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Saturday, May 13, 2017

DeMille Aloft At MGM


Madam Satan (1930) Tickles Lunatic Fringe

With such a title plus finish on a runaway zeppelin, there's little wondering why this lines them up at precode festivity, but there's a long wait getting to fun, and for all promise of her titular character, Kay Johnson is pretty glacial. Her tiltings with errant husband Reginald Denny makes you wonder how they got together to begin with; we're never vested in this couple's problem. Denny had amused in a series of domestic comedies for Universal, but they were silent with fleet of movement; Madam Satan is caught for much of a first half between four walls with players stock still. Cecil B. DeMille directed on lavish Metro scale, being awkward guest there despite a multi-pic contract and all smiles upon signing. No way would Thalberg and Mayer let him be king of Culver hill, as he'd been (and would be again) at Paramount. Where Madam Satan takes off is aboard the doomed zep, where first is staged an art deco blowout with scant-clad chorines and Denny getting dithers over masked K. Johnson.


This latter third is how fan base would like all precode to play. It's bizarre, wildly uninhibited, and filled to cusp with special-fx peculiar to uncertain era of silent-to-talk transition. DeMille looked to be in something for everyone mode, Madam Satan conveying almost a desperation to please. Thalberg was unimpressed and proven right by losing numbers, ice beneath C.B.'s feet slickened from there. If not for red ink from Madam Satan and two others DeMille made for Leo, Dynamite and The Squaw Man, he might have thrived as contract helmsman, but how to reconcile C.B.'s iconoclast ways with bend-to-will-of-management policy at Metro? He simply could not last there. Madam Satan would go years in obscurity; when TV stations bothered, it was cut to tatters, though few cared for woeful dating of content. Like so much from the early 30's, Madam Satan needed a spike that only cultists could hammer, rebirth the by-product of MGM's library being played finally to nationwide viewership via TNT and later Turner Classic Movies. Were it not for these outlets, Madam Satan would surely have stayed obscure.

4 Comments:

Blogger Barry Rivadue said...

I always liked the jaunty music in this movie, especially as delivered by the effervescent Lillian Roth. If only it was in early technicolor, but even in b&w the zeppelin sequence is like a wildly stylish series of ink drawings.

8:00 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

One project DeMille came close to doing in the late silent/early talkie era was When Worlds Collide; in some ways Madam Satan gives us as close a view of DeMille's idea of 1920s apocalypse as we're ever going to get.

3:16 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer reflects on "Madam Satan":


"Madame Satan" is very close in theme to "Let Us Be Gay," the Norma Shearer starrer that was released two months earlier--a seemingly dowdy wife fashions a glamorous alter ego to win back her straying husband--so close that you'd almost wonder whether there wasn't some cross-pollination on the M-G-M lot. "Let Us Be Gay," however, was based upon a 1929 play by Rachel Crothers which starred Tallulah Bankhead in its London run, while "Madame Satan" was supposedly an original by Jeannie MacPherson. If there was a link between the two, "Madame Satan" was "Let Us Be Gay" on hallucinogens. The zeppelin sequence is truly bizarre and of course the air ship would come crashing to earth. It was the acme of the airship age, and that's all they seemed to be doing. The R-101, R-38, Shenandoah, and Roma, and later the great navy airships Macon and Akron and then, with absolute finality, the Hindenburg, all coming down, often in fiery spectacles with great loss of life, unlike the one in this film, with chorines gaily kicking their legs as their parachutes float pass the process screen. "Madame Satan" is brisk, entirely inconsequential, and far removed from anything passing for reality, but it's fun while it lasts. Certainly one could do worse than accepting the invitation, "Who wants to go to hell with Madame Satan?" Just have a parachute ready.

6:13 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Regarding that newspaper ad: I looked up the short that ran with "Madame Satan," "Plastered," and discovered that it was something I had seen a decade ago. I'd forgotten the title and the name of the team. After a little searching, found it on Vimeo. It's pretty funny; Disney ordered his animators to study Willie, West & McGinty before working on similar Mickey/Donald/Goofy cartoons. Here's the link: https://vimeo.com/119407253

11:01 AM  

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