Madam Satan (1930). 116 minutes. Directed by Cecil B. DeMille. Starring Kay Johnson (as Angela Brooks), Reginald Denny (as Bob Brooks), Lillian Roth (as Trixie), Roland Young (as Jimmy Wade), and Elsa Peterson (as Martha). Featuring Abe Lyman and His Orchestra.
Madam Satan has been called the weirdest movie that director Cecil B. DeMille ever made. It is true that the interpersonal bedroom comedy that makes up its first two thirds may seem strange to anyone who is used to the biblical and ancient-world spectacles DeMille is known for (although to be fair, he directed films in many other genres). Those scenes, which follow a wife’s developing awareness of her husband’s infidelity, are noticeably stripped down and deprived of the director’s penchant for excess. But Madam Satan’s final act, involving a wild party in a tethered zeppelin that goes disastrously awry, is more reminiscent of DeMille’s fondness for salacious sleaze and biblical-style punishment, albeit divorced from the thorough religious context of his epics The Ten Commandments (1923), The King of Kings (1927), and The Sign of the Cross (1932). As a pre-Code film, Madam Satan reaches its maximum naughtiness quotient during the zeppelin scenes, although even they struggle to make up for for the film’s lackluster first acts.
Madam Satan starts off in a pedestrian manner. Wife Angela Brooks suspects her husband Bob is cheating on her: he comes back late with his friend Jimmy after carousing one night, and as the two men drunkenly shower and prepare to sleep off their intoxication, she learns that Bob has befriended a young woman named Trixie. Jimmy attempts to convince her that Trixie is really his wife. When Angela and Bob split after a fight, Angela decides to stay with Jimmy and Trixie for the night, knowing full well that the two are not really married and that this is all a ruse. When Bob comes to the apartment in search of Trixie, Jimmy hides Angela under a blanket to conceal her, but she hears evidence yet again that Bob is carrying on an affair.
Bob, Jimmy, and Trixie all appear at a masked costume ball on board a zeppelin, and when it is time to auction off a select few of the becostumed ladies, Angela appears as a French-accented, masked woman in a revealing outfit who calls herself Madam Satan. She upstages Trixie and entices Bob, who places the winning bid on her and follows her around the ship flirtatiously. Eventually Bob learns that Madam Satan is really his wife. A storm approaches, the zeppelin breaks free of its moorings, and everyone must abandon ship by parachute. Bob insists that Angela wear one of the last parachutes, and he dives off the ship without one but lands safely. In the movie’s final scene Angela and Bob reconcile back at home.
Madam Satan’s drama of infidelity has the potential to be interesting. Bob argues that he needs a kind of passion jumpstart: “Love can’t be kept in cold storage. It’s a battery that’s got to be recharged every day,” he tells his wife during one of their fights. He repeatedly suggests that she is cold physically. Angela’s solution in the final act is to keep her marriage alive through perceived adultery when she dresses as Madam Satan to woo her husband Bob away from the object of his philandering. In this way, adultery becomes a kind of marriage panacea, reminding me of some of the films of Ernst Lubitsch, which often provocatively suggest that infidelity can be a way of keeping marriages healthy.
But Madam Satan’s lacks the sparkle or wit of Lubitsch comedies. The long, drawn-out scenes in which Bob and Angela argue, or in which Angela tries to extract information from Bob, are tedious and dry, in spite of the best efforts of Roland Young and Lillian Roth as Jimmy and Trixie, respectively. Moreover, in the scenes where Angela tries to entrap Bob and Jimmy and catch them in the act of lying, we get the distinct sense that Angela, while a wronged wife, has a penchant for manipulation and creepiness. It is not clear what her agenda is in her quest for revenge. When she moves in with Jimmy and Trixie, the goal seems to be to make them uncomfortable and possibly to catch Bob in the act—although she already has sufficient information to support her belief that he is cheating. Afterwards, when she appears as Madam Satan at the zeppelin party, her objective appears to be to tantalize Bob and then humiliate him. I understand that these are all things a scorned marriage partner might fantasize about doing, but watching them play out is another thing and makes Angela seem unsympathetic.
