The Pre-Code Blogathon is an online event hosted by the blogs pre-code.com and Shadows and Satin – a number of blogs are taking part, each one posting about a pre-Code movie or related topic.
Karavansara is taking part in this game by looking back (again) at that weird Cecil B. DeMille extravaganza – Madam Satan.
But first, a quick recap about the Code – the Hays Code was enforced in the 1930s, as a response to the wild, unchecked and scandal-ridden image Hollywood had acquired in the 1920s.
Will H. Hays, the czar of all the rushes had been appointed guardian of Hollywoodland’s morality, and the guidelines – very strict guidelines – that his office enforced on behalf of the production companies themselves: the movie moguls had in fact decided that a central censorship system was probably better than the previous practice of state-by-state censorship regulations.
But between the founding of the Hays Office and the actual application of the rules, there was a brief time in which deregulation was (supposedly) absolute – the Pre-Code era.
When Hollywood was wild – and when Cecil B. DeMille was asked by Louis B. Mayer to do a musical, and he produced a movie called Madam Satan.
The plot of Madam Satan in a nutshell: wealthy Angela Brooks (Kay Johnson), learns her husband Bob (Reginald Denny) has a relationship with Trixie (Lillian Roth), a music-hall singer. The discovery causes Angela to question her personal attitude and her general situation, and she finally decides to fight fire with fire – she’ll assume the persona of Madam Satan and, during a masked ball inside an airship, she will seduce her husband back.
Madam Satan is a racy comedy about a good girl turning bad and liking it, a science fiction musical set on a dirigible, and the most expensive movie produced by MGM in 1930.
This is the sort of movie in which there’s a female character credited as Call of the Wild.
I kid you not, dear reader.
It is also, in a way, a disaster movie, because in the end the airship explodes during a thunderstorm.
And it was a disaster of a movie – costing little less than one million dollars and earning less than half that.
Musical comedies had been all the rage with the advent of sound, but by 1930 the general public was tired of them, and the sheer amount of weirdness DeMille piled on screen was probably overwhelming for the common punters.
The production was fraught with problems.
The script was supposed to be doctored by no less than Dorothy Parker, but turned out Parker was in Paris at the time, and nothing came of it. Similarly, Gloria Swanson was offered the part of good-girl-going-bad Angela, but she declined, and the part went to Kay Johnson.
Filming conditions were so harsh in the cramped MGM studios, set designer Mitchell Laisen suffered a nervous breakdown.
And then the thing was dirty – so dirty, the pre-code censorship office made no end of trouble.
There was too much nudity, to start with – both as in straightforward naked women (naughty Trixie has nothing to hide, and she does not hide anything – but the deshabillé scene in which she confronts Angela was cut) and as implied and suggested by the enticing costumes for the masked ball.
And it’s somewhat funny – in a twisted, naughty way – to think the censors concentrated so much on exposed skin, while they basically vetted a story of a nice, honest woman turning into a boozing, smoking, promiscuous femme fatale in order to bring her man back in her bed.
In this sense, the script pulls no punches – Bob, the unfaithful husband, is a womanizing scumbag that considers his wife to be “frigid”, hence his preference for the much “looser” Trixie; and when he will discover that his “frigid” wife is actually the sexy siren Madam Satan, good old Bob will react by menacing to divorce her. And just imagine – a moment before he was ready to rape her (no, really!)
As for Trixie, she’s a mercenary that candidly admits she is bedding Angela’s hubbie because it’s fun, and he’s paying for her expensive habits.
Understandably depressed by this whole sad affair, Angela finds some comfort in the, ehm, wisdom of her maid, that basically suggests she should strut her stuff.
And so she does – Angela becomes Satan (no, subtle is not), and seems to enjoy her new role quite a bit, wrapped in an enticing flame-themed costume that caused the censorship board a heart attack, and that indeed causes much excitement in the men participating in the masked ball.
The masked ball itself is a complicated thing, really turning the eccentricity dial up to eleven.
After all, it’s Cecil B. DeMille we are talking about, and the man was synonymous with lavish, big budget, colossal productions, and in Madame Satan DeMille spares us nothing:
- an airship moored in sight of the Manhattan skyline
wildly costumed women and men imbibing huge quantities of alcohol
Madam Satan herself appearing on the premises like a pagan priestess ready to celebrate some orgiastic ritual (“Who wants to go to hell with Madame Satan!”, she asks)
an auction in which the women at the party are sold to the highest bidder
a number of musical set-pieces that are probably inspired by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and include a Mechanical ballet and the appearance of a dancer playing the role of Electricity.
The ballet is probably the truly memorable set-piece in the movie – and it supposedly influenced the development of musicals in the following years.
Certainly it looks stunning.
And if you think playing with high-voltage electric discharges on a zeppelin is a bad idea… well, it is.
Even if it’s a storm that finally sinks the airship – and just in time, considering the whole party is on the brink of turning into an all-out orgy.
The characters escape with parachutes and plunge down in the Central Park reservoir, and love triumphs as per classic DeMille formula – or at least, lust triumphs, as Bob decides his lawful wife’s not so frigid after all.
There’s even a hint of a possibility that Angela and Trixie will become good friends1.
Ultimately, Madam Satan, for all its racy plot and below-zero morals, was basically a crowd-pleaser that failed to please the crowd.
A box office tragedy, it plays today a weird relic from a different era, crowded with not-so-pleasant characters and without a single trace of morals whatsoever except for the tacked-on finale.
And yes, it’s rather fun, all things considered – heavy-handed, sometimes stilted, disquieting in some ways, but great fun all things considered.
And no, they don’t do movies like these anymore.
And in a certain sense it is a pity.
Excess can be fun, sometimes – especially when it’s in the service of pure entertainment, and obviously played for laughs.
- and of course we fully realize and appreciate the wildly scandalous opportunities such a friendship would grant… ah, those Pre-Code days! ↩