November 10, 2016
Madam Satan – US, 1930
The most important line in Cecil B. DeMille’s Madam Satan is uttered early on in the film by Mrs. Angela Brooks (Kay Johnson), the young wife of a wealthy playboy named Robert Brooks (Reginald Denny). It goes like this: “Is it worthwhile for a wife to break her back to please her husband?” The fact that she even asks this is proof that she is a kindhearted character, one whose own happiness would be willingly sacrificed in the name of love, and so she goes about tying to make her husband’s world as joyful as possible. She makes sure the servants have everything clean before he comes home, ensures that dinner is waiting for me when he walks in the door, and makes certain to look her best for him, even at very late hours. If only the cad did something to deserve this treatment.
That he doesn’t - not even at the conclusion of the film - is a problem, for it puts the onus on her to save the marriage. There’s even a moment in which Mr. Brooks tells her that she is to blame for the poor state of their marriage. As he explains it, she became cold and practical, a little too preoccupied with being married to actually spend quality time with her husband. In his words, she went from being a pal to being a wife, the insinuation being that when a woman gets married, she loses her sense of fun.
Early on in the film it is revealed that Robert has taken up with a spirited young woman named Trixie (Lillian Roth). We know she’s the villain because instead of enjoying classical music, she swings her hips to the sounds of jazz, smokes, and openly shows her legs. Decent women, this and films such as 1921’s The Affairs of Anatol imply, listen to classical music and attend formal parties. However, the film also subtly implies that keeping her man may require her to embrace, as one character puts it, flesh and blood. And so Angela sets out to meet and confront Trixie in an effort to win her man back, regardless of how unworthy he is.
Like many films from this time in film history, Madam Satan is an amalgamation of several film genres, and the combination is not an entirely successful one. The film includes moments intended as comedy, most of which involve Robert’s good friend Jimmy Wade (Roland Young). Then there are the film’s more dramatic elements, ones intended to reflect upon Angela’s status as a wronged woman, and the film continues the trend of adding musical numbers to stories that truly don’t need them. Far too often dramatic moments grind to a screeching halt just so characters can emote in songs that, which the exception of Trixie’s number, Low Down, have truly not aged well. There is also a storyline that resembles those found in many Shakespearean comedies. However, Shakespeare’s women were smart, and when they went out in disguise, it was often as wise and educated men who had some say in the fate of the people around them. That is not the case here. Here, she just cheapens herself.
And it’s not just her. The film includes a masque ball where men bid on women as if they were material objects, and at that same ball, skimpily dressed dancers bump and grind in a way that makes the whole scene resembles an orgy. It made me recall the ball in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. However, in that film, the ball was a metaphor for the morally-questionable situations that jealousy and anger can lead people to enter into. In Madam Satan, they’re purely sensational, and the creepy world it represents is portrayed as just another test of Angela’s love for her husband. In other words, she is not saving him from it; she is joining it, becoming a participant in its depravity for a guy who never stops being the schmuck he is revealed to be in the film’s opening moments.
Director Cecil B. DeMille is a legend, yet even he is not able to connect the film’s fragmented narratives into one cohesive thread. He is also unable to get his actors on track, and for most of the first half they are slightly off in their delivery of their lines. The pauses are too long, the emotions too flat, and the comedy too forced. Later DeMille seems to have instructed Denny to stand as if he were channeling a superhero from one of those early serials - his chest sticks out, his hands rest on his hips, even his voice becomes more animated. It’s more ludicrous than commanding.
Throughout all this, Young is the only one who really stands out. As Jimmy, he displays talents in comedy skills that in another film would have had audiences in stitches, and as the film unfolds, his is the only character to undergo real change. A smarter and more daring film would have taken this character and run with it. Here, he is simply underused. (Young acted steadily up until his death in 1953.)
Suffice to say, I was disappointed with the film. I wanted less comedy, fewer songs (or at least better ones), and more honest storytelling. Instead we get a patronizing approach to saving a marriage that essentially makes it the responsibility of the wife. She should be both sweet and wild, forgiving and driven. She should be willing to go to ends of the earth to save her marriage and to become whatever her husband wants her to become, and if she doesn’t, if she dares to have standards or self-respect, she has no one to blame but herself if her husband ends up in the arms of another women. Look. I get that this is an old movie and that it doesn’t reflect today’s sentiments. But I have to ask: Just when were such sentiments ever acceptable? (on DVD as part of Warner Brothers’ Archive Collection)