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 learns the error of his ways when his wife dons a glamorous disguise and seduces him just before a climactic dirigible crash seemed wildly uneven, fans today appreciate the film for its ironic, Pre-Code humor and brazen attempt to provide something for everyone.
DeMille had left the studio with which he would be associated most of his life, Paramount, in 1929 in search of a better financial arrangement and more control over his work. The result was a three-picture deal with MGM that 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 Madame Satan as the result.
The story was pure DeMille, harking back to such earlier hits as Old Wives for New (1918) and Don't Change Your Husband (1919), silent hits that combined risqu¿lots about the battle of the sexes with moralistic endings that usually saw husband and wife reunited after at least flirting with infidelity. Marital infidelity was nothing new to DeMille. The writer of many of his films, including his silent sex comedies and Madame Satan, was also his longtime mistress, Jeanie Macpherson, who would remain on his payroll until her death in 1946.
DeMille kept things in the family by casting his adopted daughter, Katherine DeMille, in her first recognizable screen role, as a society girl attending the lavish party on the dirigible as one of Henry VIII's six wives ( "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 day of shooting, the six wives were required to dive into a circus net as part of their escape from the dirigible. When the other girls resisted her father's direction, Katherine had to take the leap first to shame the rest of them into doing their jobs.
Other cast members had similar problems. Singer Lillian Roth, on loan from Paramount to play the other woman, tried to get out of jumping from a ledge 200 feet above the stage floor (in full costume for the party--as a pheasant). She begged her boss back at Paramount, Walter Wanger, to get her a double, but ended up having to do the jump five times herself. Next DeMille wanted her to jump through a sheet of candy glass (fake glass used for stunts like that). On another film, she had seen comedian Lupino Lane injured going through candy glass, so she protested. Just to show her how safe it was, DeMille broke a sheet of it over his own head. She had no choice but to comply.
Things were rough behind-the-scenes, too. MGM, still a relatively young company at the time, didn't have enough sound stages to accommodate current production, so each sound stage was used by three different film companies in shifts. That meant that each day started with art director (and future director) Mitchell Leisen supervising the reconstruction of the set, and each day ended with his having it taken down again. In addition, the party scenes were shot in an early form of Technicolor that required hot, intense lights and limited Leisen's color palette. The strain resulted in a nervous breakdown for Leisen, but shooting dragged on for so long that the film was still in production when he'd recovered enough to return to work.
DeMille was too stubborn to ever have a breakdown himself, but he must have come close to one when the box office results came in. The picture had cost almost a million dollars to make and barely brought back half that amount. In an effort to score on familiar territory, he suggested for his next project a re-make of The Squaw Man, which had been his first feature film in 1914. When that turned out to be an even bigger disaster, he returned to Paramount, where he immediately bounced back into the winners' circle with his Christians-vs.-lions epic The Sign of the Cross (1932). He would never make another musical, though he would maintain his working relationship with choreographer LeRoy Prinz through the rest of his career. Ironically, Madame Satan had one important effect on the future of the musical. Russian dancer Theodore Kosloff, a star of several of DeMille's silent films and the lead dancer in Madame Satan's "Ballet Mechanique" was a major influence on the work of DeMille's niece, Agnes DeMille, whose choreography for Oklahoma! in 1943 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").
by Frank Miller