Yeah, that sounds like a weird as hell header, but that was more or less my first thought when I heard the story of Madam Satan being described. I thought it sounded like The Piña Colada Song, and I wasn’t alone in that thought. My introduction to the film was almost one year ago exactly in the form of one of Bill Mulligan’s contributions to a Con Carolinas panel on overlooked/forgotten films, and about half of the audience said the same thing about the plot.
It also got a lot of people curious as to how much of the description of what had to be a drug fantasy version of the film rather than an actual film was real, and how much of it was hyperbole. No one in the audience had ever heard of the film before, and, if memory serves, no other panelist had either. It turned out that it was a real film, and he only got a detail about the very end of the film wrong. Everything else was spot on.
First- If you’ve never heard of The Piña Colada Song, here’s a quick breakdown minus the really bad crooning. Man wants to cheat on wife. Man sees personals ad in the local paper where a frisky young lass describes all the things she likes to do. He decides that this looks great and answers the thing. When they meet up, it turns out to be his wife, also looking to cheat on him, and then they have a laugh over each of them looking to cheat on the other before heading off to live happily ever after.
I’m really not kidding about that song’s premise and plot. You may have even noticed a part of it in the background during Guardians of the Galaxy. The song has the same basic storyline as the film. Well, if the storyline for The Piña Colada Song had been on some very heavy drugs and was, surprisingly for a major studio release from MGM in 1930, slightly more kinky (and some might say more perverted) in its basic execution.
Madam Satan was director Cecil B. DeMille’s contribution to making people wonder WTF was in the water back then. Here’s the story. Yes, I will be doing complete spoilers here since, well, this is such a messed up film you will want to see it to believe it yourself even after reading the story here.
Angela Brooks (Kay Johnson) is waiting in her high society, posh home for her husband to return home after being way overdue from a night out with friends. While waiting, she and the maid see an interesting bit of news in the just delivered morning paper. The front page of one section of the paper covering the high society set contains a story, complete with a photo of her husband, stating the he, his friend, and Mrs. Brooks had all been arrested that evening and been in night court.
It’s at this point that her husband Bob (Reginald Denny) and his comedic sidekick friend Jimmy (Roland Young) come sneaking in and, more than a little inebriated, head for the shower. The maid spots them and lets Angela know that he’s home. When confronted, the two men first try to play the story up as yellow journalism, insisting that since she wasn’t there it could never have been her. They suddenly realize that this may not be the best defense to take.
Eventually Bob admits to having an affair, putting the responsibility on her by stating that Angela has become boring and dull since they were wed. Angela says she’s leaving, insisting on going home with Jimmy to stay with him and his wife. Jimmy refuses to allow her to come home with him and departs quickly. Angela calls her maid, telling her to bring her overnight bag, and follows Jimmy home.
Upon her arrival she finds a greatly surprised Jimmy watching Trixie (Lillian Roth) singing a number at the piano. Oh, yeah, the film, being a typical 1930s affair, has lots of singing and more than a few dance numbers in it. It’s immediately apparent that Trixie and Jimmy are not husband and wife. It’s also immediately apparent from Trixie’s reaction to Angela suddenly appearing there, as well as a well placed photo of Bob, that she’s the new girlfriend. This doesn’t stop Jimmy from grabbing and kissing an uncomprehending Trixie to get her stop talking and start going along with the ruse.
Oh, did I mention that Jimmy throws big parties on a zeppelin? I should. That’s rather important for the plot.
Trixie is a showgirl who does shows on Jimmy’s zeppelin. Despite not wanting to go along with the lie of being Jimmy’s wife, she goes along with it since Angela brought her pistol along with her overnight clothing. Trixie will have none of the two of them being in the same bed together, but Angela, more or less knowing what’s up, keeps coming into their room to trip them up. Jimmy finally locks Angela in her room just in time for Bob to come in and discover that Jimmy is with Trixie in her room. As he tries to break into the room, Angela finds a back way out of her room and into Trixie’s while Trixie simultaneously sneaks out of the room.
Bob breaks in to find Jimmy with a woman hidden under a blanket. He’s about to take a swing at Jimmy when Trixie enters the room. Trixie gets him to leave for the evening, but not before he loudly proclaims that he’s free and ready to be with Trixie all of the time. Interestingly, this doesn’t involve divorce. It just involves his deciding to leave home and not let Angela know where he’s going.
