Madame Satan (1930) and Lawyer Man (1933)

Madam Satan (1930)    Lawyer Man (1933)
Madam Satan (1930) and Lawyer Man (1933)

May 7, 2011

Tonight the double bill is Madam Satan, 1930 and Lawyer Man, 1932, both pre-code films.

My reasons for choosing these two films are based on past memories.  Years ago when TFS used to have the May weekend up at the Briars in Sutton, Ontario, someone, probably Bill Everson, brought a clip from this film.  I remember feeling overwhelmed and excited by the outrageous visual images and at the time thought the storyline was ahead of its time, which I deduced from the bit that I saw of a woman seducing a married man.  And then when I saw the Zeppelin, I thought this had to be the most bizarre film ever.

Here’s what my old friend William K. Everson had to say about the film on March 19, 1971:

Madam Satan (1930)First, an important warning!  The first third of the film, though it is amusing and may well come to life before an audience, is quite incredibly arch.  DeMille, trying to step into Lubitsch’s shoes, finds them much too big.  Instead of ballet shoes he is wearing clogs, and the one element that this part of the film has to have work—namely grace—it just doesn’t have.  But don’t feel you have been lured or betrayed; once aboard the Zeppelin, the whole pace and mood changes, and it becomes the kind of wild, vulgar, spectacular, no-holds-barred frolic that all deMille films are supposed to be and almost never are.  Whether it is legitimately a “thriller” is something else again; its plot is a wild melange that incorporates elements from “Die Fledermaus” and “The Guardsman”, and it could equally logically be termed sex farce, operetta, musical or fantasy.  James Whale wouldn’t be ashamed of it—nor would Georges Méliès.  Certainly the climactic sequence of the runaway, collapsing dirigible is authentic “thriller”—but by that time you’ll all have had too much fun, and too much exposure to modern pop-art culture of 1930 to want to quibble.  The sets, the costumes, the girls, the dialogue, all are quite dazzling.  The one element of the film that comes off with genuine dignity and that hasn’t dated on whit is the serene and lovely performance from Kay Johnson, who also has one of the screen’s greatest curtain-exit lines:  “I’ll make him so sick of vice he’ll scream for decency”!  Incidentally, DeMille’s voice can be heard as the radio announcer in the closing reel.  Culturally, this may be one of the worst films we’ve played—but it’s certainly also one of the most entertaining and most unique.

I have never had the opportunity to see the whole film and for a while I thought it may have been one of those films that were mostly lost except for these few sequences.  So I was quite thrilled when Warners Archives listed it for sale on their website a few months ago and during their two-year anniversary sale was able to purchase it.  So, here’s hoping and looking forward to DeMille’s over-the-top second sound film.

About Lawyer Man.  I was excited to have the opportunity to purchase a copy of this film when I was at the Cinefest in Syracuse this past March.  Some years ago, Bill Everson screened Lawyer Man there and it was quite a hit.  The story was entertaining and there were some good pre-code images, especially one that you’ll hear about in Bill’s notes that he wrote on April 23, 1976.

Lawyer Man (1933)If we spend less time on “Lawyer Man” than “Action for Slander” (the film he was screening along with Lawyer Man), it is only because it is a far more typical genre film, and in earlier notes for films like “The Mouthpiece” and “State’s Attorney” we’ve covered the ground quite thoroughly.  Oddly enough, although the courtroom action is a key part of the narrative, the film itself stays resolutely away from the courts!  William Powell is such a good actor—and we are so familiar with the genre—that this deliberate avoidance of the familiar battleground hardly seems to matter.  It’s a fast-paced, snappy little melodrama, basically unreal enough so that one doesn’t consider the “moral atonement” climax either a letdown or a concession.  The film’s active libido is resolutely pre-Production Code too:  one astonishingly suggestive sexual sight-gag (involving Powell’s cigar) would not come amiss in a contemporary porno film, but its basic wit, and Powell’s aplomb, make it perfectly acceptable in a tastefully outrageous way.  It’s an elaborately mounted film, so much so that back projection of a nightclub scene is rather a surprise, and some of its comments on graft and respectable racketeering seem unrefreshingly contemporary.  There is a rather abrupt transition in one scene, doubtless due to the careless excision of a tv commercial somewhere along the line, but at most only a second or two are missing.

