(About five years ago the Siren had a column at a doomed little webzine called Nomad Widescreen, and she was in the habit of posting excerpts and links at her own place, you know the drill. Now that Nomad is long-gone she’s been going back and posting the columns in full, and whaddya know, she hadn’t gotten around to this one. So here, enjoy a slightly spruced-up version of the Siren’s musings on Madam Satan.)
“You’ve never seen anything like it,” proclaims the tagline for the 1930 Cecil B. DeMille musical Madam Satan. But for the first fifty-five minutes or so, it isn’t true, unless you have magically avoided all bedroom farces about neglected wives and straying husbands.
And perhaps the zero-to-90mph structure is meant to offer a provocative metaphor for life. Yes, life. For aren’t we all, in some sense, just waiting to party on a zeppelin? No? OK, maybe it’s just the Siren.
The story is a variation on the Johann Strauss warhorse Die Fledermaus. In Madam Satan, wife Angela (Kay Johnson), tired of the infidelities of her randy husband Bob (Reginald Denny), decides to get him back by disguising herself as a captivating guest at a masquerade ball. Bob falls for the wanton masked woman, and then she reveals her identity. After the shock has worn off, Bob returns to his newly interesting wife and declares, as all erring husbands in early comedies must, “I’ve been such a fool.”
The movie is one half-hour too long, that half-hour is right at the beginning, and it’s almost all scenes of the female lead, Kay Johnson. Scott Eyman, in his DeMille biography, calls Madam Satan’s three main characters (the other being Roland Young as the husband’s sidekick, Jimmy) “sexless.” That’s pretty much incontestable. Denny could deliver a quip, but he's too controlled for you to buy him as a lust-hound. Roland Young’s specialty was looking fretful, not a quality one associates with a red-hot lover. Johnson, at least in the first half, is an elegant blonde with a nice line in reproachfulness and the sex appeal of a bowl of tapioca. She was 26 years old, but she looks much older and, more important, she acts much older. Angela droops around planning to cook broccoli for dinner, complaining to the maid, picking out delicate melodies on the organ, and casting wounded looks that display her aristocratic profile. Hell, the Siren would cheat on her, too.
So during this long, long opener the main pleasure is the elegant way DeMille frames Cedric Gibbons and Mitchell Leisen’s art decoration; a particular bit of beauty is an all-glass shower stall with stunning Art Deco water fixtures. Otherwise, despite some bright dialogue (Johnson: “Bob has gone out;” Young: “By the door or the window?”), it’s standard stuff, even when the maid unexpectedly gets the first song — all about love being something you have to seize with both hands, or some such bit of sublety.
Then, thank goodness, we shift to the apartment of Bob’s bit on the side, Trixie, played by Lillian Roth. For later generations, Roth’s claim to fame would be writing the first major recovery memoir, I’ll Cry Tomorrow, about how she plummeted into alcoholism and degradation and reclaimed her life through Alcoholics Anonymous. By the time Roth published it, in 1953, her movie career was so long over that for most folks Roth was a dim memory of a cute kid playing it straight with the Marx Brothers in Animal Crackers. Her brief performance in Madam Satan shows just how big a shame it was that she flamed out. Roth could dance, she could sing and she was sexy beyond belief. When she flings off her rumpled satin robe and twitches her pelvis to the “Low Down” number, the vaudeville energy of this rather plump, frowsy jazz baby ignites the entire movie. The other actors catch fire around her, from the accompanist calling, “Put some pepper in it, Papa wants to sneeze” to Roland Young snapping, “I wouldn’t marry you to keep warm on an iceberg.”
And thereafter, at long last, we’re on the zeppelin, and everything else starts to cook. It’s a ravishing bunch of sets, like the unholy mating of Metropolis and The Hollywood Revue of 1929 — big ramps and shiny Bakelite staircases angling up and down. The guests mill about in costumes as unapologetically tasteless as anything MGM ever did. Worth waiting for: the woman whose symbolic “fish” costume has her attached to a toy fisherman, and another dressed as “the call of the wild,” complete with a stuffed elephant and leopard and a yard-wide white-wool wig.
And there’s that lightning/electricity dance number, which begins and ends without explanation of any kind. One minute the guests are hanging around the zeppelin whooping it up, the next minute a large group of people are dancing around an electrified pseudo-god and you’re agog at the costumes that crawl right up the chorus girls’ backsides — or the Siren was, anyway. Then, just as abruptly, it’s back to the arriving guests.
Johnson and Denny have a rather dull tryst and then, as if sensing this won’t suffice for dramatic action, DeMille unmoors the zeppelin and everyone has to parachute off. He has great fun filming the panicked guests and their landings in and around the Central Park reservoir. At times it’s so close to the rescue sequence in The Towering Inferno that I wondered if Irwin Allen had ever seen Madam Satan.
It is, as Eyman put it, a “movie that no one but DeMille could have directed--or would have wanted to: a musical comedy-romance-drama-disaster film.” With a zeppelin, yet. Still, if someone asked the Siren for reasons to see it, you'd better believe she'll mention the moment when a six-armed Hindu goddess lands in the middle of a craps game. But she’d start with Lillian Roth.