Trixia and a broken Angela have a face to face about the affair where Trixie essentially brags about the ability to steal men. She makes reference to the fact that she’s used her body to get where she is in life and she’s not going to stop any time soon; especially with a man as rich as Bob on the hook. She also belittles Angela for allowing herself to become less sexy to her husband in the marriage. This leaves Angela fuming, but, more importantly, plotting. She becomes determined to beat Trixie at her own game.
We cut to a huge society party on Jimmy’s zeppelin. Although, I’m not sure WTF society these people came from. People are dressed in bizarre and in some cases borderline insane costumes. These people are dressed up in outfits that make a heavy cosplay convention look like a walk down Boring Street in Dullsville, USA. Some are just out there, some are a little risqué, and still others are probably precursors to bondage outfits.
After a rather large and complexly choreographed song and dance number, the main event of the party takes center stage. They’re hosting an auction where they’re selling off some of the ladies for the evening. Even better, as yet another excuse for a song, the ladies sing about their value to up the bidding.
The various high society men at the party are throwing down some big money, even by today’s standards, as woman after woman strolls down the steps of Jimmy’s auction. The last of the women, Trixie, steps out and the bidding goes wild; Bob being the man most desperate to bid the highest price. Just as Bob throws out an insane bid, a singsong voice rings out in the hallway. Everyone is confused by the siren song they’re hearing. They all turn to see the mysterious Madam Satan standing in the center of the entry hall.
Well, mysterious to only those actually in the film. It’s obvious to the viewer that the masked mystery woman is Angela in a seductive outfit and putting on a French(ish) accent. Madam Satan puts herself up for auction, driving the bidding war to epic heights before Bob throws down $3,000 on the bid. This, of course, infuriates Trixie.
After almost an hour of Madam Satan having Bob alone, Trixie convinces Jimmy to march into the private suite and tell Bob that Madam Satan is Jimmy’s girl. Jimmy, not knowing it’s really Angela, tells Bob that Madam Satan is in fact the girl who was under the blanket the other evening. He convinces Bob not to take his girl away, but Angela discretely reveals her identity to Jimmy, and Jimmy then tells Bob to forget what he just said and go for it anyhow.
The rest of the evening is spent with Angela and Trixie (still not knowing the identity of the woman under the mask) competing for Bob’s attention. Trixie keeps ending up on the short end of the stick, and this makes her attempts to woo Bob back grow more and more flamboyant. Finally, Bob loses control and pulls Madam Satan from the dance floor and into a small room on the zeppelin. As he’s about to make his move, Angela pulls her mask off. Bob is taken aback by the realization that the woman he has the hots for is actually his wife.
This moment also leads to some of the goofiest dialogue in the film as Bob starts lecturing her about her Madam Satan behavior, demanding that she answer how she thinks he could ever love a woman he doesn’t respect. Her response, and it’s a beauty, is her claiming she doesn’t want his respect as much as she wants his love. This almost, sort of, kind of, maybe tender moment is interrupted when a bolt of lightning from an approaching thunderstorm strikes the zeppelin and breaks it free from the tower it was tethered to. It also starts the process of the zeppelin breaking up.
Confusingly, the zeppelin’s captain decides that they need to go up so that the passengers can grab the emergency parachutes and jump to safety. I say it was a curious move since the thing wasn't that high up in the air based on the shots we’d seen so far and they could have just gone down and gotten to the ground well before the thing fell apart in the air.
Passengers, some apparently mid-orgy, come running from all corners of the ship to strap on a parachute and leap to safety. Bob, still berating his wife for making a fool of him and for getting herself into such a situation, runs to get her a parachute. Once he’s found one and brought it to her, Trixie arrives and he’s off to find her one as well. Angela, in a bit of a head scratching moment, gives Trixie the parachute under the condition that, should she take it, she never gets near Bob again.
Bob now tries to find Angela another parachute after returning to reveal that he wasn’t having great success finding Trixie one. By the time all of the other passengers have left the ship, there’s only one parachute left. Bob, insisting that she’s made a fool of him but will not make a coward of him, puts it on her and sends her floating down to safety as he prepares to crash to earth with the ship. At the very last minute Bob manages to dive from the ship and land safely in the city reservoir. This is followed by our seeing Angela and the other passengers landing one after another in more and more humorous locations.
