The Sin of Madelon Claudet
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An innocent Normandy farm girl, Madelon Claudet (Helen Hayes) falls in love with a wealthy American (Neil Hamilton). He convinces her to live with him in Paris as he pursues a painting career in the fallen woman melodrama The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931).
When Larry is called away to America, Madelon's troubles begin. He abandons Madelon for a woman back home from his own social class. Madelon is left pregnant and all alone. Deliverance seems to arrive in the form of a wealthy man Carlo Boretti (Lewis Stone) who offers to keep Madelon in luxurious style, though she fears telling Boretti about the child she's had out of wedlock.
On the eve of her apparent salvation, as Boretti agrees to both marry Madelon and take in her illegitimate child, who has been living with friends Rosalie (Marie Prevost) and Victor (Cliff Edwards), disaster strikes yet again. Boretti is arrested, Madelon is sent to prison and upon her release many years later is faced with a terrible choice. Will she reenter her son's life and mar his future with her shame? Or will she stay away and allow her son to become a doctor? Madelon chooses the latter, and pays for Jacques's (Robert Young) medical training by becoming a prostitute, a further fall from grace marked in The Sin of Madelon Claudet with a shocking authenticity.
Hollywood in the Twenties and Thirties was filled with stories of women whose one bad mistake ended in lifelong misery and heartache. The one chance for redemption for such women was often a gesture of self-sacrifice so extraordinary, it would remove the taint of sin. In Madelon's case that martyrdom came in an exquisite case of mother-love, a theme revisited in films like Stella Dallas (1925, 1937) and Imitation of Life (1934) and another maternal tearjerker, "Madame X," Alexandre Bisson's play that was adapted numerous times for the screen.
M-G-M producer Irving Thalberg was determined to bring prestige to the studio by luring Broadway's finest to Hollywood. Theater star Helen Hayes was one of his chosen transplants from the world of the theater. Hayes was enticed to join M-G-M by the chance to star in the film version of Edward Knoblock's 1923 "The Lullaby," a play known for its sexually frankness that had starred Florence Reed on Broadway.
"Nobody at MGM knew exactly what to do with me," recounted Hayes in her autobiography of her move from the East to the West Coast. "The studio already had most of the female superstars under contract Garbo, Harlow, Shearer, Crawford, Jeanette MacDonald, Marion Davies. How was a plain Jane like me to stand out in such a glamorous lineup?"
"There were so many things I didn't have or wasn't, that it seemed best for me to quit then and there. But Mr. Mayer had an idea. I would be promoted as 'The Great Actress.'"
The Sin of Madelon Claudet was initially previewed at a theater outside of Los Angeles. It was an unmitigated disaster panned by the press. Reviewers noted Hayes' impressive performance, but took issue with the sappy, conventionalized story. Thalberg hoped to salvage the film by calling in a new playwright, Charles MacArthur, who also happened to be Hayes' current husband. MacArthur did a thorough revision, dispensing with tangential characters and creating a framing story in which Jacques' doctor mentor Dr. Dulac (Jean Hersholt) tells Madelon's story to Jacques' young wife Alice (Karen Morley). Alice complains that she has sacrificed too much for Jacques' medical career. Dulac responds with the tale of Madelon's ultimate sacrifice for love.
During breaks on the filming of Arrowsmith for Samuel Goldwyn (a loan-out project), Hayes tried to squeeze in the shooting of new scenes for The Sin of Madelon Claudet. But when Goldwyn got wind of her moonlighting, she was advised to finish his first.
In its new form, retitled from The Lullaby to The Sin of Madelon Claudet, the film was a hit. Hayes was again praised by critics, but this time alongside the film. Hayes also received an Academy Award for Best Actress in a role that had her age over the course of several decades, transforming with utter credibility from a young innocent to a haggard old woman.
Despite that early success in Hollywood starring in her first feature film, Hayes' first love was the stage. In between her theater work she would occasionally return to Hollywood for supporting parts, including a performance in 1970's Airport for which she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar®.
Director: Edgar Selwyn
Producer: Irving Thalberg
Screenplay: Charles MacArthur based on a play "The Lullaby" by Edward Knoblock
Cinematography: Oliver T. Marsh
Production Design: Cedric Gibbons
Cast: Helen Hayes (Madelon Claudet), Lewis Stone (Carlo Boretti), Neil Hamilton (Larry), Robert Young (Dr. Claudet), Cliff Edwards (Victor), Jean Hersholt (Dr. Dulac), Marie Prevost (Rosalie).
BW-76m. Closed captioning.
by Felicia Feaster