28 May 2014 | Igenlode Wordsmith
Has to be seen to be believed
This is a totally bizarre amalgam of at least three different films: a wisecracking sex-comedy, an unsuccessful operetta, and a bedroom-hopping farce. Add into that mix 'disaster movie' and 'fashion parade', and you get a film that's worth seeing just for its jaw-dropping novelty value alone.
It's actually pretty good: most of the humour is intentional, and some of the rest of it may well be. (I'm not sure quite how seriously the film takes itself: I got the impression that the heroine is pretty much in the know about what is going on, for example, and is simply playing innocent when it suits her... either to get the information she's after, or merely in order to watch her misbehaving husband squirm.) Farce isn't my thing, but those scenes are pretty slickly done, while a lot of the risqué dialogue sparkles.
Sadly the film suffers from primitive sound recording techniques, to the extent that most of the lyrics of the musical sections are incomprehensible -- not too much of a problem for the stand-alone numbers, but a big issue for the ensemble songs that are supposed to drive the later part of the plot. A lot of the verbal punchlines to the visual jokes at the masquerade disappeared into the background fuzz, as well: for example, I still don't know what on earth Bob's costume was supposed to be, because I missed the announcement as he entered.
As a musical "Madam Satan" is not very successful: it's a story of missed opportunities (Cole Porter, Rudolf Friml, Oscar Hammerstein II, Sigmund Romberg and even Albert Ketelbey of "In a Monastery Garden" fame were all considered to write the musical numbers at one time or another, as were Jeanette MacDonald and Gloria Swanson for the lead). The operetta numbers are unmemorable -- the 'popular' numbers from Jack King and Elsie Janis have worn better in performance style, although you still won't find yourself whistling them as you leave.
There are lengthy ballet/costume sequences in the second half of the film that appear to be basically the equivalent of the gratuitous fashion parade colour reels that crop up in various 1930s films -- simply inserted into the story as an excuse to show off the spectacle. They are staggeringly extravagant, but to my taste the display dragged a bit after a while. (Watching all the revellers subsequently attempt to don parachute harnesses on top of these costumes, however, tends to confirm me in my suspicion that the film really doesn't take itself seriously!) And we learn, to my amazement at least, that on a dirigible the parachutes are not actually packed on the wearer's back but attached to casings in the hull itself -- no wonder the harnesses look weirdly skeletal. You can't simply jump free wearing a parachute: you have to be clipped on first...
The parachute sequence is another piece of disaster-comedy that has to be seen to be believed. On the whole I'd say that the film is at least 60% successful: MGM might have done better if they had ditched the musical elements altogether, since this is probably the weakest strand and the box office was saturated by musicals at this point, and gone flat out for shock value. It's certainly worth seeing for sheer bizarreness.