Sunday, January 25, 2015

Tonight's Movie: Madam Satan (1930) at UCLA

Tonight I returned to UCLA for another evening in the ongoing Cecil B. DeMille series, a wonderful MGM pre-Code double bill consisting of MADAM SATAN (1930) and DYNAMITE (1929).

I first heard of MADAM SATAN a while back from Raquel at Out of the Past. Although I picked up the remastered DVD from the Warner Archive, I hadn't watched it yet, and I jumped at the chance to see this Cecil B. DeMille film on a big screen.

MADAM SATAN is one of the most deliriously crazy things I've ever seen, and I loved every minute. I watched much of it with my jaw dropped and all of it with a smile on my face.

The movie doesn't know quite what it wants to be; it's part bedroom farce, part musical, and part disaster movie, yet it all comes together in its insane way to work as a whole. The only other film I can think of which is such a successful hybrid of multiple genres is HISTORY IS MADE AT NIGHT (1937).

Our heroine is Angela (Kay Johnson) -- note her name has "Angel" in it, the opposite of the film's title. The reserved Angela is dismayed to realize her husband Bob (Reginald Denny) is not being true to her; Bob seems to be bored with marriage and feels Angela is less of a "pal" and more of a "wife" since their marriage.

Angela eventually figures out Bob is seeing the very un-genteel Trixie (Lillian Roth), though Bob's best friend Jimmy (Roland Young) tries to pass Trixie off to Angela as his own wife. This leads to some very funny moments with doors opening and closing when all four people end up at Trixie's apartment. Angela vows to Trixie that she's going to win back her husband.

Next comes the centerpiece of the film, a wild masked ball Jimmy throws aboard a zeppelin! The exterior and interior shots of the zeppelin are mind-blowing; the art directors were Cedric Gibbons and future director Mitchell Leisen, who also served as DeMille's assistant director. The fantastic designs are up there with the sets of FEMALE (1933) and FOOTLIGHT PARADE (1933) for sheer awesomeness.

The party gets underway with a musical ode to "Electricity" that had me watching in stunned, er, shock. What the heck? It was delightfully crazy, with some of the shots looking as though they must have inspired the elaborate production numbers Busby Berkeley would choreograph just a couple years later. The originality and creativity were something else.

And the Adrian costumes! Some of the actresses are billed by their costumes: "Fish Girl," "Miss Conning Tower," "Call of the Wild," and "Spider Girl." Mary Carlisle was "Little Bo Peep"; I wish I'd seen her appearance at this film at the Egyptian Theatre last year. She had just turned 100 years old, and a friend Tweets that Mary stayed to watch the entire 126-minute movie!

Into this wild gathering comes the dazzling, French-accented Madam Satan, who immediately lures Bob away from Trixie. Bob is enthralled by Madam Satan and promptly manages to be alone with her; things are getting white hot indeed when they're interrupted by Jimmy. Little does Bob know this seductive woman is his own previously very demure wife!

Act 3 comes when a violent storm causes the dirigible to become unmoored and the revelers must abandon ship; the design for the emergency parachute system for the guests is, once more, something else! I couldn't help thinking how cold it must have been for the party-goers to fly through the air in such flimsy costumes. The special effects here are pretty good even though some of it is a bit primitive.

The lead actors are all excellent, with Roland Young especially amusing as the much-put-upon best pal. The cast also includes Martha Peterson as Angela's singing maid. Boyd Irwin is the captain of the dirigible. Also look for Allan "Rocky" Lane on the dirigible, and Katherine DeMille's in there somewhere too.

An interesting side note, leading lady Kay Johnson was married to director John Cromwell and was the mother of Oscar-nominated actor James Cromwell.

MADAM SATAN was beautifully shot in black and white by Harold Rosson. (I read at one site that the costume party was originally filmed in early color and hope to learn more about that.) Like other notable DeMille films, it must be seen to be believed, and if possible on a giant screen!

I enjoyed this film tremendously, and although it's only January, I suspect this film may end up on my "Favorite Discoveries of 2015" list.

Previous DeMille films seen on a big screen: CLEOPATRA (1934), THE CRUSADES (1935), THE BUCCANEER (1938), and THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956).


Blogger Kim said...

Great piece! Reading this made me really want to watch the movie again, if only for those delightful pre-code lines of dialogue and those outrageous Adrian fashions. Thanks goodness for Warner Archive.

Another adorable Mary Carlisle anecdote from the Egyptian that I just remembered - she sat directly behind me (I had no idea it was her until she was asked to stand up), and she incorrectly referred to herself as 90 years old when she began talking. The two gentlemen with her had to whisper in her ear to remind her that she was actually 100. She had some nice memories of filming, which is astounding considering she was only 15 at the time!

5:59 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks, Kim! This was very definitely a great exemplar of "pre-Code" in every way. :)

Thanks especially for sharing more about Mary Carlisle's appearance at the Egyptian screening you attended. How I wish I'd been there for that! A look back in my archives shows I instead went to UCLA that day for WINCHESTER '73. :) I'm glad you were there to see her!

Best wishes,

6:04 PM  
Blogger Pete said...

Thanks for this review. I saw this film at the BFI, I think it was last year. I'd never seen it before but made the effort as it's not often I get to see DeMille on the big screen. It is such a crazy film, and it truly tries to do so many things - and does them all well.

The craziest part was the Electricity dance. You've inspired me and I think that I may be investing in the Warner Archive DVD.

4:34 AM  
Blogger Maricatrin said...

My first comment published incomplete, so I removed it, but it looks like my revised comment wasn't submitted correctly. Sorry. What I said went something like this: "I smiled all the way through your review, and I'm sure my jaw will be dropping too when I watch Madam Satan (it's on WB Archive.) Needless to say, I haven't seen it yet, but I intend to rectify that soon, thanks to your review."

7:19 AM  
Blogger Kristina said...

This sounds fabulous!! Just the list of Adrian costumes is attraction enough (Miss Conning Tower lol) but your review makes it all sound like a wild time.

9:51 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thank you all for your comments!

It really is fascinating how this film is both utterly crazy and successful all at once. Pete, I don't think I'll ever forget that "Electricity" number!

Mariacatrin, thank you for commenting! I hope you'll enjoy this too. :)

Kristina, it's hard not to love a movie with a "Miss Conning Tower." LOL. I think you'll enjoy it!

Best wishes,

11:52 PM  
Blogger Raquel Stecher said...

Wonderful review Laura! I think the whole film is "delightfully crazy". It would be really fun to see this film on the big screen. The costumes are fantastic and the film has a retrofuturistic element that I love.

7:40 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

I love that term "retrofuturistic," Raquel -- that's very true! If this were shown at the TCM Classic Film Festival I would go see it again -- there were so many details to take in!

Thanks so much for stopping by!

Best wishes,

9:58 AM  

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