Camp & Cult Blogathon: Madam Satan (1930)

Welcome to Day Nine of the Camp & Cult Blogathon! Because of a lengthy power outage last night, yesterday’s submissions will be up later today. I apologize for the delay, but I need sleep like you wouldn’t believe. Please, check out all the posts that have been submitted so far! These posts are, without exception, terrific. I wouldn’t be doing this without all you bloggers and readers, so thanks go out to you all.

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When I held a Reader’s Choice vote to decide some of the movies I should do for the ‘thon, I described Where Love Has Gone as “complete insanity.” In retrospect, I should have saved that appellation for Madam Satan, which is some of the craziest damn pre-code fuckery you can imagine. Nothing about it makes sense, although maybe there is some complicated equation that would explain it, something like pre-code plus popularity of musicals in the early talkie era multiplied by Cecil B. DeMille’s untreated mental condition divided by the invention of sequins equals Madam Satan.

Madame Satan poster

Angela Brooks (Kay Johnson) is upset because her husband Bob (a particularly knobbish Reginald Denny) is obviously seeing another woman. He comes home drunk after a night out with his friend Jimmy (Roland Young) and sneaks into the upstairs bed and bath, where he and Jimmy very naturally start showering together. It’s your standard boy marries girl then boffs another girl then goes back to his house to shower with a boy story.

Madam Satan

Meanwhile, Angela’s maid Martha has informed her that the newspapers are reporting that Bob was arrested for drunk driving and speeding while he was out, and at arraignment was accompanied by “Mrs. Brooks,” who was, of course, no such thing. The fake Mrs. Brooks is a girl named Trixie, and the real Mrs. Brooks finds this out, causing Bob and Jimmy to concoct a story stating that Jimmy was married to Trixie and the paper simply made a mistake.

Jimmy is actually a bit put out by Bob, because he doesn’t think Bob should be cheating on Angela, who is a good wife. But Bob, who is a childish brat with an underbite and pasty skin, says he craves warmth but all he gets from his wife is “frozen justice,” so he is forced to find said warmth elsewhere.

Martha (Elsa Peterson in her first film) was obviously not hired because she was convincing as a maid, but rather because of her stage experience in musicals. She is terribly miscast, appearing more like a rich lady than a maid, though that all becomes secondary when she starts singing to Angela that women have to go through a lot of trouble to keep their men, and that’s just how things are supposed to be.

Madam Satan was one of about 85 musicals released in 1930, though at the end of September when the public was beginning to tire of the genre. In 1931, barely 10 musicals were released the entire year. It’s not hard to see why the public couldn’t muster any excitement for musicals, especially since the sound quality is so poor that, combined with the high trills and strange phrasing popular at the time, the words are almost indecipherable.

Madam Satan behind the scenesJeanie Macpherson, Kay Johnson and Cecil B. DeMille.

 

This is one of about 400,000 movies released over the last century that posits that all women have a moral imperative to be as hot as possible, to do whatever they can to keep a man, because what he wants is the only thing that matters. And just as in the other 399,999 films with this moral, it’s presented as a lesson about men, but it’s really a lesson from men, of course. The men behind these films have an ego (amongst other things) they want stroked, and the idea that women have to fight to keep their man encourages women to dress up, shut up and put out. That’s it, that is absolutely all it is on a basic level.

Further, there is a key element to the plot that makes no sense. Bob says he has to screw around with other women because Angela is so cold and mean. However, she only scolds him when he’s off fucking around with Trixie. It’s circular logic, though with the addition of Bob whining about culture and hating that Angela works with charities. Bob is so unappealing and such a damn dolt that I’ve never understood, even though this is supposed to be a farce, why she likes him.

But my beloved Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times makes it clear that even in 1930, no one was buying this as romantic farce: “It is an inept story with touches of comedy that are more tedious than laughable.”

Curiously, in 1982, Vincent Canby would look upon audiences watching a print of this with distaste, regretting that DeMille should be laughed at so. I don’t want to disagree with Mr. Canby, but DeMille made this film, therefore he (and his estate and his ethereal spirit, should it exist) can handle the criticism and the laughter. Nay, he probably deserves the criticism and the laughter.

