Sunday, June 19, 2011

Nomadic Existence: Madam Satan (1930)

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.


Shawn Stone said...

Roth's other memorable movies are hard to see: she upstages Jeanette MacDonald in The Vagabond King, Nancy Carroll in Honey, and wrestles memorably with Lupino Lane for Lubitsch in The Love Parade, here:

Peter Nellhaus said...

". . . the unholy offspring of Metropolis and The Hollywood Revue of 1929".


Jonathan Rosenbaum said...

My own favorite Roth performance, at least among those I've seen, is in The Love Parade. You're right: she's sexy beyond belief.

Anecdotal postscript: My father had a date with Roth in Florence, Alabama, my hometown, when they were both around 16 and she was touring the U.S. with her mother. My father always remembered one joke she told him: The man who invented Life Savers must have made a mint.

Laura said...

Who doesn't adore Lillian Roth who knows about her? Despite the fact she played the ingenue lover in Animal Crackers, usually the type of role to make all Marx Brothers fans groan in despair (see Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones in A Night at the Opera), I always thought her Arabella was refreshingly fun and spunky: "And then we can be married and divorced in no time!"

The Siren said...

Laura, Roth is very cute in Animal Crackers, but what chance has she really got. And oh yes, Kitty Carlisle in A Night at the Opera--a great lady, but she walks through the movie wearing this expression that's midway between a trance and somebody who was just hit in the head by a fly ball. I once described my beloved Kay Francis in The Cocoanuts by saying she "seems to be playing the part of a woman forced to dodge across the Santa Monica Freeway in high heels."

The Siren said...

Shawn, I've seen The Love Parade but not the other two. I was most impressed with Nancy Carroll in Scarlet Dawn and would love to see more of her, too. Roth is darling in Animal Crackers but like every other foil in a Marx Brothers movie she mostly just tries to stay out of the way. As I recall, that's pretty much how she described the experience in I'll Cry Tomorrow, and I believe she also said that while she had fun, she'd been relegated to the movie because the studio was mad at her.

Peter, thanks!

Jonathan, it's a shame what happened to her when she was still young and should have been burning up the screen. I'll Cry Tomorrow is a remarkable book. I still remember big chunks of it even though it must be a couple of decades since I read it. I imagine it is still a brutal read. The movie version followed her narrative pretty closely, but left out the worst of it.

What a lovely story about that date, and particularly haunting in light of the tales Roth tells of the childhood she never had. BTW, I am always forgetting you are from Florence, my father's hometown and where that whole side of the Smith family still resides.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Love love LOVE Madam Satan! True' it's the second half that makes the film, but I rather liked Kay Johnson's flouncing aroudn throughout.

Though Adrian gets the credit some of the outfits were designed by Erte. How do I know? He told me so himself and showed me the sketches. I had the enormous pleasure of interviewing the great man about a year or so prior to his passing.

Your father dated Lillian Roth, Jonathan? Now that's the kind of gossip I love to read!

The Siren said...

David, to me Johnson was like Ann Harding at about 1/5 the wattage. I sat and wondered what Mary Astor or Constance Bennett or Ruth Chatterton or even Norma Shearer would have done with that part, and the comparison did her no good at all. But isn't like there's nothing to enjoy in the first half, there's a few very funny exchanges and it all looks great.

So, which outfits were Erte, do you remember? The electricity god, for example?

Belvoir said...

Oh, I am thrilled to hear Madam Satan is being remastered and on DVD. I've only seen (and re-seen) clips of the various zeppelin scenes, and they are so fantastically over the top. Pagan costumed revelry aboard a modern "air-ship", it's so nutty and kind of fabulous.

And it really is "pagan" in the Anger/Hollywood Babylon sense, I think. The appearance of the Electricity God is so startlingly weird. A fearsome combo of a Mayan deity and an Art Deco god. 1930 was a year the Deco Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center were being constructed. In this film, the Electricity God seemed to me to symbolize the power of radio, electric media, the then-amazing new things.. embodied in a strangely supernatural being on that air-ship. Wow, Mr. DeMille!

From the scenes I saw, I also love: the spooky chanting/singing of the revelers as they climb to the airship, that very '30's musical sound, unearthly. (Like the palace guards in Oz singing "O-ee-O".) I also love Mme. Satan's masquerade costume; she looks like Catwoman, and reminds me a lot of early comics creators cribbed a great deal from movies they had seen. Even years before. "Madam Satan"'s last half is like a fantastical comic book of the era.

And I personally loved the "dance-off", heh. Very "Paris Is Burning", amusingly. :)

Dave said...

