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"Come, come, these are baby games!
Long before the present craze for racy fare from Hollywood's Pre-Code era, film fans were well aware of producer-director Cecil B. DeMille's second talking picture, the outrageous matrimonial comedy / musical / disaster epic Madam Satan. Instructed by his new employer Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to produce a grandiose musical entertainment (even though the first wave of talkie musicals was already on the wane), DeMille and his frequent screenwriter Jeanie Macpherson concocted an absurdly overblown and risqué entertainment, a two-hour "wild party" picture that finishes in a millionaire's decadent jazz-age bacchanal held on an enormous art-deco zeppelin moored to a giant tower seemingly erected in New York's Central Park. As Al Jolson never said, "You don't see that every day".
DeMille's ambition seems to have been to outdo all previous wild party movies, a particularly popular silent film subgenre that fixated on naughty romantic escapades, scantily dressed flappers and plenty of balloons and confetti. DeMille's very early silents had led Hollywood's forays into sophisticated sex comedies about society wives that "went wild" to shock their wandering husbands back to the home fires. DeMille then pioneered the lavish Biblical spectaculars that made him a world celebrity: pious tales promoting religious values that also slipped audiences heady doses of sin and skin. Madam Satan would seem to combine these two subjects.
The first half of the film is a marital comedy hampered by the still-primitive, "camera in a booth" sound recording technology of 1930. Although a roaring lion appears in the final reel, MGM's Leo logo roars in silence. At the fade-up the servants of society wife Angela Brooks (Kay Johnson) watch as she tends to her pet canary. Angela is also a bird in a gilded mansion, fretting about her husband while gliding about in a designer dressing gown. Bob Brooks (Reginald Denny) and his equally rich friend Jimmy Wade (Roland Young, later of Topper fame) stumble in from an all-night bash, after being hauled into court with a woman that Bob identified as his wife. As is the case in these serio-comedies about domestic differences, Angela never directly confronts Bob with his mischief, even when she discovers that he's keeping a mistress on the side. Angela instead exchanges catty words with the other woman, a flapper named Trixie (the legendary Lillian Roth, before her career and personal woes). Angela insinuates that Trixie is a gold digging tramp, and the saucy girl shoots back that Angela is the one being kept: spoiled wives care only about retaining their luxurious lifestyles. When Angela and Bob finally talk it over, the conversation gets no farther than their differences about marriage: Bob doesn't want respect, he wants adventure and hot thrills.
Taking up the better part of an hour, these rather slow scenes are interrupted by a few songs from Trixie, Angela and Angela's maid (Elsa Peterson). The hi-jinks in Trixie's apartment involve the usual mistaken identities and tip-toeing about, ending in a fairly successful moment when Jimmy hides Angela under a blanket and pretends she's his mistress. Not knowing that his wife is right there listening, Bob says some very critical things about her. Meanwhile, Lillian Roth steals the show, singing up a storm and making the often-awkward jazz-baby dance moves look graceful. (For a mediocre alternative, refer to Joan Crawford in Our Dancing Daughters sometime.) Ms. Roth later wrote a tell-all book about her troubled life, I'll Cry Tomorrow. It was subsequently filmed as a maudlin musical vehicle for Susan Hayward.
Spurred on by her maid's musical encouragement to "take your happiness and love while you may," Angela plans to surprise Bob at Jimmy Wade's big weekend costume party. A penthouse isn't good enough for Jimmy, who instead engages the enormous Zeppelin CB P 55 for the occasion. A hundred singing, dancing (pardon, make that all singing, all dancing) guests skip up the stairs or take the elevator to the top of what looks to be a thirty-story mooring tower: "We're going somewhere, we're going nowhere, we're going a-ny-where!" Inside the zeppelin a jazz band plays among curved girders and wire braces as the costumed, masked guests dance their way inside. MGM's Adrian is said to have personally designed over a hundred costumes for the film, and they're given a grand introduction in a gala entrance pageant. A "Henry the XIII" is accompanied by all of his wives.
Next comes a bizarre musical number dedicated to a futuristic "spirit of modern power". A wildly costumed Electric Man leads a group of dancers dressed in costumes heavily reminiscent of those in the Russian science fiction movie Aelita. The choreography is busy but chaotic, and DeMille's direction is not on a par with Busby Berkeley's work seen in contemporary Eddie Cantor films. With so many costumed revelers crowded into the narrow space, the party has the same crazy vibe as another futuristic musical from 1930, Fox's Just Imagine. We're told that the party, or at least its "electric" musical number, was originally presented in 2-strip Technicolor, but that no materials have survived.
