Two pre-code pictures everyone should see once:
Madam Satan (1930) and The Sign of the Cross (1932) are two incredibly bizarre pre-code movies directed by Cecil B DeMille. To say they were good movies would be dishonest, especially in regards to Madam Satan. However, they are worth a watch for their uniqueness and place in history. We will discuss the entire movie, so if you want to watch before reading about the events of the movies you’ve been warned.
What a difference a couple of years make
1930 and 1932 may be 2 years apart on paper, but in this era of movie history they are wildly different. In 1927 The Jazz singer roared onto the silver screen changing movies forever, but the silent era wasn’t finished: Sunrise, The Wind, West of Zanzibar, Why Be Good?, The Crowd, and some of Greta Garbo’s best films came out after ’27. The move into talking pictures was an expensive venture and silent pictures were still popular, but then the crash happened. Suddenly studios were faced with bankruptcy and needed a pull to get their audience to continue to spend money. Sound pictures were in and silents were out, including many of the tropes, costumes and acting styles. 1930 was that bridge year, everyone was now doing talking pictures save for a few holdouts, and studios were scrambling to adapt to the depression. Throughout the 20’s it was becoming more and more evident that salacious pictures sell, and now faced with financial uncertainty the race to spice up movies began. The studios were faced with a brand-new Production Code presented by Hays, but was written by Father Lord, a Jesuit Priest who felt that censorship shouldn’t come from the government because the government couldn’t adequately define morality. This new code was an unwelcome burden added to the many difficulties the new technology created for the studios, including how the camera shots are made when you have to have microphones, and tackling how bad the sound quality was. By 1932, many changes had been made and even though the sound quality is nowhere near perfect, there is still a huge difference. The other issue in 1930 was the use of actors who were used to silent filming, and even though the silent movies made in the latter 20’s had shed much of its stilted acting, because of microphone placement 1930 suddenly reverted to it making it feel older than the silent movies made in the prior few years. The actors simply couldn’t strut around and still be picked up by microphones. One other thing that modern audiences may notice is weird uses of sound for no reason, and that leads us directly to Madam Satan: it is a musical by a director who doesn’t do musicals, but his contract with MGM forced him to do a musical as his next picture.
Who wants to go to hell with Madam Satan?
Madam Satan is a mish mash of about four different genres, starting out as a boring romantic drama of a lonely wife Angela (Kay Johnson) described as being “below zero” by her husband Bob (Reginald Denny) who has been dating a woman Trixie (Lillian Roth) who “recharges his battery every day”. Then it stumbles into romantic comedy of trying to play “who’s wife is this and who do I have under the sheets”, which also falls flat. In between these stumbles however you have some very frank discussions about marriage, wives and girlfriends and a delightful song and dance routine by Lillian Roth. Bear with the movie through the first 50 tedious minutes – it’s all about to change.
A Masquerade inside a Zeppelin, what could go wrong?
After we get through the terrible singing of the first half of the movie you are suddenly plunged into one of the weirdest movies to come out of the pre-code era. The audience is treated to a wide picture of a Zeppelin tied to a steel tower and what looks like hundreds of extras walking up the stairs, all in outrageous costumes that look like Avant Garde met Bauhaus all designed by Adrian. As the camera brings us inside you hear party goers talk about the “Spirit of Modern Power!” as a huge ensemble of humans dressed as cogs form into a kind of vehicle and thrust onto stage, accompanied by a man clad in lightning bolts with lightning special effects surround him. This entire sequence has no justice in still shots, it is a must see. Like a parody of Metropolis, both its underground city and the whore of Babylon dance put together, we are worshipping a pagan power god complete with an orgiastic ending.
He wants them hot, does he? All right, I'll give him a volcano!