I don’t know if this is the same copy that Bill is referring to, but I am looking forward to seeing it and hope that you all enjoy it.

For your pleasure, I have included the contemporary notes from The New York Times.  Don’t read them until after you have watched the films as they usually tell you “who’s done it”.

Madame Satan (1930), October 6, 1930, THE SCREEN; A De Millean Air Feature. On a Sinking Liner, By MORDAUNT HALL, Published: October 6, 1930, A De Millean Air Feature.

 MADAM SATAN, with Kay Johnson, Reginald Denny, Lillian Roth, Roland Young, Elsa Petersen and others, written by Jeanie Macpherson, directed by Cecil B. DeMille;  At the Capitol.

Angela Brooks……………………………….Kay Johnson
Bob Brooks……………………………….Reginald Denny
Trixie……………………………………………..Lillian Roth
Jimmy Wade……………………………….. Roland Young
Martha…………………………………………Elsa Peterson
Captain……………………………………………..Boyd Irwin
First Mate………………………………Wallace MacDonald
A Roman Senator…………………………….Wilfred Lucas
Romeo…………………………………………..Tyler Brooke
Eve………………………………………… Lotus Thompson
Call of the Wild…………………………………..Vera Marsh
Fish Girl………………………………………Martha Sleeper
Water…………………………………………Doris McMahon
Confusion…………………………………………..Marie Valli
Miss Conning Tower…………………….Julianne Johnston
Empire Officer…………………………………..Albert Conti
Pirate………………………………………………Earl Askam
Little Rolls Riding Hood…………………….Betty Francisco
Babo…………………………………………….Ynez Seabury
Spain…………………………………..Countess De Liguoro
Spider Girl………………………………….. Katherine Irving
Victory…………………………………………Aileen Ransom
Electricity (Ballet Mechanique)…………..Theodore Kosloff
Herman………………………………………………. Jack King
Riff………………………………………………… Edward Prinz
Abe Lyman and His Band

Cecil B. DeMille’s latest audible film, “Madam Satan,” which is now at the Capitol, is a strange conglomeration of unreal incidents that are sometimes set forth with no little technical skill. It begins with the flash of a bird-bath and closes with the parachuting of passengers from a giant dirigible that is struck by lightning. This production, in which occasional songs are rendered, boasts of no fewer than forty-six listed characters, besides Abe Lyman and his band.

Madam Satan (1930)It is an inept story with touches of comedy that are more tedious than laughable. It was written by Jeanie Macpherson and the dialogue was contributed by Elsie Janis and Gladys Unger. The persons involved elicit but faint interest, the whole idea evidently being to have a triangle plot to lead up to the more interesting chapters dealing with the interrupted gaiety aboard the airship. After he reaches this more or less dramatic episode, Mr. DeMille is in his element, for at the mask ball aboard the monster of the skies, which is hooked to its mooring mast, are Angela Brooks, who through her costume becomes known as Madam Satan; her husband, Bob Brooks, who is fascinated by Madam Satan, not knowing that she is his wife; Trixie, a gay young creature with whom Brooks is smitten, and Jimmy Wade, Brooks’s prevaricating pal.

Madam Satan (1930)During the festivities far above the earth Angela comes into her own. During the storm the scores of passengers are instructed to take to their parachutes. Angela, now unmasked, goes so far as to give her parachute to Trixie, so that when Brooks returns with one of his own he makes his wife take it and, with Mr. DeMille’s assistance, Brooks succeeds in saying himself from death by diving into the reservoir in Central Park when the part of the wrecked dirigible on which he is comes near enough to the earth for him to risk the leap. Mr. DeMille sees to it that there is no increasing momentum as this half of the airship descends. The skies are filled with passengers and oddly contrived parachutes and Mr. DeMille then puts on some comedy that is rather effective. Trixie parachutes through the glass roof of a Turkish bath. A fat man descends on a peacefully sleeping vagrant in the park and Jimmy Wade finds himself on a tree in the Central Park menagerie, with two or three lions eager to get in an extra meal before the keeper comes around.

Madam Satan (1930)This airship has a remarkable dancing floor which accommodates scores of couples, and the confusion and excitement after lightning strikes the ship is done imaginatively in those scenes of the clamorous throngs, but most ludicrously when it comes to the principal characters, who appear to be arguing as coolly over parachuting to earth as if they were talking about taking an umbrella in case it rained.

