There are some directors who failed and faltered in the sound revolution. There are others who made a success of the new form and were even revitalised by it. Cecil B. DeMille is perhaps in a league of his own, who with Madam Satan created a work suffering from all the awkwardness of the worst early talkies, and yet one gloriously weird and wonderful in a way that only his pictures could be.
It's true; Madam Satan is incredibly stilted and static in its construction. I'm not referring to the anchored camera – DeMille didn't really rely on camera movement anyway. But like many early talkies it places too much importance on dialogue, and is structured like a stage play with very long and very wordy scenes. The sound recording is appalling and sometimes we can hear dialogue when characters are in long shot, which seems very unnatural. Like most early musicals the numbers are spoiled by indecipherable operatic vocals.
But never fear! Madam Satan was scripted by the delightfully barmy Jeanie Macpherson. What's more we find DeMille, ever with his finger to the wind, putting his own grandiose and unashamedly smutty spin on the bedroom-comedy musical genre that was making such a splash at his old stomping ground, Paramount. The result is one of the most unintentionally surreal pictures I have ever seen. We begin with some Lubitsch-esque bed-hopping comedy scenes, sprinkled with a few songs. We then decamp to a fancy-dress party on board a Zeppelin (why not?) for an extended musical sequence, which looks like the result of Fritz Lang hiring Busby Berkeley to direct a scene in Metropolis. Just as the characters' passions start to run away with them, it suddenly turns into a disaster movie – a bit of a DeMille-Macpherson trademark, that.
Madam Satan is also special in that it is perhaps the only DeMille comedy which is actually rather funny. The occasionally witty dialogue was probably Gladys Unger's contribution to the screenplay, but what really makes it work is the excellent comic timing and rapport of Reginald Denny, Lillian Roth and Roland Young. In comparison to these three very satisfying cast members, leading lady Kay Johnson seems rather bland, and has "poor-man's Jeanette MacDonald" written all over her.
Most of the songs are by Herbert Stothart, who would soon rise to become MGM's in-house composer. Musically they are fairly forgettable, although it's interesting how they are used to define character and drive the plot forward in a way that later became standard but was by no means a given in the very earliest musicals. DeMille, always a very rhythmic director, shoots some great dance numbers, and shows great musical sensitivity for the "All I Know Is You're in My Arms" number, tracking along with the silhouetted dancers, and putting in a wonderful slow tilt when they are still, corresponding to the swell in the music. It's a shame this was his only musical.
Madam Satan has got to be one of the weirdest film experiences I have ever had, and after my first viewing I wasn't quite sure if perhaps I dreamt it. It was (sniff) the last significant contribution to a DeMille picture by Jeanie Macpherson, and while all his work after this was filled with adventure and spectacle, they were missing a certain something that only she could bring. Madam Satan is however an appropriately daffy swansong – a boozy, art-deco, all-talking, all-dancing concotion that is worth watching for its sheer oddness.
Comedy / Drama / Musical / Romance
Comedy / Drama / Musical / Romance
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Angela and Bob Brooks are an upper-class couple. Unfortunately, Bob is an unfaithful husband, but Angela has a plan to win back her husband's affections. An elaborate masquerade ball is to be held aboard a magnificent dirigible. Angela will attend and disguise herself as a mysterious devil woman. Hidden behind her mask, and wrapped in an alluring gown, Angela as the devil woman will to try to seduce her unknowing husband and teach him a lesson.—Thomas McWilliams
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