Madam Satan

After a fight where Bob leaves Angela, she asks Jimmy to help her out and let her stay at his house with his wife. He has no wife, of course, that was all a story. But thanks to the efforts of Lazy Screenwriting LLC, who were obviously consulted on the script, it’s impossible to tell if Angela believes the lie about Trixie being Jimmy’s wife or not. The lie is is humorously inept, and she initially seems to react to the lies with hidden amusement, but then believes the lie a moment later. She will see something, like a photo of Bob at Trixie’s apartment, and gets a look of consideration on her face that is supposed to indicate she’s starting to wonder if this story is even true. As Mordaunt Hall put it: “But every now and again they are called upon not to hear or see that which one thinks they ought to.”

Jimmy runs at speed to Trixie’s house, maybe to tell Trixie something, maybe trying to keep up the subterfuge, who knows, but Angela follows him and awkwardness ensues.

Madam SatanDancer Eddie Prinz and composer Jack King appear in small parts as Trixie’s musical cohorts. King composed “How Will I Know” (lyrics by Dorothy Parker) and stayed active in films until 1943, when he died at the age of 40 for reasons I cannot determine. If anyone knows more about Jack King, feel free to comment; I would love to know more about him.

 

King’s and Prinz’s reaction when Angela reveals she’s Bob’s wife is priceless. King crawls under the piano and Prinz makes a terrific face. As they bolt out the door, Prinz quips, “I’ll leave the door off the latch so the firemen can get in!”

Madam Satan

Angela apparently arrived at Trixie’s with a gun, which she flaunts for a bit as part of her taunting of Jimmy and Trixie. She sees all of Bob’s stuff left behind, pajamas and slippers, and makes Jimmy wear them to keep up the lie, and of course these clothes are comically huge.

After Trixie and Jimmy pretend to go to sleep in the master bedroom, Bob shows up looking for some fun with Trixie. Again, Angela acts upset and surprised, though she is at the apartment precisely because she knows he’s sleeping with Trixie, so surprise should not enter into this equation.

Because Jimmy is in Trixie’s bedroom, Bob thinks Jimmy is seeing Trixie behind his back. After interminable antics that aren’t the least bit funny, Trixie is hustled out of her bedroom but Angela is still in there with Jimmy. They’re forced to hide Angela and pretend like it’s some unnamed girlfriend of Jimmy’s so Bob doesn’t realize it’s his wife. This does lead to one funny scene where Bob laughs at the (unknown to him) woman’s husband as being a “total sap,” and Jimmy and Trixie laugh really, really hard at that, because yes Bob, you are a total sap.

Madam Satan

After these shenanigans, Angela decides she’s going to be an even bigger skanky ho than Trixie to make Bob sick of skanky hos, which makes as much sense as anything else in this film. She deploys her skank attack at Jimmy’s costume party on his zeppelin — dude owns a zeppelin — and this is when the movie really begins.

A few hundred extras in hilariously campy costumes dance onto a zeppelin, although in one scene a small model with some tiny figures attached to servos that move back and forth is used to give illusion of actual people dancing, but surprise! It is not even remotely convincing. Still, you will know that once you see those little one-inch models of people on a stick being moved back and forth that this is the moment when Madam Satan completely breaks loose from its moorings and sails right into the high campy skies.

Madam Satan

After some chaotic group dance moments, some magical, mystical electricity starts to crackle and wiggle at the far end of the dance floor. This super scary electricity eventually turns into a guy dressed in leather and lightning bolts.

Madam SatanNote the sweaty mens in the foreground, there to serve the electric bondage god.

 

More dancing occurs, and a parade of stupid costumes is announced with people giving fake names like Mr. and Mrs. Hott N. Tott, because humor had not yet been invented in 1930.

Madam SatanMr. Tott’s cape comes complete with decorative breasts.

 

This party segment makes no sense from any narrative, blocking, or continuity standpoint. Many times during the party, the scene began with just a split second of everyone still standing and waiting to be told “Action!” And the visuals? Well, I could just screencap everything and this would be nothing but a huge screencap post, and that would be fun on its own, but I’d really like to encourage those of you who have not seen Madam Satan to see it if you have the chance. I am only scraping the surface of the insanity of this film. For instance, I haven’t told you about the dancing clock ladies who hit their heads with mallets.

Madam SatanMy poor husband came in on the film at about this time, and asked in a really quiet voice, “What are they wearing on their heads?” I think he was a little emotionally scarred. I know *I* was. The zeppelin captain is character actor Boyd Irwin, who was in the Jungle Queen serial recently appeared on Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, as well as the quintessential What The Shit Is This feature film, That Hagen Girl.