If the infidelity story were all that this movie offered, it would be simple enough to dismiss it as a failed comedy of sorts. But Madam Satan is memorable owing to its bizarre final act, which consists of lengthy scenes aboard the zeppelin at the masked costume ball. Although we hear plenty of songs and dialogue, nevertheless the scenes lean heavily towards orgiastic spectacle in the DeMille strain, with numerous visual allusions to antiquity and religion. In a dancing parade, the party guests advance along the towering staircase to the zeppelin entrance, where a team of sparkling, lamé-encased dancers performs an abstract musical number about electrical power: some dancers resemble Roman soldiers, and the central dancer looks like an ancient Mesoamerican god with jagged thunderbolts extending from his head and fingers. A party attendant announces the arrival of people in wild costumes, and we see more references to the ancient and the divine: Madam Satan wears what looks like a horned metal viking helmet from Sutton Hoo, and another woman is adorned with two additional sets of arms, reminding me of images of Hindu deities. These elements, mixed with provocative costumes and the auction of the party-going women, result in a peculiar mixture of sexual, religious, and old-world dynamics.
Even though the air of DeMillean catastrophe is always palpable, the ship’s atmosphere throughout most of the party is characterized by laughter, flirtation, and inhibition-diminishing libations. People party with the style and intensity of an all-night Roman shindig, but their energetic revelry is balanced with the low-key, pervasive mystery of a modern-day costume party. Revelers come and go, buying and selling each other, breezily giving themselves permission to behave not as themselves in front of their mates and friends. The skimpy costumes and freely flowing liquor contribute to the sense that the atmosphere is relaxed and much is for sale. Abe Lyman and His Orchestra supply the flapper jazz, people spontaneously burst into song, and the party-goers grab random partners and dance. No doubt, the pervasive opportunity for characters to free themselves of their identities and become whoever they want with whomever they want is as much a part of what brings the ship down from within as the lightning outside.
The party zeppelin, fueled by the pleasure-seeking energies of its attendees, thus functions not only as a frivolous, cocktail-drenched affair in a 1930 domestic comedy but also as a modern symbol for an older story—an anti-Noah’s ark taken down by punishing storms for its comfort with and untroubled attitude towards depravity. In this case, the zeppelin is full of elite business associates of Jimmy’s, and the ship’s crash, as Thomas Doherty has pointed out in Pre-Code Hollywood (1999), resembles the tumbling market of 1929—the chastening capstone to the Jazz Age and the catalyst of the Great Depression. (Of course, the pre-Code period of cinema, stretching from 1929 through mid-1934, had its own special penchant for wildness that the storm-driven ending could also be commenting upon.) But while the party’s outcome has a moralizing dimension, the party itself encourages us to enjoy and therefore participate vicariously in its wide-scale permissiveness, with the result that the pleasure we take in the carousing threatens to outweigh the rectitude of the storm—especially as no one appears to be seriously injured by the tumble from the zeppelin. That is to say, the biblical conclusion, while intense, is limited in its efficacy.
Although Madam Satan overall does not demand a great deal of its audience, nevertheless a surprising amount of mental activity is required to determine what people are dressed as at the costume party. I am still not entirely sure I understand what Miss “A Fishing Story” is meant to be. She has a fish appliqued to her bodice whose mouth is attached to a line and pole that she holds in her hands, and she tells a story about a big catch; so is she the proverbially exaggerated fishing story that fishermen tell? But the story is something she tells, not something she wears. The costume’s logic lies more in her verbal contribution than in what she has on, and even with the explanation, it does not completely work. “The Call of the Wild” is similarly puzzling. Carrying stuffed animals and wearing a giant blonde afro with a short fringed dress, this party-goer looks like a white person pretending to be African. Of course, The Call of the Wild is also a Jack London short story set in the Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush, and the discrepancy between what London’s story is about, how the woman is dressed, and her harsh New York accent adds an additional layer of befuddlement.
