NEW ON DVD: “MADAME SATAN”
Cecil B. DeMille went to strange new places with “Madam Satan.”
DeMille was the legendary Hollywood director/producer best know for his biblical epics such as his 1923 and 1956 versions of “The Ten Commandments,” the Oscar-winning 1952 all-star melodrama “The Greatest Show on Earth” and numerous westerns including 1914’s “The Squaw Man,” “ 1936’s “The Plainsman” and 1939’s “Union Pacific.”
DeMille never made a film like 1930’s “Madam Satan,” a pre-Hays Code romantic musical comedy about a married woman (Kay Johnson, the mother of actor James Cromwell) who learns that her husband (Reginald Denny) is having an affair with a singer (Lillian Roth, the alcoholic torch singer whom Susan Hayward played in 1955’s “I’ll Cry Tomorrow“). Also in the mix is her husband’s womanizing friend (Roland Young, best known for his role as Cosmo Topper in “Topper”). The script was written by his longtime collaborator Jeanie Macpherson, as well as Elsie Janis and Gladys Unger. The film has just been released on DVD in the Warner Archive collection.
Saucy boudoir comedies were nothing new to DeMille at this point in his career. He had made several in the silent era, most notably with Gloria Swanson, including 1919’s “Male and Female” (DeMille had even wanted Swanson for this project) but things take almost a sci-fi turn in “Madam Satan” when Young’s character decides to have a lavish costume ball at a moored dirigible in New York. During the evening, Johnson shows up in the vampy disguise of Madam Satan to lure her husband back into her arms.
The sets and costumes aboard the zeppelin looks like a cross between “Metropolis” and “Flash Gordon.” And then there’s the “Ballet Mechanique” opening number on the zeppelin which is lead by the Spirit of Electricity — sort of a Reddy Kilowatt — played by Theodore Kosloff, a former member of Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe, and a group of dancers made to look like spark plugs. There’s also a number in which women dressed like alarm clocks announce that it’s midnight.
The zeppelin sequences were shot in early two-tone Technicolor and the set had to be struck and rebuilt everyday because of the lack of sound stages at MGM. The stages were in use 24/7 with DeMille getting the daytime slot for “Madam Satan.” At one point, the set designer and his assistant Mitchell Leisen, who later became a director, even had a nervous breakdown during filming.
The film actually was finished nine days ahead of schedule at the tune of $1 million, the most costly film at the studio that year. The film was released in black-and-white because there a backlash against musicals was already beginning, and “Madam Satan” fizzled at the box office.
— Susan King
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