The Flop That Ruined Musicals for Cecil B. DeMille

There is much to converse about with Cecil B. DeMille’s 1930 movie ‘Madam Satan,’ from its a lot of faults to its accidental successes.


By Emily Kubincanek · Printed on October 5th, 2021

Further than the Classics is a bi-weekly column in which Emily Kubincanek highlights lesser-acknowledged old flicks and examines what will make them unforgettable. In this installment, she describes the pleasurable in Cecil B. DeMille’s musical failure Madam Satan. 

Legendary director Cecil B. DeMille produced lots of hits throughout his prolonged vocation in Hollywood, from 1914 to 1958. His biblical and historic epics The Ten Commandments, The King of Kings, and Cleopatra were spectacles unlike any other for the duration of the silent and early seem eras. Like so several strong gentlemen in Hollywood for the duration of the 20th century, his videos weren’t usually a accomplishment.

Just after leaving Paramount and briefly likely solo with his possess output enterprise, DeMille signed with MGM. Desperate to provide what the studio and its boss, Louis B. Mayer, required, the director made what is generally referred to as his “weirdest film”: Madam Satan. This semi-musical brings together attractive art deco imagery with cringy attempts at contemporary relationships. On the lookout back again at it now, the 1930 release reveals the vulnerable position DeMille was in his occupation at the time.

Madam Satan was born out of the newfound trend that became popular in the early decades of the audio period. Filming musicals on a phase was an quick way to meet up with the audience’s drive for audio delights devoid of considerably function. These statically shot musicals seemed flat on the display screen, although, and ended up monotonous to look at. With Broadway Melody and The Hollywood Revue of 1929, MGM started honing in on how movie musicals essential to differ from Broadway productions.

Not very a typical musical and not really a very simple comedy, Madam Satan is tricky to explain. It commences with Angela (Kay Johnson), the dutiful and naïve spouse of Bob (Reginald Denny). She finds a notice in his garments from a woman named Trixie (Lillian Roth), revealing that he has been unfaithful. Bob and his dopey close friend Jimmy (Ronald Younger) attempt to persuade Angela that the girl is actually Jimmy’s wife. But Angela is familiar with the truth of the matter, and after assembly Trixie, she realizes what her marriage is missing.

What follows is a collection of kitschy misunderstandings that lead to Angela getting what her spouse believes she could never ever be: a seductress. Through an extravagant celebration hosted by Jimmy within a zeppelin, Angela attends anonymously as the masked “Madam Satan” and proves irresistible to all people, in particular Bob. Just as the two reconnect, even though, the zeppelin is struck by lightning and the sinners at the party narrowly escape hellfire.

It’s obvious now that Madam Satan required DeMille to settle a wonderful deal. He required his prolonged-time collaborator Gloria Swanson to perform the direct purpose of Angela. He hoped the new music would be prepared by renowned composer Cole Porter. As a substitute, he received Clifford Gray, Jack King, and Herbert Stothart. And the dialogue essential unbelievable panache, which DeMille knew Dorothy Parker could supply, but she was not obtainable. So Elsie Janis included new traces to Jeanie Macpherson’s screenplay, and they are awfully bland when claimed aloud.

Just one of the several effective aspects of the movie is Roth’s fascinating general performance and her musical selection, “Low Down,” in which she, Jack King, and Eddie Prinz dance wildly all over a piano. Roth performs the standard exciting and wild female of pre-Code movies, armed with a really small skirt and no dread of getting the lousy girl. Inevitably, she turns into a far more likable character than Angela. Even however she is the other female, her wishes are obvious in what she says, how she acts, and by means of her sexuality.

Angela lacks what DeMille said that he’d needed in his guide actress: “perfect abandon.” She seems clueless at initial. Far too devoted, trusting, and saintly. Specifically what males like DeMille believe that makes a fantastic wife. Angela’s substantial-brow upbringing has conditioned her to put her individual dreams by the wayside for her partner. Johnson plays it very well, but she’s not supplied ample time to flesh out the Madam Satan persona. The motion picture is not intrigued in her wanting to be attractive and sexy, just to even now you should her husband.

DeMille was a conservative Christian who liked to include intercourse in his movies. But only in order to explicitly demonstrate disdain and punishment. That sentiment can nevertheless be entertaining in some occasions, but not in a pre-Code sex comedy. So lots of other motion pictures have been unpacking the inconsistencies of marriage and monogamy at this time in a considerably much more regular and nuanced way. Potentially if he had been capable to do the job with his favored collaborators, DeMille would have been in a position to give a much better exploration of relationship.

Yet another redeeming factor of Madam Satan is the visually breathtaking “Ballet Mécanique” musical amount at the stop. DeMille had Theodore Kosloff, a proficient Russian ballet dancer, aid build the climactic sequence, which currently is equivalent to Busby Berkeley’s foreseeable future get the job done. Kosloff, dawning a lightning-bolt-clad costume, prospects a slew of dancers who rework into artwork deco equipment. The costumes by Adrian and the choreography are dazzling and gaudy in the best way, generating the film feel of its time in spite of DeMille’s out-of-contact sentiment towards sexuality.

For all its faults, Madam Satan is fascinating to watch nearly a century afterwards. We can quickly obtain the most effective videos that great administrators designed in the previous. As effectively as the most effective flicks created all through and now symbolizing distinct trends and eras in film record. But viewing the failures of those directors and those time intervals can offer unbelievable perception into why filmmakers produced the decisions they did and how trends developed into what we don’t forget.

Also, the weird movies of the previous could also not just be very good, but they can be extremely fun to view. There’s unintended comedy in the dialogue, camp in the outrageous costumes, and figures that unintentionally develop into favorites.

When introduced in 1930, Madam Satan missing revenue for MGM. Afterward, DeMille went back to what he realized he was very good at. He remade just one of his earliest films, The Squaw Male, for a 2nd time. And ultimately returned to Bible tales with The Indicator of the Cross, to great good results.

But realizing he tried out to go for one thing various and fashionable tells us a great deal about DeMille as a filmmaker. For all his strengths, his constraints are important for us to keep in mind. DeMille by no means created yet another musical in his extensive profession, which was in all probability a protected selection.

Similar Subjects: Over and above the Classics

Emily Kubincanek is a Senior Contributor for Film Faculty Rejects and resident classic Hollywood lover. When she’s not composing about outdated films, she operates as a librarian and film archivist. You can uncover her tweeting about Cary Grant and hockey listed here: @emilykub_

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