Pre-Code Crazy: Madam Satan (1930)

You may not know this about me, but I am no horror fan.

Oh, I’ve seen the occasional horror movie – Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, and I even recently caught most of Dracula – but for the most part, no thank you.

So when I looked over TCM’s pre-Code offerings for the month of October and saw a plethora of “Creature Features,” I was kind of at a loss as to what movie I could possibly choose for my October recommendation. The few non-horror movies that I’d seen, I’ve already written about, and I just wasn’t willing to sit down, turn on all the lights, and watch a scary movie!

Then I spied Madam Satan, a film directed by Cecil B. DeMille that I bought on DVD several years ago but never got around to watching. It looked appealing, so I decided to check it out, with an eye of making it my pre-Code Crazy pick. Surely, I thought, it would be recommendable.

But then I saw the opening credits, with such characters as “Electricity,” “Fish Girl,” and “Miss Cunning Tower,” and I began to wonder what the heck I’d gotten myself into. But more on that later.

Bob and Jimmy run in to Angela after a night on the town (and a shower together.) (Don’t ask.)

The story of Madam Satan centers around Angela (Kay Johnson), a sterling character whose husband, Bob (Reginald Denny), is a deceitful womanizer who’d rather stay out drinking all night with his bosom buddy, Jimmy (Roland Young), than share a cozy evening before the fire with his spouse. In fact, Bob makes no secret that he’s not happy with Angela, callously telling her that when they got married, she “ceased being my pal and became just my wife.” (Well, damn.) And that’s not all. We soon learn that Bob’s got a chick on the side – Trixie (Lillian Roth), who apparently is some kind of vaudeville performer (She does a thoroughly enjoyable, delightfully sexy song-and-dance number that’s one of the highlights of the movie.).

Lillian Roth’s song and dance is one of the reasons why this movie is a must-see.

But just when I’m starting to get into the drama of the situation, the movie morphs into a musical! While consoling her sad and blue boss, Angela’s maid bursts into song, warbling that “she who hesitates will fall by the way, she who stops and waits will watch with dismay . . . so live and love today!” Angela heeds her maid’s musical advice and heads over to Trixie’s to confront her rival, but at this point, the film veers into yet another direction, becoming a comedy of errors! Jimmy tells Angela that he’s married to Trixie, Angela insists on spending the night at Trixie’s apartment (for some unfathomable reason), and later, when Bob arrives on the scene and sees Jimmy tiptoeing out of Trixie’s bedroom, Jimmy bundles Angela in a bedspread, claiming that the undercover dame is HIS girlfriend! (It sounds kinda nuts, but it’s actually pretty funny.)

Cat fight!

And things really get going when Angela and Trixie are left alone together – the subterfuge vanishes and the claws come out. In a scene that could have inspired the dressing room confrontation between Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford in The Women (1939), Angela calls Trixie “common and cheap” and tells her she wouldn’t want to hold on to her husband using Trixie’s methods. “You would if you could,” Trixie retorts, “but you don’t know how!” By the end of the exchange, Angela is vowing to be so hot that “they’ll have to call out the whole fire department to put me out!”

Trixie and her appendix scar-revealing outfit.

And THEN the next thing you know – Lord have mercy – the movie transforms into I-don’t-know-WHAT-the-hell!! Turns out that Jimmy is throwing a huge masquerade party aboard a zeppelin. That’s right. A ZEPPELIN. It’s hovering in the sky, anchored to this huge tower, and we see the elaborately costumed partygoers dancing and singing their way onto the airship. As they enter the party, the guests are introduced by their costume-related monikers – watch for the moment that Miss Golden Pheasant skids on a piece of her elaborate costume and almost ends up on her golden rear. Speaking of Miss Golden Pheasant (who’s Trixie, by the way), one of the film’s most pre-Codian moments comes when she tells Bob that no one will recognize her in her outfit. Seconds later, a man walks up and greets her by name. When she asks how he knew her, he replies, “I knew you by your appendix scar.” (Whoa!)

Angela as Madam Satan nearly charms the pants off of Bob. (Not that he’s wearing any in the first place.)

All kinds of craziness takes place aboard the party, including an auction where the men bid on the women to earn the privilege of a dance, and a wild salute to electricity dance number featuring a guy who materializes like Capt. Kirk aboard the Starship Enterprise. All of the major players are on hand – Bob, Trixie, and Jimmy (of course), and in a slinky, uber-risque, barely there black outflit, calling herself “Madam Satan” and speaking in a French accent, is Angela – who proceeds to drive Bob to distraction with her sexy charms.

I’ll let you discover the rest of the film for yourself – but let me just say that it makes one final transformation before it ends, this time into a disaster flick in the tradition of The Towering inferno and The Poseidon Adventure. Like the tagline on the film’s poster tells us, “You’ve Never Seen Anything Like It!”

Madam Satan — see it to believe it. And even then, you might not believe it.

Madam Satan will never make it onto my list of favorite pre-Codes, but it’s one of those movies where you notice something new every time you see it, and which grows on you more with each viewing. Check it out October 16th on TCM and see what I mean!

One more thing . . .

Y’all know how I love trivia. Here’s one for you. Angela/Madam Satan was played by Kay Johnson, whom I’d never heard of before this movie. She was married to director John Cromwell and she’s the mother of actor James Cromwell (who has been in numerous television series and films, including Six Feet Under, L.A. Confidential, and Babe). You might remember seeing Johnson in Of Human Bondage, which was directed, incidentally, by her husband. (You’re welcome.)


Now don’t forget to pop over to Speakeasy to see what pre-Code gem Kristina is recommending for the month!

~ by shadowsandsatin on October 9, 2017.

16 Responses to “Pre-Code Crazy: Madam Satan (1930)”

  1. Wow, this is one I’m dying to see! Sounds like a spectacle to rival any creature feature 🙂

  2. Oh my gosh! This movie sounds unbelievable, but essential viewing for any pre-code crazy fan.

  3. I’ve heard lots about this bizarre little movie but never watched it. Yet! You know I’ll be setting the DVR on October 16th!

  4. Sounds great to me! Something for everyone. Hope all is going well, Karen.

  5. Amazing! I’m going to have to watch this! 😀

  6. I’ve got it marked down on my calendar for Oct 16th – I’ve heard SO MUCH about this movie and have been dying to watch it for years!

  7. The thing to remember with these films from the early 30s is that they took risk trying to find the right style of film genre .
    The style of genre later became Film Noir ; light romantic comedies and so on. Back then all that was in the future; nobody knew what would work and what did not work with the public.

  8. Just watched I’ll Cry Tomorrow , the biography of Lillian Roth, where Lillian was played by Susan Hayward, who was nominated for Best Actress for this performance. Lillian Roth was a huge star in her day.

    • I am so fascinated by Lillian Roth. I saw the movie long before I knew anything about her as an actress and singer; it was only in recent years that I’ve started to see her in a few movies and on YouTube. She was such a talent.

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