In the earlier stages of this hodgepodge, Angela’s maid starts to give her advice about managing husbands, and after talking for sometime, the woman evidently decides that Angela will be more impressed if she delivers her counsel in song.

This master of golden beds and spacious bathtubs shows two kinds of baths in this film—the bird-bath, of which mention has been made, and the shower bath in which Brooks and Jimmy Wade, after a very wet night, take a drenching while still in their dress clothes, as they jabber about the rain. Angela comes along and turns off the water and the inebriated men are quite glad that the shower is over.

Madam Satan (1930)Although the characters are no more than DeMillean puppets, the players try their best, first to carry out DeMille’s instructions, then to act as well as they can in the circumstances. But every now and again they are called upon not to hear or see that which one thinks they ought to. Kay Johnson appears as Angela. Reginald Denny as Brooks and Roland Young as Jimmy Wade.

NEW YORK TIMES REVIEW

Lawyer Man (1933), December 27, 1932, William Powell and Joan Blondell in a Picture Concerned With the Experiences of an Alert Lawyer, By MORDAUNT HALL, Published: December 27, 1932

LAWYER MAN, based on the novel by Max Trell; directed by William Dieterle; a Warner Brothers Pictures production. At the Hollywood.

Anton Adam…………………………….. William Powell
Olga……………………………………….. Joan Blondell
Barbara Bentley…………………………. Helen Vinson
Granville Bentley………………………….Allan Dinehart
Issy Levine………………………………….Allen Jenkins
Gilmurry……………………………………. David Landau
Virginia……………………………………….. Claire Dodd
Flo……………………………………………..Sheila Terry
Dr. Gresham…………………………Kenneth Thompson
Spike…………………………………………….Jack LaRue
Kovak………………………………………. Rockliffe Fellowes
Merritt……………………………………….. Roscoe Karns
Chorus Girl………………………………… Dorothy Christy
Mrs. Levine……………………………………… Ann Brody
Guiseppi………………………………………. Curley Wright
Moyle……………………………………… Edward McWade

The latest picture to turn the light on the activities of a keen-witted member of the bar is “Lawyer Man,” which is now at the Hollywood. Sometimes this feature recalls turns in “The Mouthpiece,” but the current offering is none the less quite entertaining. William Powell does well as Anton Adam, who achieves a certain distinction through officiating as a lawyer for ghetto clients, and Joan Blondell gives a smart portrayal as Olga, Adam’s most efficient secretary.

Lawyer Man (1933)One blonde helps Adam and another of the species gets him into trouble. He has a weakness for a pretty face or a dainty ankle, which William Dieterle emphasizes in the course of the scenes. In dealing with his colleagues Adam, more often than not, appears to have a shade the best of it. However, it is really the author who gets Adam into trouble and therefore some might say that the man who wrote the plot is entitled to favor his main character occasionally.

Lawyer Man (1933)Adam attracts the attention of Granville Bentley, a distinguished attorney, when he (Adam) succeeds in winning an acquittal for a thug. Bentley, a corporation expert, wants a partner to attend to jury cases and after observing Adam in court he broaches the subject. Not long afterward Adam goes uptown and for a brief time is happy in his new surroundings. Then an attractive, flaxen-haired creature appears on the scene. She is desirous of suing a Dr. Gresham, who has a brother on the bench, for breach of promise. Bentley is opposed to Adam’s taking the case, but the latter is one of those obstinate persons frequently beheld on the screen. The attractive client succeeds in trapping Adam, who eventually finds himself indicted for blackmail. The jury fails to agree and there being no further prosecution of the case, Adam seeks clients among the underworld.

He is so successful with racketeers and their ilk that Gilmurry, a political boss, asks the lawyer’s assistance and finally by crook and politician the attorney becomes an Assistant Prosecutor.

Parts of the dialogue are lacking in spontaneity, chiefly owing to the writer’s penchant for similes. Allan Dinehart gives an effective interpretation of Bentley. Helen Vinson is attractive as Bentley’s sister and David Landau handles the part of Gilmurry with his usual ease.

NEW YORK TIMES REVIEW

Joining me for the evening was Allen, Calvin, Ronda, Chris and David.

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