Madam Satan (1930) Directed by Cecil B. De Mille. Kay Johnson, Reginald Denny, Lillian Roth, Roland Young. (114 min.)

“Who wants to go to Hell with Madam Satan?” A stale society marriage gets a jolt when a wronged wife snaps out of it and realizes love is “a battery that needs to be recharged every day.” A mad masquerade on a zeppelin moored over Manhattan is the battleground where wife and a tootsie named Trixie clash. “The second half of Madam Satan is one of the great examples of weirdness in American pop cinema: a twilight zone wherein musical comedy meets disaster epic, all designed and costumed (by Adrian) with the farthest out Art Deco affectation.” (Richard Barrios).

Cecil B. De Mille’s second talkie was a bizarre amalgam of his silent era domestic farces, his sinful spectacles and the new craze for musicals. He would never make another picture like this one…wait a minute, there is no other picture like this one! Off to a slow start, Madam Satan roars to life behind the sequined mask and fake French accent of a most unlike seductress, the genteel Kay Johnson. She’s got a lot of competition, not just the jazzy, pheasant-feathered Lillian Roth but revels where “scantily clad damsels parade before salivating men in a mock slave auction, waitresses serve up bootleg booze, revelers exchange salacious bon mots, and flappers croon hot songs.” (Doherty).

MGM insisted that De Mille direct a musical as the second film he would make under contract for them. His long time screenwriter, Jeanie Macpherson, came up with the idea of a tuneful romp about adultery. Or, as C.B. described it, “the story of a wife who goes to a masked ball to flirt with her husband because, as he puts it later, he has been wandering ‘far from my own fireside in search of–fire!'” Macpherson collaborated with two other women screenwriters, Elsie Janis and Gladys Unger, and the plot bears a strong whiff of Dynamite, De Mille’s first talkie. In both films, women tangle over the fate of an oblivious, and frankly unworthy male object, but here the scenario writer prescribes “identity confusion and spousal straying …as marriage counseling.” (Doherty). Johnson’s Angela is pointedly a bird in a gilded cage, who thinks all men are but little children who like to play. Her reprobate husband and his speakeasy-hopping pal, a couple of society sapheads, run from the idea of marriage as from a chilly schoolroom. Bob’s cheerful, slutty mistress points out to the morose Angela that its not her illicit kisses that are bought, but those of the married woman who won’t risk the economic uncertainty of leaving hubby.

Kay Johnson was a New York stage actress, and was part of the first wave of performers who came West at the dawn of the talkies. DeMille used her as the heroine in his first two sound pictures, so he must have really liked her. She isn’t a particularly charismatic actress, and while her diction is a bit stagey to modern ears, her “School of Funny Talking” French accent is even worse. Johnson did not make many films in her relatively brief screen career. Or, as assistant director Mitchell Leisen put it, “Kay was a very talented lady from Broadway, and a lot of fun to work with, but she didn’t quite set the screen on fire.” (Chierichetti). She is, however, the mother of actor James Cromwell, best known as the farmer in Babe. This is one of the most remarkable facts ever related by Turner Classic Movies guru Robert Osbourne.

Reginald Denny, on the other hand, started in films in 1919, and was successful as both in a series of society comedies, and as a virile action hero, rather in the Douglas Fairbanks mode. Since he had been playing a thoroughly American character all these years, it came as rather a shock to his fans that he was British, and that was part of the reason that he did not have much of a career as a romantic hero in the talkies. But, he continued as a character actor, including a long run in My Fair Lady on Broadway. His last film was the 1966 Batman, with Adam West. And, as he is part of our Flight series, I should add that he was personally involved in the aviation industry, pioneering the first successful pilotless radio controlled aircraft.

The hero’s soused partner in crime is Roland Young, a character actor whose presence is always welcomed. His best known parts were in the title role of Topper and in The Philadelphia Story.