Humorous… Oh, yeah, did I mention that this is a comedy? It’s supposed to be a comedy. It’s supposed to be a romantic comedy at that. It actually works as a comedy in at least a few parts of the film, and I mean as intended rather than
accidentally, but mostly just in scenes with Jimmy in them.
accidentally, but mostly just in scenes with Jimmy in them.
Our film ends with everyone bruised but alive the next morning. Angela and Bob are back in their home, and a battered and bandaged Jimmy drops by for a visit. We get more singing from Angela as we get to see upset Bob, indigent Bob, jealous Bob, laughing Bob, and finally loving Bob. Jimmy trots off, and Bob and Angela sing at the piano, getting set to live happily ever after as the credits roll.
I absolutely swear to you, I am not making any of that up. The kicker is that, as weird as this film comes across insofar as reading like a perverted male fantasy, three women wrote the film. The writers were Jeanie Macpherson, Gladys Unger, and Elsie Janis, and all have additional credits beyond this film.
On a storyline level, you have to wonder just what the hell everyone was smoking in the MGM studio offices in the late 1920s and early 1930s. I mean, there are few other reasons that I can think of that this film was given the green light, actually filmed, and then sent out into theaters other than the partaking of incredibly large amounts of recreational substances.
However, on a technical level the film is absolutely incredible to see. It must have looked gloriously unreal on a big screen. Cecil B. DeMille as a young director was everything that he was in his more famous later years, but he had more energy and style to some of his directing in his early days. And during the entire time spent on the zeppelin, the film is visually amazing. The sets were incredible and the costumes were simply unbelievable. This was a film designed to be so visually stunning as to put Broadway’s most audaciously glitzy shows to shame.
This brings us back to the drugs.
You’ve heard of modern Hollywood’s habit of reading the tea leaves, but reading in them something no one else who is sane would ever see? Hollywood did it a few years back with John Carter. Several films badly bombed at the box office that had the word “Mars” in the title. So the studio execs, wrongly thinking that no one wanted to see a film set on Mars rather than correctly thinking that no one wanted to see a bad film that was set anywhere, nixed “Mars” from the John Carter of Mars title and shortened it to the far more generic and unappealing John Carter. Hollywood legend has it that a similar thing happened here.
One could argue that this film might still be seen as an early classic of the genre, whatever genre it could be fit in to, and sold in boxed sets along with Cecil B. DeMille’s other classics if only it had been in color. Had it been in Technicolor, the amazing visuals would have absolutely saved this film from the level of obscurity it seems to face today. Well, maybe not. Anyhow…
Supposedly, as the story goes, Madam Satan was in fact filmed in Technicolor, but it was printed and given wide release on black and white film stock. The Hollywood legend around this film is that several early Technicolor films sent to theaters before it came out bombed, and, reading the tea leaves in that way that only Hollywood can, the powers that be at MGM decided that the movie going audiences hated color films. If the story is true, the only Technicolor prints would have disintegrated in the cans on a shelf in a back lot storage room decades ago.
You know up top where I said that you’d want to see this film to believe it? Believe it or not, it’s actually easy to do. The film apparently has a rabid cult following. Not only can you find somewhat watchable copies of the party scenes on various streaming websites and a fairly watchable but occasionally horribly muddy looking copy on YouTube, there was just enough interest for the film that it was released in remastered form as a part of MGM’s DVD-R, print on demand Archive Collection. That’s right; you can actually own this drug trip of a film with a few mouse clicks on Amazon.
Seriously, this is a film that MUST be seen at least once to be believed. Gather some friends, gather a large amount of alcohol, pop the popcorn, stock up on a little more alcohol, order the pizza, and prepare to stare in wonder at the screen as you too try to figure out just WTF everyone was on when this thing was being made.
Jerry Chandler watches movies. He watches a lot of movies. He also realized some time ago that the ratio of WTF movies to good movies he’s seen is somewhere in the ballpark of 20 to 1. Is it a sign of mental issues requiring immediate attention and/or medication that he doesn’t really want to fix that ratio? If you find him walking around at ConCarolinas this weekend, be sure and let him know the answer.