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Madame Satan

Madame Satan(1930)

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Madame Satan (1930)

"Who wants to go to hell with Madame Satan!"
Kay Johnson in Madame Satan

Producer-director Cecil B. DeMille must have felt he was in hell when he saw the box office receipts for Madame Satan (1930), an unpopular (at the time) hybrid of musical and romantic melodrama. Yet even though this strange tale of a straying husband who learnsthe error of his ways when his wife dons a glamorous disguise and seduceshim just before a climactic dirigible crash seemed wildly uneven,fans today appreciate the film for its ironic, Pre-Code humor and brazen attempt toprovide something for everyone.

DeMille had left the studio with which he would be associated most of hislife, Paramount, in 1929 in search of a better financial arrangement andmore control over his work. The result was a three-picture deal with MGMthat had started promisingly enough with the action hit Dynamite(1929), his first all-talking film. To take advantage of the new medium,studio head Louis B. Mayer urged him to tackle a musical, with MadameSatan as the result.

The story was pure DeMille, harking back to such earlier hits as OldWives for New (1918) and Don't Change Your Husband (1919),silent hits that combined risqulots about the battle of the sexes withmoralistic endings that usually saw husband and wife reunited after atleast flirting with infidelity. Marital infidelity was nothing new toDeMille. The writer of many of his films, including his silent sexcomedies and Madame Satan, was also his longtime mistress, JeanieMacpherson, who would remain on his payroll until her death in1946.

DeMille kept things in the family by casting his adopted daughter,Katherine DeMille, in her first recognizable screen role, as a society girlattending the lavish party on the dirigible as one of Henry VIII's sixwives ( "a horrid fate for anyone's daughter" he would later call it).Katherine's costume was made of silver and quite heavy. On her first dayof shooting, the six wives were required to dive into a circus net as partof their escape from the dirigible. When the other girls resisted herfather's direction, Katherine had to take the leap first to shame the restof them into doing their jobs.

Other cast members had similar problems. Singer Lillian Roth, on loan fromParamount to play the other woman, tried to get out of jumping from a ledge200 feet above the stage floor (in full costume for the party--as apheasant). She begged her boss back at Paramount, Walter Wanger, to gether a double, but ended up having to do the jump five times herself. NextDeMille wanted her to jump through a sheet of candy glass (fake glass usedfor stunts like that). On another film, she had seen comedian Lupino Laneinjured going through candy glass, so she protested. Just to show her howsafe it was, DeMille broke a sheet of it over his own head. She had nochoice but to comply.

Things were rough behind-the-scenes, too. MGM, still a relatively youngcompany at the time, didn't have enough sound stages to accommodate currentproduction, so each sound stage was used by three different film companiesin shifts. That meant that each day started with art director (and futuredirector) Mitchell Leisen supervising the reconstruction of the set, andeach day ended with his having it taken down again. In addition, the partyscenes were shot in an early form of Technicolor that required hot, intenselights and limited Leisen's color palette. The strain resulted in anervous breakdown for Leisen, but shooting dragged on for so long that the film wasstill in production when he'd recovered enough to return to work.

DeMille was too stubborn to ever have a breakdown himself, but he must havecome close to one when the box office results came in. The picture hadcost almost a million dollars to make and barely brought back half thatamount. In an effort to score on familiar territory, he suggested for hisnext project a re-make of The Squaw Man, which had been hisfirst feature film in 1914. When that turned out to be an even biggerdisaster, he returned to Paramount, where he immediately bounced back into thewinners' circle with his Christians-vs.-lions epic The Sign of theCross (1932). He would never make another musical, though he wouldmaintain his working relationship with choreographer LeRoy Prinz throughthe rest of his career. Ironically, Madame Satan had one importanteffect on the future of the musical. Russian dancer Theodore Kosloff, astar of several of DeMille's silent films and the lead dancer in MadameSatan's "Ballet Mechanique" was a major influence on the work ofDeMille's niece, Agnes DeMille, whose choreography for Oklahoma! in1943 would revolutionize the musical theater.

Producer-Director: Cecil B. DeMille
Screenplay: Jeanie Macpherson, Gladys Unger, Elsie Janis
Cinematography: Harold Rosson
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Mitchell Leisen
Score: Herbert Stothart
Cast: Kay Johnson (Angela Brooks), Reginald Denny (Bob Brooks),Lillian Roth (Trixie), Roland Young (Jimmy Wade), Elsa Peterson (Martha),Boyd Irwin (Captain), Katherine DeMille (Extra), Theodore Kosloff(Electricity, "Ballet Mechanique").
BW-116m.

by Frank Miller

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