who offered him a role in 1916's The Woman God Forgot. Kosloff drew on his skills from the Imperial Ballet School and became a character actor and a go-to for scenes with large setups and crowds, which was certainly a useful skill in DeMille's company. Kosloff eventually appeared in over 30 films, many of them directed by DeMille.
DeMille counted on Kosloff for assistance in landing a composer for the film and of course, a choreographer, two areas the director wasn't very well-versed in. Though the composer assignment changed hands a few times, MGM in-house conductor Herbert Stothart eventually landed the job. As far as choreographers go, DeMille looked at a few prospects and crossing telegrams reveal that he actually mentioned the job to Kosloff, who was in Dallas at the time. However, in DeMille's notes to Kosloff, it appears the director glossed over the opportunity, mentioning that the studio was only interested in jazz, which DeMille assumed Kosloff wouldn't be too keen about. Consequently, the job went to Leroy Prinz; lucky for Prinz, landing Madam Satan jump started his career, and he eventually worked on over 100 films. Despite not being officially involved in the choreography, Levine argued that Kosloff most likely contributed more to the infamous ballet mechanique's composition besides simply appearing in the invigorating role of Electricity.
And this is only the top part of Kosloff's costume in the film!
As one of Cecil B. DeMille's most bizarre works, Madam Satan has been the recipient of several negative reviews over the years, some of them I agree with. However, the film also presents sequences (mostly in the second half) that astonish visually; mainly, items and musical numbers aboard the epic dirigible entice the eyes - from the highly structured Art Deco sets, to the costumes that range substantially in terms of pre-Code brazeness and amount of fabric used, to the wildly unusual dance exhibitions that, despite some clunkiness, share a spot alongside the most elaborate musical spectacles of the early 30s.
Quite an impressive overhead shot that Busby Berkeley would become well-known for a few years later.
In his book Dangerous Rhythm: Why Movie Musicals Matter, Richard Barrios begins Chapter Five with a pretty epic shout out to Madam Satan. I simply adore his choice of words here:
For game viewers willing to embrace their inner lunatic, there has loomed, since 1930, the presence of an exceedingly odd piece of cinema...it derides any normal categorization. It's been labeled musical, operetta, comedy, romance, and disaster film...also, simply, disaster. It is all of those and none, and even in its very title implies the outré.
Barrios went on to describe the picture as: "conspicuous, outlandish, and uniquely diverting. All this places it firmly into the oeuvre of the one director capable of concocting such a thing: Cecil B. DeMille." True, true, true.
Once partygoers jumped from the blimp, parachutes shot out of those holes near the top of the image. Very bizarre. I also really wonder what this would have looked like in color.
Several historians and viewers have noted the film's slow pace during the first half, up until the action moves to the airship and takes off, literally (there, it also unhinges and all hell breaks loose, again, literally). Accusations of a sluggish start are indeed accurate. I'm not sure whether the blame lies in the script, penned by Jeanie Macpherson (longtime writer for DeMille), Gladys Unger, and Elsie Janis, or DeMille’s direction, but establishing the premise, introducing the characters, and setting the action in motion should not take an hour. Angela uncovers her husband's infidelity quickly, and her meeting with Trixie acts as the impetus for the birth of her alter ego. However, many scenes in between or after these revelations, such as Angela barging in on Trixie and Jimmy, run too long and add nothing but fluff. The ploy gets tiring very quickly; we get it DeMille, and I'm sure audiences in 1930 understood too. The only excuse I can think of for keeping long sequences that don't add anything to the exposition would be to cram in more of that incredibly hokey, sometimes saucy and suggestive pre-Code dialogue. Fear not, examples will be provided below for your pleasure.
These two have some great exchanges but unfortunately...most of it doesn't add anything vital to the story.
As others have also pointed out, Madam Satan flaunts some very diverse tones, unfolding like three completely separate movies: a slow and repetitive boudoir comedy to start, a dizzying chaotic musical during the second half that would have blinded had it been filmed in color, and a protracted yet oddly comical disaster to finish. While the party on the zeppelin provides a fantastic setting for Angela to don her costume and alter her persona in an effort to win her husband back, that's about all I can credit it for story wise; visually, on the other hand, it's a magnificent pre-Code indulgence of wacky costumes, scantily clad bodies, and rapid and at times poetically disjointed movement.
Just a few of the very pre-Code costumes on display in the film.
Of course, here's where the picture moves more into DeMille territory with large sets, a massive number of actors, and general chaos throughout, but the musical angle throws everything for a loop and feels forced and awkward. In reality, the movie could have done without the random interjections of song from the main characters, like Angela's singsong lines to her maid and the wily rhyming introductions for each beauty contestant. Certainly, some of the dance numbers in the second half, such as Kosloff's ballet mechanique, could have been retained without attempting to turn the picture into a full(er) fledged musical.