We get introduced to some of the party goers at this point, and this is where the censorship comes into play for the most part. The original Madam Satan’s dress flames were skinnier, exposing cleavage, and her middle flame came up much higher like a snake from below, by changing the design slightly and adding skin color mesh they were able to hint at nudity (compared below) but still comply with the censors. Some of the revelers had to alter their costumes as well, including a fig leaf that was much too small (compared below to similar costumes in Murder at the Vanities) and adding mesh to a few dresses. Trixie’s outfit apparently passed scrutiny and there’s no mention about Bob’s outfit, which appears to sometimes have flesh colored mesh tights and sometimes naked legs, but those notes may have been lost to time. The party itself flaunts the code: there is an auction for men to buy girls, the use of the word hell repeatedly in the second half, suggestive dances/costumes, and even the threat of rape is used. Sexual innuendo is used as well: at the party while in costume a man recognizes Trixie even though she’s wearing a mask, Bob asks how he knew “I recognized the appendix scar”, Trixie shrinks a little “I was her… surgeon”, Bob walks away satisfied with the answer, but the audience quickly finds out he’s actually a lawyer. When frigid Angela accuses hot Trixie of being common and cheap Trixie laughs- “I’m uncommonly expensive!”. Angela gets wise that she better up her game and exclaims “He wants them hot, does he? All right, I’ll give him a volcano! They’ll have to call out the whole fire department to put me out!” and decides to seduce her husband in disguise as the titular character.
And then the movie crashes, literally
At some point the party has to end, and DeMille tries on the fourth genre: disaster movie. The entire movie has now become a sinking air titanic complete with the band playing until the end. The shots are surreal, almost beautiful, with all the parachutes and costumed people falling to the ground. It’s wholly unbelievable, even after the outlandish party, but lots of fun, including Trixie’s delight as she crashes into a spa filled with naked men. It is wholly impossible to explain this movie because it is so bizarre yet so flawed. It is, however, something you’ll never forget once you’ve seen it. The people behind the production code had been lamenting that as time progressesd movies became more and more objectionable. By contrasting Madam Satan with our next movie, The Sign of the Cross, we can see just how much the envelope was pushed in a very short amount of time.
Cecil B DeMille pushed against the code repeatedly
A final note, DeMille was shoehorned into making a musical, the reason that the party scene is the best part of the movie is because this is where DeMille shines – the epic, but this epic is confined to a balloon, and because the studios were filming day and night to supply audiences with new sound films, these productions had to share the few stages equipped with sound. They rebuilt the interior of the Zeppelin every morning and tore it down each evening. It’s a miracle this movie was ever completed. DeMille was famous for salacious movies centered around morals, but never at the cost of toning down the sex and violence “I didn’t write the Bible and didn’t invent sin.” Pictured below are comparisons: Madam Satan’s dress after censors and the original Adrian design, and fig leaf costumes: the enlarged leaf in our movie becomes much smaller in 3 years for Murder at the Vanities pictured lower right alarming the censors more and more.
The biggest money-maker of the year
The Sign of the Cross was a huge hit for DeMille and Paramount, putting of receivership for a little while longer. It played in both theaters and road sides at a whopping $1.50 ticket price when most tickets were 35 cents! It was marketed both as spiritual picture and a salacious movie, in hopes to draw both crowds. The story is simple, a queen (Claudette Colbert) loves the captain of the guards (Frederick March) who falls for Mercia (Elissa Landi), a Christian woman sentenced to die by Roman law. Around this central love triangle are nearly inconsequential characters who still manage to shine: Nero (Charles Laughton), an ambitious guard, Christian teachers and followers, the queen’s entourage and two bounty hunters.
