domingo, 16 de diciembre de 2018


On the reception of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1930 film Madam Satan
Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo

In the late 1920s, after the considerable economic success of films like The Broadway Melody (1929) and The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (1929), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios suggested to director Cecil B. DeMille to make a musical film. In those days, the “order of the day” to generate high revenues, according to Robert S. Birchard in his 2004 book Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood,[1] was the formula “all talking, all singing, all dancing” (241), given the recent commercial exploitation of sound in cinematography, especially after the technical and artistic accomplishments of The Jazz Singer (1927), which had produced over a million dollars in profits for the Warner Brothers company.
But, as Birchard explains, the result was otherwise, and the M-G-M studio records show a net loss of $390,000 for a production of nearly one million dollars. Yet Madam Satan (1930), the requested musical film, released by DeMille on September 24 of that same year, in its premiere in Los Angeles, California, ended up being “one of DeMille’s strangest films,” described by Birchard as “a social comedy incorporating elements of operetta and avant garde ballet, set aboard a captive dirigible” or “at least it’s captive until an electrical storm separates the airship from its mooring mast” (241), in a catastrophic sequence which anyway leads to a sort of happy ending with the surviving of the main characters of Angela and Bob Brooks (Kay Johnson and Reginald Denny, respectively), the trouble married couple of this plot written by Jeanie Macpherson with dialogues by Gladys Unger and Elsie Janis.
The synopsis provided for this “drama,” according to the American Film Institute catalogue website,[2] describes Angela Brooks as a “wealthy socialite” who “finds she is losing the love of her husband […] to a wild young showgirl named Trixie” (interpreted by Lillian Roth). Therefore, after being “advised by the maid” Martha (actress Elsa Peterson), the wife decides “to recapture her husband by taking on the personality of the mysterious Madame Satan.” As such, “at a costume party given aboard a giant dirigible, Angela entrances her husband by her modish vamping, amidst a spectacular electrical ballet in which characters simulate everything from sparkplugs to lightning bolts.” Then, when Angela, under the exotic and erotic disguise of Madam Satan, “has successfully ensnared him, the dirigible is struck by lightning, and the guests are forced to parachute from the ship.” In this point, “Angela gives her parachute to the distraught Trixie,” and only now her disputed husband seems to realize “his love for Angela” and “gives her his parachute” before he “dives from the ship, suffering only minor injuries by landing in the Central Park reservoir” of New York. The AFI synopsis concludes that “husband and wife are blissfully reunited” when the film ends, since Bob declares his regret for having been looking for a “fire” outside his marriage―miraculously saved literally from wreckage―: a carnal passion that now his own wife Angela is more than willing to offer to him within marriage. 
In the Warner Brothers official website,[3] the film Madam Satan is categorized under the genre of not only “drama,” but also “comedy” and “music/musicals.” And in their synopsis, referring to the husband protagonist, it is raised the question about the possible “end of his marriage to the demure spouse he left at home,” who “teaches her errant husband a lesson in love.” For the company, “the risqué plot is a hoot, but what really makes this film is its can-you-believe-it production values” where, “amazingly, the actors do their own stunts!”
In his book chapter1 dedicated to the Madam Satan, Birchard comments that, after the first film preview in San Bernardino, California, on July 29, 1930, the publicist Barrett Kiesling said that “it was very evident” that “extreme length was the only thing that kept the picture from being an absolutely succession of laughs.” Also, after a second preview held at Alexander Theater in Glendale, on August 19, “Kiesling reported that M-G-M executive Irving Thalberg hated the ‘Maid’s Song’ and wanted someone else to reshoot the scene,” but, anyway, “the overall audience reaction was positive”. So that, according to the memos from Kiesling to Cecil B. DeMille dated in August 1930, the “actual count picture clocked 239 laughs at Glendale,” in comparison with the number of “221 at San Bernardino and 139 at the studio.” Kiesling believes that “every cut made since San Bernardino definitely stepped up the pace of the picture and increased its value as a laugh getter” (246). Much of the public reaction of film critics that would soon appear in the press, also was centered about the comic nature of this difficult to categorize film.
Unfortunately, this “strong initial audience reaction had no impact on the ultimate success of the picture,” according to Birchard, because more than twenty musical films were produced in 1929, and, ultimately, this author affirms that “Madam Satan failed to ignite a spark at the box office.” One possible explanation is that “the picture suffered somewhat from the very different styles of the two songwriting teams”―Herbert Stothart/Clifford Grey and Elsie Janis/Jack King―whereas “the first half of the film features isolated song numbers, while the second half makes an abrupt turn toward operetta with involved ensemble recitatives often carrying the plot” (246). However, Birchard sustains that, “from a technical standpoint, it is hard to imagine a more accomplished film in 1930,” because, “while many other filmmakers were still struggling with how to adapt to talking pictures, DeMille demonstrated complete mastery of the new medium” (247).