Most of the guests’ costumes that go uncommented upon seem to potentially have a story attached or to require an explanation in order to be comprehended, and as we look around the ballroom at how people are attired, we might think that all of their explanations could be as weird as those of “A Fishing Story” and “The Call of the Wild.” That, coupled with the amount of activity on the zeppelin, creates an environment where there is perceived complexity. It all makes for a strange amalgam of heady pretending that does not quite work yet is oddly intriguing. It also contributes to our sense that there is always activity and movement at the party, mental or otherwise, which adds to the sequence’s bacchanalian qualities.
True to the movie’s pre-Code nature, many of the costumes, especially the women’s costumes, are rather revealing with skimpy skirts and exposed skin (one reveler wears a large fig leaf over her crotch). Trixie steps up to the auction block scantily clad in metallic shorts and huge pheasant feathers. “How do you like my costume?” she asks Bob. “Great, where is it?” he replies. (“I knew you by your appendix scar,” remarks another acquaintance.) Madam Satan’s costume is decidedly eye-catching: her sleeveless gown appears to be partially transparent, with dark, flame-shaped fabric reaching up to just barely conceal her breast and groin area. The pattern of the fabric thus invites us to observe the points at which these parts of her body begin and end, resulting in a tantalizing view. Madam Satan’s attire is presumably part of what so entices Bob and persuades him to follow her around the ship. No doubt the idea that she is satanic, implying sexual naughtiness, also intrigues her husband.
But the illusion of Madam Satan’s sexual power disappears when she removes her mask, and the roaring optimism of the ship’s gaudy displays is only permitted to continue for a time. Madam Satan seems distinctly to want to punish its characters for their end-of-an-era debauchery, taking pains to show us character after character crashing down from the ship, spilling dangerously onto the ground. As they touch down one by one, the movie falls out of the indulgent fantasy world of the party. The ark deflates, the opportunity it offers for escape closes up, the power of transformation is snuffed out, and the freedom of momentary lawlessness has been erased. We are back to the bedroom comedy, back to the dreariness of Bob and Angela, sans costume—back to a world where the glow of a former age is gone and where we have inherited the dull reality of their strife-laden relationship as the grown-up consequence of our frivolous days spent dancing and drinking in the air. Returning to Bob and Angela at home is a more effective punishment than the zeppelin’s destruction, and the end of the movie brings relief.
When the zeppelin is taken down by the storm, the movie not only transitions into moralizing mode; it also surges into disaster-epic mode. Madam Satan resembles later movies such as The Towering Inferno (1974), The Hindenburg (1975), and Titanic (1997), with scenes of screaming zeppelin passengers falling from great heights. Disaster movies were not an invention of these later decades. Movies tinged with other generic elements had featured disastrous climaxes since the silent era. San Francisco (1936), filmed a few years after Madam Satan, is a dramatic musical, not an action film, but provides a famous special-effects-laden finale when it recreates the destruction of San Francisco in the 1906 earthquake. Like San Francisco and many other disaster movies, Madam Satan is so invested in the cataclysm at its party’s conclusion that the earlier phases of the film are easily forgotten. Perhaps releasing the zeppelin sequence as a short feature with a few tweaks would have been a stronger choice.
As it stands, the movie is a lot to process, and it does not feel very cohesive. Madam Satan strives to be everything at once—part spectacle set (complete with act-of-God finale), part intimate marriage story, part flapper musical. But it is worth seeing for what it turns into: a bizarre psychological experience in which excess and subversion are both celebrated and punished on board the zeppelin. It is not one of the great movies of the Depression, but it is an intriguing embodiment of the era’s desire for both total liberation in movies and a moralistic curbing tendency to contain that penchant for permissiveness.