From my Retro-Fit column at Nomad Wide Screen, a look at Cecil B. DeMille's Madam Satan. It's one of those pre-Code movies that the Warner Archive people have recently made available, and it's getting some small buzz on Twitter and elsewhere due to its sheer, well, craziness.
Be warned, however, that said craziness takes a while (about an hour) to manifest. First you must endure the rather pallid Kay Johnson, who plays Angela, moping around about husband Bob's (Reginald Denny) infidelity, and you must accept Roland Young's playing a randy sidekick, before it's at long last time for everyone to put on some Adrian costumes and start partying on an insanely large zeppelin.
The Siren wonders if she could have worked harder to make that into a metaphor for life...aren't we all, in some sense, waiting to party on a zeppelin? No? Maybe it's just the Siren.
Anyway, until that point, the main reason to watch is a certain singer and actress who once had some craziness with the Marx Brothers and found herself played by Susan Hayward in a 1950s up-from-alcohol biopic. Read on:
But then, thank goodness, we shift to the apartment of Bob’s bit on the side, Trixie, played by Lillian Roth. For later generations, Roth’s claim to fame would be writing the first major recovery memoir, I’ll Cry Tomorrow, about how she plummeted into alcoholism and degradation and reclaimed her life through Alcoholics Anonymous. By the time Roth published it, in 1953, her movie career was so long over it was a dim memory for most, and Madam Satan shows how big a shame that was. Roth could dance, she could sing and she was sexy beyond belief. When she flings off her rumpled satin robe and twitches her pelvis to the “Low Down” number, the vaudeville energy of this rather plump, frowsy jazz baby ignites the entire movie. Even the other actors catch fire around her, from the accompanist calling, “Put some pepper in it, Papa wants to sneeze!” to Roland Young snapping, “I wouldn’t marry you to keep warm on an iceberg.”
At long last, we’re on the zeppelin, and things start to cook. It’s a ravishing bunch of sets, like the unholy offspring of Metropolis and The Hollywood Revue of 1929 — big ramps and shiny Bakelite staircases angling up and down. People mill about in a series of costumes as marvelously tasteless as anything MGM ever did. Particularly worth waiting for are the woman whose symbolic “fish” costume has her attached to a toy fisherman, and another dressed as “the call of the wild,” complete with a stuffed elephant and leopard and a yard-wide white wool wig.
And there’s that lightning/electricity dance number, which begins and ends without explanation of any kind. One minute the guests are hanging around the zeppelin whooping it up, the next, a large group of people are dancing around an electrified pseudo-god and you’re agog at the costumes that crawl right up the chorus girls’ backsides — or I was, anyway — and then, just as abruptly, it’s back to the arriving guests.
Johnson acquits herself better in the second half, vamping her husband in a “flames of hell” costume and affecting a passable French accent: “Who wants to go to hell weeth Madam Satan?” Still, a brief moment where Johnson has a sort of dance-off with Roth is a mistake — tart or no tart, Roth wipes the floor with her. Johnson and Denny have a rather dull tryst and then, as if sensing this won’t suffice in terms of dramatic action, DeMille unmoors the zeppelin and everyone has to parachute off. He has great fun shooting the panicked guests and their landings in various venues in and around the Central Park reservoir — at times it’s so close to a rescue sequence in The Towering Inferno that I wondered if Irwin Allen had ever seen Madam Satan.