In his 2010 book A Song in the Dark, The Birth of Musical Film,[4] Richard Barrios analyzes this film whose title was “courtesy of a 1914 silent” film that DeMille remembered. For Barrios, Madam Satan was predestined to fail even from the first half of the film, with “its bedroom-farce doings seemingly staged by someone with no sense of humor whatever.” But “then comes the second half,” with its “masquerade ball” which, according to him, “is one of the most blessedly bizarre pieces of pop cinema ever made, a twilight zone wherein operetta meets disaster epic:” “it would have to be fabulous to redeem that lethal first hour, and it is”, he adds between irony and enthusiasm. Indeed, Barrios admits that “Madam Satan may be an aberration, but it is assuredly not a cheat. It delivers on the spectacle and has vigor on the musical end as well” (250).
Barrios considers that, part of the economic fiasco of this film, was that “the Depression had begun to alter the national mood irretrievably while Madam Satan was in production,” so that, “by the time DeMille’s fantasia reached theaters, it was essentially obsolete.” For this author, “this kind of free-form hallucination”―the “utmost example of the trend”―“in its very derangement, it embodies a distinctive trait of original musicals: they tended to treat the medium as a collage of found objects, jamming the most ordinary conventions alongside some truly lunatic notions.”  What’s more, DeMille’s Madam Satan for Barrios, “in once clean sweep, it seems to embody the end of the Jazz Age, the collapse of American prosperity, the death throes of early musicals, and, most literally, the flop of this last baroque gasp of twenties frivolity” (252).
In his 2010 book Empire of Dreams,[5] Scott Eyman agrees with Barrios about the reception disappointment of Madam Satan in economic terms. For Eyman, this film―“an impressive picture that manages to look more like a DeMille picture than an MGM picture” (272)―was “undertaken at a time when musicals were the rage, but unfortunately released when musicals had become a drag on the market.” Furthermore, this author also considers the fact that, although “DeMille liked and appreciated music,” in practice by then he “hadn’t dabbled in it professionally since the long-ago days when he and Jesse Lasky had collaborated in operettas” (269).
DeMille himself had referred to Madam Satan as an “operetta,” in an early note to actress Jeannie Macpherson, who was to become the screenplay writer of this film. Eyman explains that “the idea was to make a lavish, modern version of the Strauss operetta Die Fledermaus,” whose purpose was only “entertainment” according to the director before starting the filming process as such, but that for a while DeMille was also “clearly uneasy about the idea, but was persuaded by Mayer.” Thus, for Eyman, part of “the ultimate failing of Madam Satan, and, by extension, his entire sojourn with MGM, was that, for one of the few times in his life, DeMille was following trends instead of starting them,” given that back then “on some level, his failure with independent  production had shaken his faith in his own instincts” (269). Also, another cause could have been that, following his own “basic attitude towards censors” of “indifference,” DeMille “had flatly refused to make any changes in Madam Satan and had been backed by Irving Thalberg,” one of the producers of MGM, as they wondered “why should any small group of people decide what the rest of the world should see” (294, 295). According to Eyman, Thalberg simply just “watched wonderingly from a distance as the DeMille exercised his contractual rights forbidding any interference from the MGM hierarchy,” and the producer’s “pithy summation of the film” was simply that Madam Satan “contained no semblance of reality” (273).
Simon Louvish, in his 2007 book devoted to the life and work of Cecil B. DeMille,[6] also mentions that “as the 1930s began” and “Cecil was ready to embark on his second film with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer,” “Mayer was pressing him to make a musical” that “would mark a decisive break with the jazz age and all its licentious excursions.” The film was, of course, Madam Satan, filmed from March to May 1930, “arguably DeMille’s weirdest film,” according to this author, with “another arcane and bizarre script which rang the bells of all Cecil’s obsessions with money, adultery, sexual titillation and American urban decadence” (300) and besides also including a catastrophe sequence which is “without a doubt DeMille’s most bizarre scene” and “one of the strangest in twentieth-century cinema” (303).
Louvish also considers that Madam Satan “falls into two distinct parts.” First, “for almost an hour, we are treated to a slow moving, almost interminable unfolding of the plot line” (300). And then―in “a variation on The Golden Bed’s Candy Ball,” a 1925 film by DeMille―a second part that “is entirely taken up by Jimmy Wade’s ‘Masquerade’ ball, which is held on board a Zeppelin moored at a tower overlooking the New York skyline.” Curiously enough, Louvish notices that, “in an untypical self-referential touch, the Zeppelin is named C.B.P-55, i.e. DeMille’s fifty-fifth picture―by his own count!” (301) 
Although Madam Satan is chronologically a pre-Code film, Louvish comments that the censor Colonel Jason S. Joy, director of the Studio Relations Committee (SRC, precursor to the PCA, Production Code Administration), early in 1930 before the filming started “had sent DeMille an eleven-page letter in January listing the manifold transgressions of Madam Satan’s script” as well as “requesting a large number of cuts” (301).
The tragedy of the dirigible struck by thunder and lightning during a storm, and then cut loose from its moorings and sent plunging towards the city below, reminds Louvish of another “classic catastrophe” in DeMille’s filmography―“the sinking of the Veritania in The Little American” (1917)―although “this time reflecting not the horrors of war but the inevitable wreck of a demented society,” in a “hallucinatory imagery” visually related “with the tropes of surrealism―or its precursor, the madcap artistic antics of Dada―as the art-deco designs of the floating ballroom with its fizzing machines and ‘futuristic’ props are crushed in an inferno of broken metal and the blimp’s giant deflating shroud” (302, 303).
