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Madam Satan (DVD Review)

13 Dec, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
$24.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Kay Johnson, Reginald Denny, Roland Young.

Even by the John Derek-Meets-the Golden Calf standards of Cecil B. DeMille — a director very much on my mind these days thanks to my in-progress reading of Scott Eyman’s characteristically definitive new C.B. bio — this is a wild one. Or at least it is in the second half when — just in case you think you’re so cool — the entire cast dons black-and-white costumes to attend a Truman Capote-caliber bash that takes place on a zeppelin.

The 1930 movie is a heavily qualified must if you’ve never seen it, but it’s also often an exasperating grind. The first half, which sets up another of those ornery marital comedies that established a lot of DeMille’s pre-Biblical reputation, is unspeakably dull — certainly more of a slog than any story of infidelity should ever be. Reginald Denny, who eventually ended up in Cat Ballou, plays a married philanderer with the money to be smashed 22 hours a day … during Prohibition. Roland Young, later that foil-to-ghosts Cosmo Topper in the original big-screen “Topper” series, is his partner in daily dipsomania — though their most of their drinking (like their philandering) takes place at night, a la Chaplin’s City Lights. And Denny’s on-the-side cutie is played by an actress who famously had alcohol problems in real life: Lillian Roth, whose best-selling I’ll Cry Tomorrow two decades later would almost win Susan Hayward an Oscar for the 1955 movie version.

The wronged wife is played by Kay Johnson, an actress who ended up making only a handful of films but also one who had starred in DeMille’s first talkie the previous year: 1929’s Dynamite. Her character is attractive enough but far too inhibited to flaunt her goods — until a complete turnabout in a livelier hour two when she dons a mask to disguise herself as the title vamp, thus capturing the imagination of her clueless husband. In real life, Johnson was married (for a time) to director John Cromwell, and they became the parents of actor James Cromwell. So let’s see: if you’re James Cromwell, your mother played Madam Satan, your father directed the greatest women’s prison pic ever (1950’s Caged), and you yourself became a star character actor cast opposite an animatronic pig in Babe — years before you played George Bush Sr. in Oliver Stone’s underrated W. Well, it’s a life.

According to IMDb.com, Satan is a favorite of the Art Deco Society of San Francisco, and it’s easy to see why from all the zeppelin gussy-up in hour two. The picture is kind of a musical that for laughably long stretches keeps forgetting that it is. The party entrance scene, though, is a production number that leads to the “due to technical problems beyond control”-type finale on which much of the movie’s reputation (such that it is) rests. I don’t know that much about zeppelins beyond having once owned an LP of the complete Hindenburg explosion broadcast, but logic would dictate that having hundreds of guests dance and stomp with full Busby Berkeley force on a floating airborne machine is probably a little foolhardy.

It’s a measure of DeMille’s lousy direction here — and I speak generally as one of the last remaining DeMille enthusiasts — that even the zeppelin break-up and its dumping of party guests a few hundred feet into water isn’t very well handled. This is, however, one of the definitive “it is what it is” movies — one where cinematic competence matters less than the fact that these two hours exist at all. DVD, of course, makes it an easier chore to watch the picture in increments, which is the only way you’ll ever get through the first half.

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