Thanks to Theresa (CineMaven) and Lesley for hosting the blogathon. Please visit CineMaven's Essays from the Couch and Lesley's Second Sight Cinema. You'll be glad you did.
I enjoy watching classic courtroom movies. The great ones feature a case that's more complicated than it appears, lawyers who grapple with moral quandaries, witnesses who offer surprises in their testimony, and a connection to suspenseful events outside the courtroom.
One of my favorite courtroom dramas is Madame X in all its incarnations. A young, unfaithful wife and mother is thrown out by her husband and barred from ever seeing her small son again despite her earnest attempts to make amends. For many years the mother seeks refuge overseas and in absinthe. In the end, her son, a young and promising lawyer unknowingly defends her in court.
First Madame X was a 1908 play by French playwright, vaudeville creator, and novelist Alexandre Brisson. The play was performed in 1910 both in Paris and on Broadway with Sarah Bernhardt in the leading role. Over the years, the play would be revived for Broadway three times.
In 1910 J.W. McConaughy wrote Madame X: A Story of Mother-Love, a novel based on the play by Alexandre Bisson, published by Grossett and Dunlap, New York. It featured illustrations by Howard C. Volkert. Read it below:
|Madame X by Howard C. Volkert.|
The second silent screen adaptation was in 1920 and starred Pauline Frederick as Jacqueline Floriot, William Courtleigh as Louis Floriot, and Casson Ferguson as Raymond Floriot. A copy of this film survives in the George Eastman House Motion Picture Collection.
The three most famous sound adaptations of Madame X are the 1929 version with Ruth Chatterton, Lewis Stone, and Raymond Hackett, the 1937 version with Gladys George, Warren William, and John Beal, and the 1966 version with Lana Turner, John Forsythe, and Keir Dullea.
I will be focusing on the first "all talking" Madame X (1929) directed by Lionel Barrymore with a screenplay adapted from the Alexandre Bisson play by Willard Mack (an an uncredited Dorothy Parker). Many early talkies were "all singing" "all dancing" musicals. Barrymore treated Madame X as a serious dramatic play and did not use music. To emphasize the film's credentials as a somber drama and avoid any musical associations, M-G-M premiered the film in New York City's Sam H. Harris Theater, a legitimate stage venue.
I know Lionel Barrymore was striving for a serious drama here: no singing, no dancing, no hot jazz, no flappers, etc. but he may have taken it a bit too far.
Dorothy Parker found Madame X too sober. She said tongue-in-cheek to Lionel Barrymore, "Why not jazz up the story? Stick in a few hot numbers and call it Mammy X!"
I'm watching Madame X (1929) while writing this post. Supposedly Lionel Barrymore invented the boom microphone (a fishing pole with a microphone suspended from it) while making this film but I don't think so. The actors talk, and talk, and talk but move very little. In fact, every time an actor moves, Barrymore cuts to a two-shot.
You have to wonder if the technology of the day is the reason the movie appears as a filmed stage play. Cameras were noisy, so a soundproofed cabinet was used in many of the earliest talkies to isolate the loud equipment from the actors, at the expense of a drastic reduction in the ability to move the camera. The necessity of staying within range of still microphones meant that actors also often had to limit their movements unnaturally.
The Academy was kinder to Barrymore's direction than I am and he received a Best Director nomination.
Other than Leo's anemic, laryngitic growl, even the opening and closing credits feature no music. The music was provided at the movie theater by live musicians still employed to provide the musical accompaniment for silent films.
|Lewis Stone, Ruth Chatterton, and Raymond Hackett|
Chatterton was a friend of Amelia Earhart and a well-known aviatrix. She flew solo across the United States several times and taught Brian Aherne to fly.
She was also a successful novelist. Her novel Homeward Borne was adapted by Halsted Welles into a Playhouse 90 television episode directed by Arthur Hiller and starring Linda Darnell, Richard Kiley, Keith Andes, and Richard Eyer.
Some reviewers find Ruth Chatterton's performance in Madame X to be overwrought but I find it impressive for the most part. She starts off the picture as a lovely former society lady. She becomes nearly unrecognizable as the absinthe-addicted, abused prostitute.
|What happens to a society girl when she is cast out into the streets, becomes addicted to absinthe, and is abused by men while hooking to subsist as a woman without a name.|
"Oh, Louis. Is it because you want to be "cru-ell" or because you don't know how "cru-ell" you are."