However, Louvish believes that such visual connections were only formal, not conceptual, since “unlike the Dadaists and the surrealists, who had declared their own revolution against social convention and hierarchies, social etiquette, class repression and religion,” in fact “DeMille’s grand apotheosis is a profoundly conservative statement” where traditional family values are finally to be restored, after being questioned both by the rather childish behavior of the extramarital lovers and by the comedy tone proper of the film. Transgressions in Madam Satan are thus castigated when the plot leads to “raining its jaded, cowed and terrified fallen youth out of the black sky over Sin City New York.” And the adulterous husband, always in search of erotic adventures outside marriage, “is back with his wife, bickering but content,” for “he knows that exciting Madam Satan now lurks behind the cosy and dull exterior” of his spouse Angela―the selection of her name making explicit the tension between the stereotypes of the demons of desire and angelic domesticity (303). 
          Given the eclectic strangeness of the visual poetics of this film, Scott Eyman5 is convinced that “Madam Satan is a movie that no one but DeMille could have directed―or would have wanted to: a musical/romance/drama/disaster film that touches on his marital comedies of the World War I period,” besides being a film that “takes a lot of shots at male egos, possibly the result of the three females writers, not to mention DeMille’s own self-awareness”. But, despite the intentions of the director of dealing with sexual impulses and their legitimacy in the different spheres of modern life, Eyman criticizes that the final cast selected for the married Brooks couple “is utterly sexless,” so that “the film itself is dramatically overamplified and lacks charm.” Yet, this author admits that, as “DeMille ladles on complications and genres indiscriminately and audaciously,” the resulting audience impression should be of the kind: “it’s impossible to take the film seriously, but it’s equally impossible not to be entertained” (273).
Eyman also refers that, after his initial enthusiasm during the filming and promotion of the film, “DeMille didn’t much like Madam Satan,” just as “neither did MGM’s accountants,” because, considering the “advertising and publicity costs, MGM’s loss came to more than $250,000.” In this respect, the author quotes what the MGM publicity head Pete Smith had written to DeMille about his own reactions after participating in the previews of this film: “Interest in singing and dancing on the screen is at a low point as far as the public is concerned. This phase of the picture, it seems to me, should be cut to a minimum.” And then, according to Eyman, “Smith went on to say that it was not a picture that could be shown at high prices or reserved seats” and, as such, he “suggested a long list of cuts” in order to “keep all the drama, the love and the laughs in the picture,” while cutting down “on singing, dancing” to yield “a box office picture that moves right along.” Smith even suggested to DeMille that some of the comedy moments were “very Mack Sennetty,” in a reference to the American film actor, director, producer, and studio head Mack Sennett, known as the King of Comedy. But, again, “despite equivalent rumblings from Irving Thalberg, DeMille ignored most of Smith’s comments, as Smith would have known he would” (275).
As early as October 6, 1930, the first regularly assigned motion picture critic for The New York Times, Mordaunt Hall, wrote a review [7] about what he considered “an inept story with touches of comedy that are more tedious than laughable,” where “occasional songs are rendered” in “a strange conglomeration of unreal incidents that are sometimes set forth with no little technical skill.” That is, “Cecil B. DeMille’s latest audible film, Madam Satan”. Hall, in his sardonically judgmental tone, thought that “the persons involved elicit but faint interest” because “the characters are no more than DeMillean puppets”, although they “try their best, first to carry out DeMille’s instructions, then to act as well as they can in the circumstances. But every now and again they are called upon not to hear or see that which one thinks they ought to.” Hall only concedes that, in the sequence when “half of the airship descends” and “the skies are filled with passengers and oddly contrived parachutes,” “Mr. DeMille then puts on some comedy that is rather effective.” In fact, for the critic this “confusion and excitement after lightning strikes the ship is done imaginatively in those scenes of the clamorous throngs, but most ludicrously when it comes to the principal characters, who appear to be arguing as coolly over parachuting to earth as if they were talking about taking an umbrella in case it rained.” And Halls concludes by calling DeMille a “master of golden beds and spacious bathtubs” who “shows two kinds of baths in this film—the bird-bath, of which mention has been made, and the shower bath in which Brooks and Jimmy Wade, after a very wet night, take a drenching while still in their dress clothes, as they jabber about the rain.” In this last respect, over two years later, “Captain Roscoe Fawcett” even dedicated his column [8] “Screen Oddities” in Daily Boston Globe to explain how “many humorous references have been made about Cecil B. DeMille as ‘the bathtub king of the movies’ because of the elaborate bath scenes he has had in his films”, only to admit that “actually he has had such scenes only” in “seven pictures out of the 56 he has directed,” including of course Madam Satan.
In a similar mode, a few days later in Los Angeles Times, in a note [9] by Norbert Lusk titled “Satan unsympathetic,” the author comments that, beyond the undeniable “Cecil De Mille’s mastery of his own peculiar field,” his film Madam Satan “has not evoked either the critical praise or the popular approval” of other back then recent films by this director, because, while the “spectacular effects are lavish and novel, and the story is undeniably removed from the conventional,” still the audiences “are inclined not to take either characters or situation seriously, their attitude toward the picture being that of persons who are viewing a show, rather than a play.” For Lusk, despite the skills of actors and actresses, “the sum total of their efforts, as well as those of Mr. DeMille and his collaborators, has failed to arouse that enthusiasm expected of their combined talents.”
