Cecil B. DeMille Goes to Hell with ‘Madam Satan’

Cecil B. Demille’s ‘Madam Satan’ can be seen as a melding of DeMille’s two genre specialties, and how he really saw them as variations of the same game.

To enjoy Hollywood pictures of the classic studio era is sometimes to be a connoisseur of nonsense. That’s true of today’s pictures, too, but these nonsenses are of different kinds and degrees. Here’s a film with more than enough demented pleasures to justify watching even though it’s never actually as good as it should be. “You’ve never seen anything like it!” promises the poster on the front of this All-Talking Picture, and for once it’s not all puffery. Another 80 years of talkies haven’t quite given us the like of Madam Satan. Most of the fun comes from sheer stupefaction.

Cecil B. DeMille’s Madam Satan is a variation of the farcical plot about the disguised wife who flirts with her wandering husband to teach him a lesson about depravity beginning at home. Their marriage is in crisis because he’s out flirting with hotsie-totsies in nightclubs, while he blames his wife for being “below zero”. So she has to prove that she knows how to heat things up. Is it because she’s been giving hubby the cold shoulder with no thought of how to hold her man, or is it because he wants different behavior from a wife than a lover? “I don’t want your respect, I want your love,” she declares. We’ll never know who’s more at fault in this game of recriminations, so the film is probably splitting the blame down the middle. So far, so familiar.

Suffering wife Angela is Kay Johnson, a Broadway actress of early talkies. Her husband Bob is played by Reginald Denny, a handsome stiff who was known for heroic roles before turning to British character parts. Hot tomato Trixie is Lillian Roth, best known for being played by Susan Hayward in I’ll Cry Tomorrow, a tragic biopic of alcoholism and broken marriages. Her career in early talkies burned brightly and flashed out. Roland Young is the blithering silly-ass chum with whom Bob showers and sleeps (we’ll let you find out), and who has already perfected the bewildered ducking-and-swallowing reaction shots he’d use in later comic roles like the Topper films.

There’s nothing wrong with this film that picking up the pace wouldn’t fix. What ought to be 90 zippy minutes clocks in at two hours. Most of the drag occurs in the first half with protracted scenes of prevarication and bed-hopping masquerades. These scenes have entertaining material, but DeMille seems to be waiting for the audience to make sure they’ve heard the dialogue and had time to laugh before moving on. His silent sex comedies were smoother, but we can’t blame the early sound era. His talkies, known for vigorous spectacle, always threatened to be more picturesque than pacy.

Finally, the story moves into its rewarding third act, set in a masked ball aboard a zeppelin! The guests sing and dance “The Cat Walk” on their way up the elevator tower. We forgot to mention that this is kind of a musical, though the combination of 1930 recording with a semi-operatic style of trilling makes the lyrics hard to understand. The most joyous number is when Trixie and her rubber-limbed assistant do a novelty dance in her apartment while the piano man howls “I love all the din that puts the sin in syncopation” and “Put some pepper in it, Poppa wants to sneeze!”

Aboard the zeppelin, there’s a bizarre ballet where a Mr. Electricity materializes and leads a clockwork troupe in a soirée inspired by Metropolis and Dante’s Inferno. The costumes and other touches (like the little motorized cars with waitresses) are so far out, words can’t do them justice. Bob is dressed like Robin Hood in a mini-skirt, while Trixie is garbed with gargantuan feathers. “How do you like my costume?” she asks, and he replies “Where is it?” A fellow guest is able to recognize her by the appendectomy scar. Then a wildly designed devil-woman (Angela in disguise–get it?) shows up and asks in a French accent “Who wants to go to hell with Madam Satan?” These are examples of risqué humor before the Production Code crackdown of 1934, as is the implication that Bob knows Trixie in the Biblical sense.

Speaking of the Bible, this film can be seen as a melding of DeMille’s two genre specialties, and how he really saw them as variations of the same game. By the ’50s he was more famous for Biblical spectacles, a genre he said allowed you to get away with showing all the sin you wanted as long as it was punished. By painting the masquerade ball as a sort of floating Babylon of Madam Satan-worshippers, DeMille implies that what happens to the party is a kind of divine retribution as seen in more serious pictures.

The skies grow dark and thunderous before lightning turns the shindig into a new Hindenburg. The climax describes riotous panic as everyone rushes for the parachutes, and there are several amusing gags about where they all land (cue gratuitous scene of black guys shooting dice). The model and process effects are perhaps more primitive than strictly necessary, but viewers are unlikely to mind. As a rule of thumb, all films about zeppelin disasters are probably worth watching. This is a plot that could profitably be remade, perhaps with people from Friends or any actress with three names under the direction of Michel Gondry or Spike Jonze.

The movie was supposed to be even more of an eyeful. According to Wikipedia, the zeppelin sequences were shot in Technicolor (this would have been the early two-strip process) but not processed as such because a glut of musicals had saturated the market and MGM wanted to save money on what was becoming their most expensive production. Indeed this film was a flop. There was also apparently another song in the picture’s original release prints, so the thing was even longer.

The script is by three women: Jeanie MacPherson (DeMille’s longtime writer), Gladys Unger and Elsie Janis. The photographer is Harold Rosson. The biggest kudos go to art directors Cedric Gibbons and Mitchell Leisen (also an assistant director) and to costumes by Adrian. LeRoy Prinz staged the wacky dances; his brother Eddie is the gymnastic hoofer in Ross’ pad who throws down his banjo and somersaults over the piano. These folks are Hollywood royalty.

This is a remastered entry in Warner Archives’ made-on-demand service of DVD-Rs. They come without extras.

RATING 6 / 10