I will brook no disparagement of the marvelous Reginald Denny. Though he was usually cast as an English stiff in his talkies, his silents -- where he plays a more competent version of Lloyd's all-American go-getter -- are comparable to the best silent comedies. I laughed harder and more consistently at his "I'll Show You the Town" than at any feature by any of his contemporaries -- even Keaton.

Karen said...

Delicious, Siren. I've had this film on VHS for years (but no VCR for nearly as many), so it's great news to learn it's out on DVD. I remember absolutely falling in love with the zeppelin party!

Lillian Roth was indeed a pipperino, and cute as it's possible to be. I forgot she was in this; I think of her from Love Parade, certainly, but also from her jail-cell song in Ladies They Talk About. So much charisma she practically burns a hole in the screen.

After I saw I'll Cry Tomorrow, I did go out and read her book, despite my customary embargo on such things. It's just heart-wrenching, and worth a re-read.

Siren, I first saw Nancy Carroll in Hot Saturday, with Cary Grant, at one of Film Forum's pre-Code festivals, and I was blown away by her. So lovely and so much personality--and so unknown today! That movie is on DVD, too, so you can find it easily.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Yes the electricity gods.

Lillian Roth, it should be remembered, got a bit of Broadway glory in her later years via the musical version of I Can Get It For You Wholesale. Songs by Harold Rome and direction by Arthur Laurents it was designed as a vehicle for its star Elliot Gould -- who far too few recall was a superb Broadway tenor. Also featured in the cast, Gore Vidal boytoy Harold Lang and a newcomer name Barbra Streisand -- who the show with her "Miss Marmelstein" number, and stole the leading man as well.

Karen said...

Speaking of Nancy Carroll, here's another side of her--not in person, but her name on the side of a van Hollywood stars donated to the Spanish loyalists:

A lot of names there that got purged from the industry by HUAC.

La Faustin said...

But who can resist THIS Lillian Roth invitation?

As for Nancy Carroll, try to catch her in the luridly peculiar THE WOMAN ACCUSED (1933), featuring Cary Grant visibly forming the resolve never to sign a studio contract again.

Karen said...

What a fabulous number, Faustin! A shame the picture isn't sharper.

That appears to be from the film Take a Chance, which I've never seen, and which appears to have, sadly, a largely forgettable cast. I think we should campaign TCM to air it!

mndean said...

There are a lot of good Nancy Carroll performances, once she broke away from musical comedy. Though I like the loony Follow Thru, she wasn't exactly a great singer, though she was a good dancer. Laughter and Stolen Heaven showed her more suited to drama.

Lillian Roth was so very charming and talented, I couldn't say a word against her in anything I saw her in. Not even when teamed with Buddy Rogers in Paramount On Parade. And of course, she was the only one of those almost always dreary young lovers in the Marx films that showed real comic flair "What would you suggest mother, suicide?". "Meeoww!"

Yojimboen said...

Thank you La Faustin for the "Come Up and See Me Sometime" link – it’s been years since I’d seen it. What a talent, what a bod, whatta paira gams! Unfortunately it only serves to underline Paramount’s casual insult of having Roth played by (I’ll be gentle and just say the lamentable) Susan Hayward in the biopic.

I’d always wondered where Elvis got his Jailhouse Rock set.

Vanwall said...

Damnedest thing to see in a dirigible. Then La Faustin hands us the damnedest carny blow-off ever - they would've been skidillionaires if it was Roth for real in a tent show somewheres.

I always imagined the writer's had imagined something like old Santos-Dumont flying one of his little (I know, relatively!!) personal airships in Paris and casually docking at an apartment or hotel, or yes, a mooring mast at the top of a skyscraper - only the whole shebang blown up to, well, a Zeppelin-sized affair. It certainly had something to do with the announced Empire State Building topper, a whole embarkation floor for airships. Turns out the wind would've turned 'em nose down and tail up, hard on the drinkers. I do like the posters I've seen of "Madame Satan", the lettering is in an arch and the points of the all caps font looks like something off the Chrysler Building crown-piece.
Thanks for the strange, Siren.

Yojimboen said...

A selection of Satans:





Karen said...

My vote: number one.

VP81955 said...

iren, I first saw Nancy Carroll in "Hot Saturday," with Cary Grant, at one of Film Forum's pre-Code festivals, and I was blown away by her. So lovely and so much personality--and so unknown today! That movie is on DVD, too, so you can find it easily.

According to Larry Swindell in "Screwball," Carole Lombard was to have been the female lead in "Hot Saturday" -- it was even noted on a Paramount publicity photo -- but she turned it down ( Too bad, because it may have been as close as she ever came to doing a comedy with Cary Grant, even though it was long before either had gained renown for their talent with that genre.

Trish said...

I can vaguely recall seeing this one. Is it anything like Night Life of the Gods?

paul etcheverry said...