Los Angeles Times had also published a couple of weeks earlier an opinion [10] by Edwin Schallert, which praised Madam Satan for a number of reasons: “testing the capacity of the sound screen for spectacular dazzle, not to say razzle-dazzle;” “such an ear-assailing storm of sound has seldom if ever been heard from the loud-speakers and if realism be the word, then the De Mille production seems to have plenty of it;” “costumes and settings, extreme though they may be, are a fulfillment of the designer’s art;” “De Mille is still the master of the circusy exploit.” Yet, Schallert also poses some serious questions to Madam Satan: “the plot is thin and the dialogue lacks the real edge of brightness;” “there are song numbers, but none noteworthy;” “the general impression of the De Mille picture is that it is too much in one key;” “there is a staginess about the whole result that casts anything approaching conviction to one side.” The overall criteria was that this film was at large a fabulous but failed effort and, still one year after its September 1930 premier, Schallert [11] insisted in Los Angeles Times that, even accepting that “De Mille has always been a flamboyant director,” his Madam Satan “perhaps more than any other production disclosed this inclination at its worst.”
It is to notice that, during the production of Madam Satan, the printed press contributed to create great expectations about this film, including Los Angeles Times, which earlier in March had released a commentary [12] announcing that “the finest of studio service has been put at DeMille’s command to make this picture the biggest and best in his spectacle parade.” The note also included some challenging declarations by the director himself, such as “I call this a devilish comedy with heavenly music. Do not be confused, it is not a musical comedy, but a comedy with music. I hesitate to call it a farce, because the public doesn’t understand farce, but that is what is it.”
Early in October 1930 The Washington Post published a more positive column [13] about the film recently released, praising the performance of the protagonists and somehow questioning the skeptical reception by professional critics in other mass media by emphasizing the comic tone of Madam Satan—“this DeMille farce is by and large one of the best of the season”—: “as a spectacle, the zeppelin scenes are somewhat short of sending chills up and down your spine, but as a laugh producer it hasn’t been bettered in a long time;” “if you take your photoplays seriously and expect them to follow real life with great persistency, you’ll think Madam Satan is not so good, but if you like to drop in on a show and let your laughing muscles expand, your health will improve 100 per cent in a little more than an hour;” “the picture is a steady stream of laughs. Even in the more serious portions there are innumerable comic occurrences so that you just can’t take the piece seriously. So the next best thing is to take it as a comedy, and it’s a good one.”
Around the same date and in a similar vein, Zack Elton—who used the nom-de-plume Mae Tinee, derived from “matinee”—mentions in a short note [14] of “demilleffusion” published by Chicago Daily Tribune that Madam Satan is a “gay, risqué comedy, with some devastatingly funny lines, situations, and pantomime.” Besides, acknowledging that “as we all know, simplicity and Mr. De Mille are not to be mentioned in the same breath,” the columnist affirms that “the production is a gorgeously accoutred thing and the principals in the cast are delightful people—with a flair for the particular roles they play in Madam Satan.” To conclude, the author insists in inviting her readers to watch the film: “if you patronize this show you’ll hear some charming music—the words of which you can’t always understand—and see some unusual sets and costumes. You’ll be enamored with two-thirds of the production, and—it all depends on you—you may hungrily swallow ‘Madam Satan’ hook, line and sinker.”
Early in 1931 another note [15] appeared in the section “What—And What Not—To See” edited by Leonard Wallace for The Film Weekly, presenting Madam Satan to the readers but mainly in descriptive terms about its plot, granting that “some of you may accept that in itself as a very outspoken criticism.” Yet, despite questioning the fact that the “singing runs annoyingly through the picture,” the author praises the acting of the protagonist Madam Satan and he concedes that “Mr. de Mille, who is Hollywood’s unchallenged king of spectacular hokum, has a genius for taking what would normally be the high spots of several successful pictures and making one film of the whole lot,” so that “in Madam Satan he has given us a perfect de Mille ‘movie’.”
Despite being a film which didn’t make profits for MGM—in part because of its extremely high production costs—Madam Satan was anyway watched by massive audiences in America, and a number of minor notices welcomed this visual experiment by DeMille around its premiere date. Among others, a note [16] in The Hartford Daily Courant mentioned that “the dialogue is witty” in “a pot-pourri which turns out to be a very appetizing movie dish,” whose “production is presented on a lavish scale” for a story “that shows a surprising tenacity and strength in being able to thread itself into the complicated structure of the picture.”
However, time has somehow thrown this peculiar and in more than one sense problematic film into precisely—unfairly—a laughable place in American cinematography: a film nowadays “of real interest only of students of DeMille,” and that, if shown again in a retrospective festival, for example, would be only “to allow audiences to laugh at this great old master of spectacular corn,” given that “real life was not his forte,” as the film critic Vincent Canby wrote in a 1982 note [17] published by The New York Times.
Perhaps, given its extravagant complexity and remix of speech registers, as well as the social resonances and dissonances of this film, not only within its concrete context but also in the historical longue durée, like other art pieces displaced from the mainstream tradition and other fascinating failures which then become art of cult, Madam Satan also merits—hopefully before its first centenary in the next decade—a critical revisiting which could recycle its creative codes and trigger a sort of reception rebirth.