Lewis Stone was a longtime M-G-M contract player. He was with the studio from silents until his death in 1953. He portrayed the title role in the 1922 silent film version of The Prisoner of Zenda for Metro Pictures. Stone was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1929 for The Patriot.
A frequent co-star of Greta Garbo, he delivered the famous closing line in Grand Hotel: "Grand Hotel. People come. People go. Nothing ever happens."
Most remember Stone as Judge James Hardy in M-G-M's Andy Hardy film series. Stone appeared as the judge in fifteen movies.
Stone collapsed and died of a heart attack while chasing teenage prowlers from his property in Hancock Park, Los Angeles.
Lewis Stone is his usual reliable self in Madame X. I especially like his performance in the beginning of the film as a father beside himself due to his five-year-old son's severe illness.
Raymond Hackett, a child actor on the Broadway stage beginning in 1907, and a Broadway star as an adult, is very fine as the grown son during the courtroom scene.
|Holmes Herbert, Eugenie Besserer, and Willard Mack using the psudonym John P. Edington|
The doctor (actually played by writer/actor/director Willard Mack using the pseudonym John P. Edington) sees behind the suffering in the Floriot household.
|Carroll Nye, Claude King, and Chappell Dossett|
Chappell Dossett, a British actor and writer, has a small role as the judge.
|Mitchell Lewis, Ullrich Haupt, Sidney Toler, and Richard Carle|
Mitchell Lewis, Sheik Ilderim in 1925's Ben-Hur, served as one of the original board members of the Motion Picture Relief Fund.
Ullrich Haupt, incorrectly listed as Ullric Haupt, died in 1931 when he was accidentally shot during a deer hunting trip. A shotgun his chauffeur was unloading accidentally discharged.
Sidney Toler was was the second non-Asian actor to play the role of Charlie Chan on screen.
Richard Carle was an actor, writer, composer, and a song and dance man.
|Little sweetheart Dickie Moore in an uncredited role as a child at the puppet show.|
Did you know that to avoid confusion with later versions, the 1929 Madame X was retitled Absinthe for its television showings (prior to the TCM-era)?
All About Absinthe
|L: An absinthe glass with absinthe spoon and sugar cube.|
R: Absinthiana - An absinthe fountain with glasses, spoons, and sugar cubes.
The green fairy. Devil's drink. Poet's poison.
Over the years, absinthe has been called many things. The fabled liquor was banned in the United States from 1912 to 2007 because chronic use of absinthe was believed to produce a syndrome, called absinthism, which was characterized by addiction, hyperexcitability, and hallucinations. This has since been proven to be untrue.
Absinthe traditionally has a natural green color but may also be colorless. It's a strong spirit and mildly bitter and is therefore served diluted with water and sweetened with sugar. An absinthe spoon with a sugar cube resting on it is placed across the top of an absinthe glass containing an ounce of absinthe. Ice cold water is dripped over the sugar on the absinthe spoon into the glass of absinthe. The drink then turns semi-opaque as the essential oils precipitate out of the alcoholic solution (louche).
Events Leading Up to the Courtroom
|Louis pulls Raymond's stuffed animal away from Jacqueline.|
Jacqueline: "It won't hurt him if I just touch it, will it?"
Rejected and Thrown Out to Live as Best She Can
Carroll Nye as Darrell Shows Kindness to Madame X
Madame X: "I've told you twice, young man. You mustn't look at me like that."
Darrell: "Why? Tell me. Why?"
Madame X: "Because you're a boy. And because any boy with such clean, honest eyes should only look at clean, honest things." Listen below:
Madame X Is Absinthe-Addicted and Abused by Colonel Hanby
Madame X Is Abused and She Can't Take It Anymore!
She Murders Laroque to Protect Her Loved Ones
|Madame X in prison. Her son is her lawyer but he doesn't know it.|
|Madame X on trial with her son as her defense lawyer.|
|Top L: The courtroom Top R: A gendarme's testimony|
Center L: The judge Center R: The prosecutor
Bottom L: The jury Bottom R: The accused
Madame X Finally Testifies
Raymond's Defense of a Woman He Doesn't Know Is His Mother