June 10, 2016

Order in the Court! The Classic Courtroom Movies Blogathon - Madame X (1929)

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.

What is your favorite courtroom movie?

12 Angry Men
Anatomy of a Murder
The Caine Mutiny
In Cold Blood
Inherit the Wind
Intruder in the Dust
Judgment at Nuremberg
A Man for All Seasons
The Passion of Joan of Arc
Paths of Glory
To Kill a Mockingbird
Witness for the Prosecution
Please Specify:
Do Riddles

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.
At least nine Madame X motion pictures in several languages have been filmed. The first silent screen adaptation was in 1916 and starred Dorothy Donnelly as Jacqueline Floriot (Madame X), John Bowers as Louis Floriot, and Ralph Morgan as Raymond Floriot.

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.

Leo's Growl

Lewis Stone, Ruth Chatterton, and Raymond Hackett
Ruth Chatterton was chosen to play the title role because of her stage experience. A Broadway actress since the 1910s, she didn't become a motion picture actress until 1928, at age 36. Her husband at the time, Ralph Forbes, convinced her to give it a try. She was signed by Paramount Pictures and was loaned M-G-M for Madame X. Chatterton was twice nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress for her roles in Madame X and Sarah and Son (1930). Chatterton was also excellent in Frisco Jenny (1932) and Female (1933) for Warner Brothers, her new studio. She reached her zenith for Sam Goldwyn in Dodsworth (1936).

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.
My one criticism of Ruth Chatterton's performance is her diction. She pronounces every syllable ("Cru-ell") in a prime example of the insufferably mannered diction William Wellman called "Kansas City British."

"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 performances by the rest of the cast are uniformly good. Holmes Herbert, Dr. Jekyll's friend Dr. Lanyon in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), Eugenie Besserer, Al Jolson's mother in The Jazz Singer (1927),  and Carroll Nye, Frank Kennedy in Gone with the Wind, provide nice support to the main cast.

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
Claude King, incorrectly listed as Claud King in the credits, is excellent as Valmorin. King was an original member of the board of men and one woman, Lucile Webster Gleason, who founded the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) in 1933.

Chappell Dossett, a British actor and writer, has a small role as the judge.

Mitchell Lewis, Ullrich Haupt, Sidney Toler, and Richard Carle
List of baddies played well enough to make you detest them:

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.
Absinthe, an anise-flavored spirit derived from botanicals, including the flowers and leaves of Artemisia absinthium (wormwood), together with green anise, sweet fennel, and other medicinal and culinary herbs, is a potent potable (between 130 and 140 proof) brimming with flavor, legend and mystique. Ernest Hemingway allegedly drank it while writing For Whom the Bell Tolls. Edgar Degas painted L'Absinthe.

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


CineMaven said...

I've never seen Chatterton's version of "MADAME X"- a heartwrenching story of a mother's love. I look forward to reading this. I need some way to feel sorry for Chatterton after the way she was in "Dodsworth." This'll do it. Thanks for contributing to Second Sight Cinema's and my blogathon!

Caftan Woman said...

Surely the courtroom scene that beats them all and my least favourite version of the story. Number one will always be the Lana Turner version, not because it is exceptional, but because it was the first one I saw and I still react like Pavlov's dogs to the whole thing. I worship Gladys George in her version, but don't recall much about the Tuesday Weld TV movie. They'll have to pay me to get me to sit through Lionel's movie again.

Silver Screenings said...

I didn't realize there were so many movie adaptations of Madame X. (And thanks for providing a link to the online novel.) I also didn't realize Ruth Chatterton was so accomplished in life! Your post has given me a new appreciation for her.

I've not seen this version, but thanks to your review I'm keen to see it now, despite any quirks.


I have seen the 1966 version... with a woman sitting in front of me sobbing all the time. I really want to see other versions - and I didn't know until now that this on was directed by Lionel Barrymore! I like early talkies, they are an opportunity to see the movie business adapting itsefl to a huge change.
Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)