Pre-Code Crazy: The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931)
There’s a whole lot of pre-Codey stuff going on in this 76-minute film. Pre-marital sex. Cohabitation without benefit of clergy. Illegitimate birth. Suicide. Prison. Larceny. Prostitution. But it’s all offset by the biggest case of sacrificial mother love this side of Stella Dallas.
I’ve had a fondness for The Sin of Madelon Claudet since the first time I saw it, years ago. I certainly wasn’t attracted to it because of its star, Helen Hayes – although I first became aware of her from TV’s The Snoop Sisters with Mildred Natwick, I was never familiar with much of her screen work. And while Robert Young is a member of the cast and I always enjoy his performances, he’s only on screen for about 10 minutes, tops. Several of my other personal favorites are in the film as well – Marie Prevost, Alan Hale, Neil Hamilton, Karen Morley, Lewis Stone – but each of them are in relatively minor roles, certainly not contributing enough, individually, to cause me to remember the film with such affection.
But the story – what a roller coaster ride!
In a nutshell – and I promise to tread lightly here, because I don’t want to give anything away – the film centers on the life and times of Madelon Claudet (Hayes), a young French farm girl who falls in love with an American artist (Hamilton).
Yikes. I really feel like that’s all I can say without giving away important plot points.
Let me approach it this way. The picture opens in Paris, where Alice Claudet (Karen Morley) arrives at the office of her doctor husband, Larry (Robert Young), to leave him a Dear John letter – turns out that she’s fed up with playing second fiddle to his noble medical career. But she is surprised by the presence of Larry’s colleague, Dr. Dulac (Jean Hersholt), who tells her that she’s not the only person who has made sacrifices for her husband – there is another woman, he says, “whose life has been one long martyrdom for him.” And as Dr. Dulac tells this woman’s story to Alice, we enter a flashback that will last for most of the film. It’s the tale of Larry’s mother, Madelon – and thus the roller coaster begins.
Since I’m so loathe to give away even the tiniest of nuggets about the goings-on in the film, let me share just a few of the reasons why I’m recommending it:
- A span of at least 30 years is depicted; the film provides a unique method of illustrating the passage of time by first showing its effect on Madelon, and then, separately, what’s happening during the same time frame in the life of her son.
- Helen Hayes is in just about every scene, and while her character has everything thrown at her but the metaphorical kitchen sink, her performance remains measured and believable, making you experience every event right along with her.
- The film features a close and touching friendship between Madelon and Rosalie (played by the always great Marie Prevost); for a time, Rosalie even takes over the care of Madelon’s son. (But that’s all I’m going to say about that.)
And, just for the heck of it, here’s some other stuff:
- The film was based on a play called The Lullaby, which played 144 performances on Broadway in the early 1920s and starred May Robson, Rose Hobart and Frank Morgan.
- Madelon Claudet was Helen Hayes’s first sound picture and she won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance. (By the way, she won a second Oscar nearly 40 years later, for Best Supporting Actress in 1970s Airport, becoming one of the few performers to win an Oscar every time she was nominated.)
- In one of my favorite documentaries, MGM: When The Lion Roars, Hayes recalled that the picture was originally shelved, but it was shown to Irving Thalberg, who determined that only the film’s last seven minutes needed to be reshot. Thalberg also changed the name of the flim: “The Sin of Madelon Claudet was the name that Irving gave it because he thought ‘Lullaby’ was too naïve a name,” Hayes said. “And he got that ‘sin’ in there, and that was a good sales lift.”
- One of the writers on the film was Charles MacArthur, who was married to Helen Hayes from 1928 until his death in 1956. MacArthur and Hayes were the parents of actor James MacArthur (perhaps best known for his role as “Dano” in the original Hawaii Five-O TV series).
- The film’s director was Edgar Selwyn, who helmed Skyscraper Souls the following year, and wore several other hats during his career: actor, producer, and writer. His writing credits included the play The Mirage, which was the basis for the 1931 Joan Crawford film, Possessed).
The Sin of Madelon Claudet airs on TCM in the wee hours of March 5th (technically the morning of March 6th).
Do yourself a favor – set your alarm or program your VCR (or whatever!) – but don’t miss it.
You know why.
You only owe it to yourself.
(And speaking of what you owe to yourself, don’t forget to pop over to Speakeasy to check out Kristina’s Pre-Code Crazy selection for the month!)