[1] Birchard, Robert S. Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2004.

[2] AFI, American Film Institute. Madam Satan (1930).

[4] Barrios, Richard. A Song in the Dark. The Birth of Musical Film. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

[5] Eyman, Scott. Empire of Dreams. The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010.

[6] Louvish, Simon. Cecil B. DeMille, A Life in Art. New York: Thomas Dunne Books / St. Martin Press, 2007.

[7] Hall, Mordaunt. “THE SCREEN; A De Millean Air Feature. On a Sinking Liner.” The New York Times. 6 Oct 1930.

[8] Fawcett, Roscoe. "SCREEN ODDITIES." Daily Boston Globe. 30 Dec 1932, p. 23.

[9] Lusk, Norbert. “PATHE PICTURE BEST OF WEEK.” Los Angeles Times. 12 Oct 1930, p.1.

[10] Schallert, Edwin. "ZEP COLLAPSE FILM CLIMAX." Los Angeles Times. 26 Sep 1930, p.7.

[11] Schallert, Edwin. "WILL ERSTWHILE KINGS RESHINE?" Los Angeles Times. 2 Oct 1931, p.11.

[12] Boland, Elena. "DE MILLE MAKES DISCOVERY SATAN WAS ‘MADAME’." Los Angeles Times. 2 Mar 1930, p. 1.

[14] Tinee, Mae. "‘Madame Satan’ Will Appear to Adults Only." Chicago Daily Tribune. 9 Oct 1930, p. 29.

[15] "West End Films Reviewed: MADAM SATAN." Film Weekly. vol. 5, no. 120, 31 Jan 1931, pp. 23-24.

[16] "Old Triangle in Picture at Capitol." The Hartford Courant. 20 Sep 1930, pp. 4.

[17] Canby, Vincent. "Cecil B. De Mille’s ‘Madam Satan’." The New York Times. 26 Sep 1982, p. 55.

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