Director De Mille, Young, Denny, Johnson in a luxurious De Mille bathroom

The screen really lights up each time spunky Trixie, played by Lillian Roth, appears. Her red hot rendition of “Low Down” is the earliest sign that Madam Satan may be going somewhere after all. “Broadway’s youngest star” had been acting since she was six, pushed and brow-beaten by the horror show of her stage-struck parents. The late 1920s and early 1930s were her peak (she’s just 20 years old here) starring on stage in Earl Carroll’s Vanities and Ziegfeld’s Midnight Frolics, as well as brightening a handful of films. Her life wrecked on the shoals of her alcoholism and 8 nasty divorces, she was a has-been until a fateful appearance on This is Your Life, where she told her sad tale to millions of tv viewers. Her autobiography I’ll Cry Tomorrow became a weepy movie hit starring Susan Hayward, who was Oscar-nominated for playing Roth’s tragic life story. The film version of I’ll Cry Tomorrow bears scant resemblance to its source material. The book is unrelenting misery; the biopic is unrelenting tripe. Helen Rose won an Oscar for the horrible costumes, all evoking the mid-1950s instead of Roth’s era.

Johnson and Roth battle in the boudoir

De Mille cast his daughter Katharine, still a school girl at the time, as one of the wives of Henry the Eighth at the masquerade. She recalled, “There were, of course, eight of us, and we had these silver costumes–heavy–made of lead–anyway, they weighed a ton–and comes the day that they’re shooting. The falling Zeppelin is supposedly struck by lightning, and it’s going to go down fast…we were supposed to jump with our parachutes into the great circus net below. When we were told that everybody had to jump, there was a shock of horror. Nobody wanted to do it. Suddenly Father shouted, ‘Katharine!’ I said, ‘Oh, boy, here it comes.’ ‘Katharine, would you step over to the edge and jump?’ The distance was about 20 feet and there was strong net, and I was used to swimming and diving, and since Father sounded confident, I said, ‘Okay.’ And I walked to the edge and jumped into the circus net, and with that of, course, everybody was ashamed, and they followed. No one was hurt, and they got the scene in one take.” (Edwards).

Lillian Roth reported in her autobiography that she, too, had not wanted to jump, although her estimate of the height was 200 feet, not 20. She didn’t want to crash though the sugar glass ceiling of the Turkish bath, either. “Mr. De Mille, in The Love Parade Lupino Lane was so excited by one of my kisses that he jumped right through candy glass and he was all cut up. It might happen to me, too.” De Mille said nothing. Instead, he strode over to a pane of candy glass leaning against the wall, lifted it high over his head like a platter and brought it down hard on his skull. The glass smashed and shattered all about him. “If it didn’t hurt my old bald head,” he said caustically, waving away dripping splintered glass, “it won’t hurt your young back end.” I jumped on schedule.

Nor, was she thrilled with Adrian. “Hollywood’s famed dress designer had prepared a startling costume. I was to come to the ball as a pheasant–iridescent golden bra, iridescent golden shorts, and stemming out behind, tremendous pheasant feathers. Adrian wrestled with the bra. “You’ll never fit into it,” he said annoyed, looking at me as if I had betrayed him. “I’ve designed it for a boyish figure.” We consulted Mr. De Mille. “The girl isn’t supposed to be made to fit the bra,” he said sharply. “Make the bra fit the girl.” Adrian scolded and fussed, but he did as he was told.”

George Hurrell replaced Ruth Harriet Louise as chief MGM portrait photographer in 1930. To my eye, this uncredited photo looks more like a Hurrell than a Louise.

Skyscrapers were on everybody’s mind in 1930; the Chrysler Building had just been finished and the Empire State Building was still under construction. One of the proposals was that there would have a Zeppelin mooring mast on the 102nd floor, and this may have inspired the setting for Masquerade scenes.

The Spirit of Electricity

The party opens with an “Ballet Mechanique” lead by the Spirit of Electricity, Theodore Kosloff. The bizarre costumes and movements seem to have been inspired by Metropolis but De Mille’s clumsy camera makes you yearn for Busby Berkeley’s art. Kosloff was a former member of Diageliev’s Ballets Russe, the troupe that shocked Paris and then the world with their wildly garbed iconoclastic dances set to modern music. Kosloff opened a ballet school in New York, where he instructed dancers destined for musical comedies; he took credit for the success of a couple of Ziegfeld Follies stars. In Los Angeles, on a tour where he danced with his own troupe in emulation of Diagaliev’s repetoire, he was spotted by Jeanie Macpherson, who recommended him to the maestro for the part of an Aztec prince in The Woman God Forgot. He continued dancing in silent films, and later opened a dance studio in Hollywood, where he taught many stars. A dance partner and costume designer who came with him to Los Angeles was Natasha Rambova, who would later wreak artistic havoc as Mrs. Rudolph Valentino. His most famous pupil was Cecil De Mille’s niece, Agnes, whose own modernistic choreography would one day wow Broadway in Oklahoma.


