Designing Women: Cinema, Art Deco, and the Female Form

By Lucy Fischer | Go to book overview

8. MADAME SATAN
Fantasy, Art Deco, and the Femme Fatale

THE DEVIL IS A WOMAN

Cecil B. DeMille's Madame Satan (1930) is a sophisticated MGM romantic comedy that tells the tale of Angela Brooks (Kay Johnson), a wealthy, married woman whose husband Bob (Reginald Denny) stays out all night carousing with his friend Jimmy (Roland Young) and carrying on with Trixie (Lillian Roth). When Angela, who is rather staid and conservative, gets wind of Bob's antics, she insists that they separate. He, in turn, justifies his adulterous behavior by claiming that while he craves warm affection from her, all he gets is “frozen justice.” As he sardonically remarks: “Love can't be kept in cold storage.” Upon learning that Jimmy will host an extravagant costume party aboard a moored zeppelin, Angela decides to shed her traditional demeanor and appear at the celebration as “Madame Satan,” a fictitious but provocative French femme fatale. On the night of the event, she arrives at the high-tech site (designed by Cedric Gibbons and Mitchell Leisen) masked and adorned in a revealing Art Deco evening gown (created by Adrian) whose black, white, and silver flame appliqués barely cover her erogenous zones. Bob is entirely captivated by this “hot,” mysterious, and outrageous woman who flirts with him and seems eager to scandalize the gathering. Only when a storm hits and the aircraft becomes untethered does Bob realize that the beguiling Madame Satan is his allegedly frigid and inhibited wife. Clearly, in Madame Satan, the notion that “the devil is a woman” is treated wryly—and Angela's Art Deco status only augments her appeal. But, as I shall demonstrate, when we turn to the more fantastic films of the era—those of the horror, fantasy, or science fiction genres—the sense of the demonic Art Deco Woman takes on a weightier and more dreadful valence.

Although her origins are literary and pictorial, the femme fatale has a special relevance in cinematic representation, particularly that of Hollywood insofar as it appeals to the visible as the ground of its production of truth.

—Mary Ann Doane (1991:1)

-205-

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