Beyond the Classics is a bi-weekly column in which Emily Kubincanek highlights lesser-known old movies and examines what makes them memorable. In this installment, she describes the fun in Cecil B. DeMille’s musical failure Madam Satan.
Legendary director Cecil B. DeMille made many hits during his long career in Hollywood, from 1914 to 1958. His biblical and historical epics The Ten Commandments, The King of Kings, and Cleopatra were spectacles unlike any other during the silent and early sound eras. Like so many powerful men in Hollywood during the 20th century, his movies weren’t always a success.
After leaving Paramount and briefly going solo with his own production company, DeMille signed with MGM. Desperate to deliver what the studio and its boss, Louis B. Mayer, wanted, the director made what is commonly referred to as his “weirdest film”: Madam Satan. This semi-musical combines gorgeous art deco imagery with cringy attempts at modern relationships. Looking back at it now, the 1930 release reveals the vulnerable place DeMille was in his career at the time.
Madam Satan was born out of the newfound trend that became popular in the early years of the sound era. Filming musicals on a stage was an easy way to meet the audience’s desire for audio delights without much work. These statically shot musicals looked flat on the screen, though, and were boring to watch. With Broadway Melody and The Hollywood Revue of 1929, MGM began honing in on how movie musicals needed to differ from Broadway productions.
Not quite a typical musical and not quite a simple comedy, Madam Satan is hard to describe. It begins with Angela (Kay Johnson), the dutiful and naïve wife of Bob (Reginald Denny). She finds a note in his clothes from a woman named Trixie (Lillian Roth), revealing that he has been unfaithful. Bob and his dopey friend Jimmy (Ronald Young) try to convince Angela that the woman is actually Jimmy’s wife. But Angela knows the truth, and after meeting Trixie, she realizes what her marriage is missing.
What follows is a series of kitschy misunderstandings that lead to Angela becoming what her husband believes she could never be: a seductress. During an extravagant party hosted by Jimmy inside a zeppelin, Angela attends anonymously as the masked “Madam Satan” and proves irresistible to everyone, especially Bob. Just as the two reconnect, though, the zeppelin is struck by lightning and the sinners at the party narrowly escape hellfire.
It’s clear now that Madam Satan required DeMille to settle a great deal. He wanted his long-time collaborator Gloria Swanson to play the lead role of Angela. He hoped the music would be written by famous composer Cole Porter. Instead, he got Clifford Grey, Jack King, and Herbert Stothart. And the dialogue needed unbelievable panache, which DeMille knew Dorothy Parker could provide, but she wasn’t available. So Elsie Janis added new lines to Jeanie Macpherson’s screenplay, and they’re awfully bland when said aloud.
One of the few successful elements of the movie is Roth’s captivating performance and her musical number, “Low Down,” in which she, Jack King, and Eddie Prinz dance wildly around a piano. Roth plays the typical fun and wild girl of pre-Code films, armed with a very short skirt and no fear of being the bad girl. Eventually, she becomes a more likable character than Angela. Even though she is the other woman, her desires are evident in what she says, how she acts, and through her sexuality.
Angela lacks what DeMille stated that he’d wanted in his lead actress: “perfect abandon.” She seems clueless at first. Too devoted, trusting, and saintly. Exactly what men like DeMille believe makes a good wife. Angela’s high-brow upbringing has conditioned her to put her own desires by the wayside for her husband. Johnson plays it well, but she’s not given enough time to flesh out the Madam Satan persona. The movie isn’t interested in her wanting to be desirable and sexy, just to still please her husband.
DeMille was a conservative Christian who liked to include sex in his films. But only in order to explicitly show disdain and punishment. That sentiment can still be entertaining in some instances, but not in a pre-Code sex comedy. So many other movies were unpacking the inconsistencies of marriage and monogamy at this time in a much more consistent and nuanced way. Perhaps if he had been able to work with his preferred collaborators, DeMille would have been able to provide a better exploration of marriage.
Another redeeming aspect of Madam Satan is the visually stunning “Ballet Mécanique” musical number at the end. DeMille had Theodore Kosloff, a talented Russian ballet dancer, help create the climactic sequence, which today is comparable to Busby Berkeley’s future work. Kosloff, dawning a lightning-bolt-clad costume, leads a slew of dancers who transform into art deco machinery. The costumes by Adrian and the choreography are dazzling and gaudy in the best way, making the movie feel of its time despite DeMille’s out-of-touch sentiment towards sexuality.
For all its faults, Madam Satan is fascinating to watch nearly a century later. We can easily access the best movies that great directors made in the past. As well as the best movies created during and now representing particular trends and eras in film history. But watching the failures of those directors and those time periods can provide incredible insight into why filmmakers made the decisions they did and how trends evolved into what we remember.
Also, the weird films of the past may also not exactly be good, but they can be incredibly fun to watch. There’s unintentional comedy in the dialogue, camp in the outrageous costumes, and characters that accidentally become favorites.
When released in 1930, Madam Satan lost money for MGM. Afterward, DeMille went back to what he knew he was good at. He remade one of his earliest films, The Squaw Man, for a second time. And eventually returned to Bible stories with The Sign of the Cross, to great success.
But knowing he tried to go for something different and modern tells us a lot about DeMille as a filmmaker. For all his strengths, his limitations are important for us to remember. DeMille never made another musical in his long career, which was probably a safe decision.