However, as DeMille later bemoaned, his orders for Madam Satan were straightforward: “Nothing would do but that it should be a musical.” The impetus for a musical most likely arose from the genre’s surge after sound debuted a few years earlier and the studios got the hang of the new technology. But the burst of popularity literally was just that, as the bubble exploded in 1930 after only a year or two of success. By the time Madam Satan debuted in September 1930, the genre was no longer in vogue with audiences (though musicals danced back into style only a few years later). I’m sure pre-production and production on a musical of this stature must have lasted a while, and there was probably no telling that the fad would indeed fade by the time the film made its way to theaters.
Such a hard life Jimmy leads.
In terms of the performances, supporting players Roland Young and Lillian Roth seemed to have a ball with their characters. For me, they are the most entertaining to watch, especially when they pretend to be married and eye each other with daggers in between rounds of biting remarks. As for Reginald Denny's Bob, I would have slapped him in the face two minutes in, but since despicable was what DeMille and the writers were clearly going for, I'd say he did a fine job even though he wasn’t required to do much. I loathed him throughout the entire piece, right through to the last frame.
And then there's Madam Satan herself, Kay Johnson. It's not hard to grasp how infinitely more suited Angela is to the homemaker (and apparently non-physical) life than her attempt at French (?) sexpot. She tries her best to exert some sense of sexual appeal at the ball, the likes of which Bob has probably never seen from her, but that effort falls flat and is covered up solely by the suggestive projection the slinky dress and outlandish accent provides; as much as Angela may will it, the sin and sexuality of Madam Satan prove quite a stretch for her. Heck, even after her dramatic reveal to Bob, which should entice a husband 100 times more in a situation like this, he instantly turns ice cold. Clearly, 1. they are completely wrong for each other and 2. he's a heel. To be honest, neither Bob nor Angela are likable characters, and compared to the hot potato that is Trixie, it’s true: Angela really is an iceberg.
Bob's pose for most of the film when he's not all over Trixie.
Parting note: I recall several laughs while watching the film in the theater, a good amount unintentional. However, the scene that elicited the largest reaction did not actually involve any titillating dialogue or revealing costumes but rather an object: a cigarette dispenser/lighter. This gadget resembled a straw dispenser but delivered twice the fun: after it disbursed the cigarette, a push on the side lever lit it too! I don't smoke, but can we resurrect this technology?
Behold: technology. Trixie demonstrating the contraption.
Madam Satan, despite all the flaws, still remains a film one must see to fully believe. In spite of its overly long (for this tale) runtime, the pre-Code bawdiness that infiltrates the dialogue, situations and costumes sustains my interest long enough to forget that for the most part, very little moves forward plot wise. And let's be serious, who wouldn't be intrigued by a pre-Code DeMillean musical/romance/comedy/disaster piece that partly takes place in a blimp? I'll be honest and admit all of those words piqued my interest. To witness it for yourself, hop over to Warner Archive and pick up a copy of the DVD.
And now I will leave you with some incredible quotes:
Bob: Of course I don't hate you darling. As a matter of fact, I think you're above all other women but...below zero!
Bob: Don't you understand? Love can't be kept in cold storage. It's a battery that needs to be recharged every day.
Angela (to Trixie): You see, my husband and I had a slight misunderstanding over a...trifle.
Trixie: How long is this going on?
Jimmy: Until death do us part!
Trixie: You're just sore because you couldn't hold him.
Angela: I wouldn't use your methods.
Trixie: You would if you could; you just don't know how!
Jimmy: It's a waste of time to take a married man to hell.
After entering the dance, Trixie boasts that no one will recognize her except for Bob. Seconds later, an unknown older man addresses her:
Unknown Older Man: Well, if it isn't little Trixie! How's tricks?
Trixie: How did you know it was me?
Unknown Older Man: I knew you by your appendix scar.
Bob: Excuse me, sir, but do you mind explaining that last remark?
Unknown Older Man: Well, you see, I was her surgeon.
Bob: Oh, I beg your pardon.
....Bob whisks Trixie away.
Man 2: Are you a surgeon?
Unknown Older Man: No, I'm a stockbroker.
Madam Satan: If you come to hell with me, you may find it heaven.
Bob: Just what do you take to warm you up?
Madam Satan: I need nothing for that, little schoolboy!
Madam Satan, over and out!
Barrios, Richard. Dangerous Rhythm: Why Movie Musicals Matter. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Vieira, Mark A. Irving Thalberg: Boy Wonder to Producer Prince. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.