The delicious debauchery
The opening sequence is of Nero strumming his lyre as Rome burns, Laughton, loving every minute of the scene as he oozes around his lyre, then on and around his throne. Corpulence, lasciviousness, and decadence are all conveyed in these first few seconds, this movie is where DeMille has succeeded after he failed with Madam Satan. Nearly everything about this movie flew in the face of the men who created the code with Hays, it is almost like he was giving them the celluloid finger. When DeMille made King of Kings, he reached out to Father Lord to make sure he got certain parts right, when Lord heard he was making this movie he pleaded with him to not make the Christians boring and pure while making the pagans appealing as he’d done before. DeMille went even further than before: milk baths, lesbian seduction dances, naked boy toys, and torture porn make up this movie more than the actual plot does. Surprisingly, the Christian angle is actually examined really well, focusing on oppression instead of proselytizing, the audience very much feels the pain and suffering this group goes through, it is never preachy and ends on a rather ambiguous note.
"Not a damn thing"
When all was said and done, The Sign of the Cross ended up with very little censorship. When Hays received the script from Jason Joy, his right-hand man in Hollywood, he had several objections especially against the Dance of the Naked Moon which was an obvious lesbian seduction dance. He called DeMille and asked what he was going to do about the scene, DeMille told him to listen carefully because he’d say this once: “not a damn thing”. The dance stayed as did nearly all the rest except the nudity of two slave girls that required some flowers sewn into their chains to make it through state censors. What did remain is possibly the most salacious material DeMille could pack into a 2-hour epic on a budget (Paramount was nearly bankrupt).
DeMille had Claudette Colbert stand in the tub and had it filled with milk just past her nipples so that movement would expose them. In addition, she swirls around talking to her maids while a cat is shown lapping up the milk. Her lady friend comes in with news about the captain her queen desires, and Colbert responds “Dacia, you’re a butterfly with the sting of a wasp. Take off your clothes. Get in here and tell me all about it.” Shooing her maids out. Now two cats are lapping up milk, DeMille definitely wanted to make sure the audience “gets it”.
After the captain of the guard has his latest love rescued from the prison, he throws an orgy to “persuade” her. He invites Ancaria “the most wicked and.. uh… talented woman in Rome” to seduce her. Ancaria’s delight is evident from the moment she lays eyes on her. She paws at her, dances around her like Landi is a stripper pole and thrusts and grinds her hips on her, but is defeated by virtue and Christian song. This is how they get by the censors: crime must pay even if it’s the last few seconds of the film, or the pure fight off the sexiness.
Landi eventually is arrested again and thrown into the prison with the others, and so begins the sex and violence. With Nero being attended by a naked muscle man, the crowd watches as slaves are killing each other in mass battle, corpse carts being wheeled out in front of spectators, elephants crushing slaves, carrying them in their tusks, Amazon captives killing Pygmy captives in gruesome ways, a naked slave girl tied to a post for a gorilla to menace, another naked woman suspended between two posts for crocodiles to eat, Christians getting fed to the lions and more, all the while panning the crowd getting looks of satisfaction, boredom, desire, disgust. It ends with March and Landi walking to their deaths with March saying that although he doesn’t believe in Christ, he believes in her love.
The Code and its effects
Most of this movie was made ignoring the outrage of the catholic group that had been pushing for censorship for years. DeMille proudly thumbed his nose at them, and it should be noted that this was Joy’s last script to review before he left to consult for a studio. He passed the script as is, provided the two naked slave girls had the flowers covering the important bits. He felt the lesbian scene would be understood by the American public as virtue winning over immorality. Despite many Catholics being against this movie, many congregations went because they felt it was a stirring take of Christianity’s plight in Roman times. All in all, this movie was a big hit, but it also spelled the end for Hays. Without Joy looking at scripts he was pressured to put Breen in that position. 1934 would usher in more changes and by July Breen had ultimate power over what made it to the public. After Sign of the Cross was issued it would not be seen intact again until it was restored in the ‘90s. Cut from the movie: milk, Dance of the Naked Moon, elephants, gorilla and crocodiles, making it centered much more on the plight of the Christians without the comparison to the devolving Romans. It was also one of the movies that caused the creation of the Catholic Legion of Decency in 1934, which put out guides until 1980 of movies so that the public could be informed about what was worthwhile watching and what was condemned.