 

So for entertainment, these denizens of a floating Sodom and Gomorrah bid on women in scanty outfits that have scandalous themes, themes like fish and water. Not joking. Watch the film for yourself if you think I’m joking.

Just as Trixie is getting bid on because everyone totally wants her so hard, yo, Madam Satan arrives!

Madam SatanPeople do this with their capes a lot in Madam Satan.

 

It’s Angela in disguise, of course, here to out-skank the skank. She puts on a fake French accent which really sounds like a bad Garbo impersonation; Garbo’s first talking film was released in early 1930, so I’m reasonably certain Angela is supposed to sound like her. Bob is immediately attracted to her because Bob thinks with his peen — he certainly has no brain to speak of — and after some high, trilling, poorly-enunciated singing-slash-flirting, Madam Satan and Bob end up in the control room of the zeppelin alone together, saying such deep thoughts as, “You want to go to hell but are afraid of the flame!” and “Love is such a little word for such a big thing.”

Madam SatanShriners of the future! Hilariously, a promotional still shows Madam Satan serving drinks from these little carts, which is kind of exactly the opposite of what Madam Satan would do.

 

Jimmy, without knowing who Madam Satan is, tries to chase Bob away from her by saying she was the lady he hid in Trixie’s apartment. This makes Bob mad enough to approach Madam Satan with the idea that he will give her what she deserves, by which he probably means rape, so she takes off her mask to reveal she’s his wife Angela. That stops Mr. Asshole in his tracks, and they have another meaningful convo where Angela declares, “I don’t want your respect, I want you to love me!”

But then disaster! The zeppelin breaks loose from its moorings and everyone must evacuate! All 500 people get a parachute! See, this makes sense because the entire zeppelin is filled with parachutes. Parachutes are lighter than air — that’s how parachutes work — and filling the zeppelin with parachutes is what makes it float. Little-known fact.

The costumed idiots scramble to put harnesses on and line up at the windows where the caches of parachutes are located. They hook their harness to a parachute, so when they escape the zeppelin a parachute pops out of the cache like delicious candy from the neck of Pez Nixon. Everyone jumps out in the least dignified manner possible, and we all politely forget that the zeppelin was only 150 feet off the ground when it was tethered and a parachute wouldn’t deploy properly from such a height anyway.

Madam SatanWith her feet in the air and her head (about to be) on the ground.

 

Everybody lands in a comedic manner during a finale I wish was directed by Mack Sennett, and then there’s an ending where you start to wonder why more people weren’t eaten by lions in this film.

Indeed.

 

So… yeah, I don’t know what to tell you. If you finished this post you might need to consult a psychiatrist or your favorite purveyor of interesting substances.

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15 Comments

  1. Wow! I have to see this!

  2. I just noticed for the first time that in the screen cap of Mr. and Mrs. Hott N Tott, Mr. Tott is standing on Mrs. Tott’s dress! Ha!

  3. Of course I am French! Why do you think I have this outrageous accent?!!” This movie should be the yardstick for measuring WTF.

    • I’ve been watching a lot of stuff with vague Eurotrash accents. I’m not sure what that means, except interesting dreams.

  4. I’m not a real go-getter, but now I have one burning ambition: to party on a Zeppelin before I die. Consecutively, if possible, concurrently, as is usually the case with a Zeppelin, if necessary. But only if I can do it with Lilian Roth, who bears an uncanny resemblance to my former girlfriend, a lovely oddball who decided in the early-to-mid 80s that she was going to bring back the Flapper, and did her damnedest.

    I meant to see this movie after Ivan reviewed it last year, but to be honest, it scared me then, and scares me even more now — especially after I clicked the YouTube link above and watched that clip of the Reddy Kilowatt Dancers.

    • One of the funniest things on Mythbusters was when they were building a scale model of the Hindenburg and IT CAUGHT ON FIRE. Adam’s “These things are ALWAYS catching on fire,” snark was hilarious.

      The electricity dance is one of my favorite things. Electricity wasn’t exactly new in 1930, so it would be like having a dance to the 2800 baud modem nowadays.

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  6. Holy crap! I’ve never been a big fan of musicals, especially from this period, but I see now that I have deprived myself of some uniquely entertaining weirdness. That YouTube clip was a blast (or should I say a jolt?).

    Damn that blasted Hays code! What weird gems might we be celebrating today, but for that stupid code?

    Thanks for sharing!

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