There were so few MGM stages equipped for sound in 1930 that films were shot round the clock. De Mille, of course, got the coveted daytime slot, but it still meant that sets had to be struck and then rebuilt every day. The Zeppelin party was originally shot in two-color Technicolor. This was a tremendous design problem, both because of the amount of light needed to illuminate the set, and the problems of creating the scene not in black and white, but in red and green (the two colors of Technicolor). The stresses were so great that co-set designer and assistant director Mitchell Leisen had a nervous collapse during filming.

Costume designer Adrian Adolph Greenburg, who styled himself Gilbert Adrian and then just Adrian came to Hollywood under contract to De Mille. On the lot, he was given other design assignments, and he was soon working for MGM, where he would craft the memorable images of Garbo, Crawford, Shearer and the Munchkins, among many others. This is the 100th anniversary of his birth, and it’s worthwhile to point out how extraordinarily prolific he was, working a dozen films at once, and never assigning the lesser players to other designers. He designed every single costume in the Wizard of Oz himself, including the flying monkeys. He costumed 20 films in 1930, the year of Madam Satan, and he designed over 100 costumes for this film alone.

There is no movie costume like Madam Satan’s come hither peekaboo gown and cape. Bias cut for extra slink, the body of the gown is sewn to transparent marquisette…and how it stays in place, I’ll never know. This dress took a lot of fittings. Appliqued with red and silver sequins, the dress is not as heavy as a beaded dress would have been, allowing for the dramatic gesture.

Just to indicate the perfectionism of both the designer and the studio workrooms during the classic Hollywood era, there is one outfit, called “Confusion” which consists of little more than 200 balls of silk net, each fashioned from 10 yards of material. Today, if you can find silk net, it costs about $50/yard…or yes, over $100,000 of silk net at today’s cost. The net trembles around the wearer, hiding and revealing, resulting in “Confusion.” Since all of the balls had to be symmetrical, they were made by one person in the MGM wardrobe department, who worked on it for almost a month. This is for one extra’s costume that appears on the screen for about 30 seconds. The studio got a lot of publicity mileage out of it though; sending it to Paris as an example of the most fabric ever used in a single garment.

The costume party. “Confusion” is at top left.

The picture came in nine days ahead of schedule, although, at a million dollars, it was the most costly MGM film of 1930. It was not a success, partly because of the bizarre mish-mash of genres, and partly because the first cycle of musicals that had begun in 1927 with The Jazz Singer was coming to an end. But, rediscovered by a new generation, it can be treasured for what it is, a nutty one of a kind dazzlement. Or, as Richard Barrios says, “It would have to be fabulous to redeem that lethal first hour, and it is.”

Madam Satan on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Detail of embellishment on gown


(Full length photo from Jerry Ohlinger’s Movie Material Store. Party picture from Chierichetti Hollywood Costume Design, photos of gown from Hollywood Costume, Glitter, Glamour, Romance!, Kosloff photo and Lillian Roth portrait from Moviediva’s collection, all others from DeMille, the Man and his Pictures. Sources include Pre Code Hollywood by Thomas Doherty, A Song in the Dark by Richard Barrios, Gowns by Adrian by Howard Gutner, Screen Deco by Howard Mandelbaum and Eric Myers, Mitchell Leisen, Hollywood Director and Hollywood Costume Design by David Chierichetti, DeMille, the Man and his Pictures, by Gabe Essoe and Raymond Lee , The De Milles, An American Family by Anne Edwards, Celluloid Skyline by James Sanders, Film Encyclopedia by Ephraim Katz, Hollywood Costume, Glitter, Glamour, Romance! by Dale McConathy and Diana Vreeland, Madame Valentino: The many lives of Natacha Rambova by Michael Morris, essay on Adrian by Robert Riley in American Fashion, I’ll Cry Tomorrow by Lillian Roth.)