Jimmy Wade then leads his guests in a 'slave auction' of the most beautiful girls attending the party. Rich men offer up hundreds of dollars to buy them, without Wade being specific about what they're getting for their money. Trixie is the hottest number of them all, in a gilded bikini-like rig adorned with giant pheasant feathers. But just as Jimmy is about to knock down on Bob's high bid, the assembled multitude is floored by the entrance of a tall mystery woman in a slinky form-fitting gown and cape. A pattern of black flames barely cover her breasts and hips. Speaking in a thick French accent from behind a bejeweled black demon mask, the mystery woman soon utters the immortal line, "Come, come, these are baby games! Who wants to go to Hell with Madam Satan?!" Trixie is heartbroken when Bob (fickle sleazeball that he is) abandons her to flit around this new sinful sensation. It's lust at first sight!
However, a powerful thunderstorm from Mother Nature and God Above soon interrupts the revels. Wrenched about by high winds, the zeppelin pulls at its mooring tower and threatens to break apart. The intrepid crew prepares escape parachutes for all the partygoers, who must bail out over Manhattan from hundreds of feet in the air. Crazy millionaires and half-naked good time girls rain down on the city like gilded party favors. As the band plays to avert panic, Bob and Angela are finally reconciled. The zeppelin breaks in half around them, just like the Titanic but hundreds of feet up in the middle of a raging storm.
Quite a few Pre-Code movies got away with some fairly licentious liberties, but Madam Satan has no real nudity and no see-through costumes. Ms. Johnson's slim figure and the design of her dress (which looks to have been glued in place) make her look more like a cat-girl sculpture than something for a Burlesque runway. The other costumes are extravagant, but the peek-a-boo games of Gold Diggers of 1933, Murder at the Vanities, International House and DeMille's own Sign of the Cross never materialize.
What the movie does exhibit is the sense of apocalypse that cropped up in a number of early-Depression films made after the 1929 stock market crash, movies about natural disasters (Deluge), political extremism (Gabriel Over the White House) and the end of the world (the French La fin du monde). DeMille prepared, but never filmed, H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds and the "Christian" science fiction apocalypse story When Worlds Collide. He also seemed committed to radical conservative politics, "investigating" the scourge of atheism in his silent The Godless Girl and celebrating the Fascist cleansing of gangsters from a small town in the equally hysterical This Day and Age.
Even as the filthy rich of Manhattan are threatened with a spectacular demise, Madam Satan opts for discretion. The title vamp barely kisses her (brainless) husband, and when she drops her extravagant charade their love-talk initially reverts to more inane bickering. That's when the technically elaborate finale takes over, making the movie an early bravura special effects showcase. The actual zeppelin is a large miniature that bounces around in such a way as to reveal its size, but the storm effects are quite impressive, with a large lightning bolt exploding the tower and threatening to set the airship on fire. The dizzy guests are ushered to the ship's windows by conscientious crewmen (one's a dead ringer for Buster Crabbe) who give them harnesses to wear. These are then clipped onto parachutes tucked into dozens of vertical tubes just outside. When the partygoers jump -- many wearing skimpy clothes in the presumably chilly storm -- the parachutes are pulled out and open up.
Showgirls kick their legs seductively as they float to earth, while drunks moan and other women scream. Lillian Roth gets the best finish, crashing through a glass skylight (no stunt double, either) over the massage room in a men's club. She shields her eyes and howls, "Oh, for heaven's sake!" Madam Satan is one of the silliest, most excessively decadent Hollywood free-for-alls ever. Perhaps the Archive Collection will soon bring us the crazy MGM opus Hollywood Party, a Pre-Code extravaganza so schizophrenic that it doesn't even credit a director!
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Madam Satan has been remastered, and looks and sounds far better than the VHS I saw twenty years ago. The bright image is far more stable. The quality of the primitive sound is such that we strain to understand the lyrics to some of the songs, which I followed more by osmosis than actually hearing. The dialogue is all very clear, however.
The disc has no extras, sadly, but the package cover features what seems to be artwork from a newspaper ad mat for the film. For further reading, I can recommend a website I referenced called moviediva and its well-researched article on Madam Satan.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Madam Satan rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.