Pre-code Hollywood films tend to be over-the-top, and the one that sails highest over is generally agreed to be Cecil B. DeMille’s 1930 wonder Madam Satan. Granted, it takes an hour and fifty-six minutes to tell a story that could be told in ten; bloat was ever DeMille’s weakness. But bloat can also encompass other, zestier forms of excess. Madam Satan treads water for about its first hour, but then we board a zeppelin for 1930’s most ostentatious costume party, and pretty much all is forgiven. It becomes something of a squarer American version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, with singing and dancing and, I’m sure, plenty of illicit sex in the dark nooks and crannies of the dirigible. We don’t see the orgies, of course, but we can certainly infer them, as audiences just emerging from the Roaring Twenties likely did.
We begin with marital tension: husband Bob (Reginald Denny) returns home with his friend Jimmy (Roland Young) after a night of painting the town red. We’re to believe that Bob, whose wife Angela (Kay Johnson) is a bit too cold for his taste, has been doing the Humpty Dance with bad girl Trixie (Lillian Roth). But judging from the way Bob and Jimmy engage in a mostly clothed shower together, gradually disrobing each other, the competition Angela has to worry about isn’t Trixie. Homosexuality was notoriously coded in pre-code movies, though I wonder if DeMille or his two (female) screenwriters had that remotely in mind. It was a more “innocent” time, after all, and sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes two men showering together is just two men showering together.
Anyway, we spend an awful lot of time on the Bob/Trixie/Angela triangle, with heavily overextended farce involving Trixie pretending to be Jimmy’s wife when the suspicious Angela comes to visit and decides to stay the night, and so on. It’s not terrible, but one does twitch impatiently, waiting for the good stuff to hurry up and get here. The stodgy Angela swears to the crassly disdainful Trixie (sounds like Gollum’s “tricksy”) that she’ll heat up her act to win back Bob’s heart and libido. As if on cue, the film’s second half arrives, along with the dirigible and a character called Electricity who seems to rule the evening; perhaps we can number Madam Satan among David Lynch’s influences.
The spectacle that follows isn’t exactly Busby Berkeley. DeMille plants his camera in front of a lot of people dancing, and for the most part there’s no pattern or choreography to it. It’s just teeming movement. More excitement and amusement can be found when various women are introduced to the other partygoers, each getting a chance to show off her outrageous get-up. Women, I reflected, no longer get opportunities to slip into insane, shiny, wonderful costumes in movies; even the outfits in Maleficent and Snow White and the Huntsman leaned towards the grimdark. The closest we’ve come recently was the flappers in The Great Gatsby. The most aggressively batty costume of all, of course, adorns the mysterious Madam Satan, who is, obviously to us and to no one else, Angela in disguise (and using a thick Hollywood idea of ze French accent). Bob doesn’t recognize his wife, perhaps under the Batman principle that a person’s nose and chin are insufficient prompts for identification as long as the mask has pointy ears or pointy horns.
It all builds up to a thunderstorm, courtesy of our buddy Electricity I guess, that severs the zeppelin from its moorings and endangers all aboard. So what begins as marital uptightness about infidelity shades into bitter, jealous mask-wearing at an orgiastic bash of one-percenters before sliding into apocalypse — Madam Satan, I was delighted to discover, was Eyes Wide Shut seventy years early. Could Kubrick’s swan song owe as much to DeMille as to Schnitzler? Regardless, the revellers float gently from harm to land (or water) via parachutes, thanks to special effects that, considering their vintage, aren’t half bad. Madam Satan was an expensive flop, and its sportive star Kay Johnson, a DeMille protégée, didn’t enjoy much of a career when all was said and done. (Co-star Lillian Roth, of I’ll Cry Tomorrow fame/infamy, had a longer fifteen minutes.) And that frumpy first half needed trimming and needs patient viewers. But once it starts to sparkle, it doesn’t stop until it stops.