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The friendship behind 'Madam Satan,' Cecil B. DeMille's musical disaster

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Dance writer Debra Levine tells the untold story of the legendary director's only musical and one of his few flops.

Dance writer Debra Levine, who runs the artsmeme blog, tells the untold story of "Madam Satan," director Cecil B. DeMille's only musical, and one of his only flops. She'll be introducing the film at 2 p.m. on March 15 at the Egyptian Theatre.

When you think Hollywood musicals, the name Cecil B. DeMille doesn’t leap to mind. But he made one at MGM, a fascinating disaster called “Madam Satan.” And the movie helps tell the unknown story of a 40-year friendship between this famous Hollywood director and a Russian ballet dancer.

Cecil B. DeMille made 70 feature films over a 56-year career, only a few of which lost money.

(DeMille while filming "Madam Satan," with screenwriter Elsie Janis and the movie's star, Kay Johnson. Image: MGM)

But in 1929, like many Americans, he was in a tough spot. Five years earlier, he’d been fired by Paramount, the studio he helped found in 1913. His next venture, Cecil B. DeMille Pictures, Inc., was a debacle.

By 1929, DeMille was scrambling to deliver on the second of a three-picture deal struck with Louis B. Mayer at MGM. DeMille’s daunting assignment from L.B. was a movie musical. DeMille — a minister’s son, though not lacking a sense of humor — was markedly unhip. His brand was domestic dramas. He would never admit it, but assembling a creative team to make a musical was out of his comfort zone.

DeMille feverishly worked his network, firing off telegrams to A-listers such as Robert Benchley, Cole Porter and Dorothy Parker. He wrangled for access to former leading lady Gloria Swanson, but was blocked by her gatekeeper Joseph P. Kennedy — JFK’s father. No one of this caliber signed on. Could the problem have been the title, “Madam Satan?”

Enter Theodore Kosloff.

(Theodore Kosloff, circa 1927. Image: Wikipedia Commons)

The Moscow-born son of a musical family, Kosloff started his career with the Bolshoi and Kirov Ballets, in the pre-Soviet era called the Imperial Russian Ballet. In 1909 he joined The Ballets Russes, Diaghilev’s infamous troupe. There he shared the stage with Ballets Russes superstars Nijinsky, Pavlova and Karsavina. A foil to the poetic Nijinsky, Kosloff was a technical dynamo whose claim to fame was milking 18 revolutions from a single pirouette.  But he could also turn a buck.

An early arts entrepreneur, Kosloff first ventured to America around 1911. Vaudeville touring brought him to L.A. by 1916, where, practically on first sight, DeMille cast the mop-haired, muscular dancer in his upcoming photoplay “The Woman God Forgot.” Biceps bursting, he clutched a formidable spear in his movie debut. 

Kosloff was equally dazzled by DeMille, calling him the “Napoleon of moving pictures.” Kosloff’s specialty was character roles: Continental lovers, exotic bad guys. In the Roaring ‘20s, DeMille had made a millionaire of Kosloff, who, for one movie, wisely accepted Paramount stock in lieu of a salary. 

The two men became not just good colleagues over 30 silent pictures, but also close friends. Each owned a ranch in the San Fernando Valley’s far reaches of Tujunga-Sunland. At weekend getaways, they toasted each other with vodka as comrades. Tovarisch!  But when sound came in, no one could understand Kosloff’s heavy Russian accent, and he was banished from Hollywood sound stages.

That’s why in 1929, when the call came for “Madam Satan,” Kosloff leapt on board. He’d be featured in an incredible six-minute dance sequence. The scene was an art deco masked ball inside a Zeppelin.

Kosloff lords over a huge throng of dancers, who in a special camera effect morph into heavy machinery. It’s astoundingly awful, kitsch and clumsy, but in its use of overhead shots foreshadows what Busby Berkeley would perfect a few short years later. That’s how quickly Hollywood figured out how to film dance in the movies.   

Metro invested a million dollars in “Madam Satan,” a small fortune at the onset of the Depression. Studio brass blamed its box-office bombing in great part on Kosloff’s kooky “ballet mecanique.”

“Madam Satan” represents a crossroads in two creative careers. Kosloff would appear only once more in the movies, in a tiny cameo in “Stage Door.”

Kosloff speaks 14-seconds into this clip from "Stage Door," his final film appearance

But DeMille reconstituted after “Madam Satan.” He adapted and improved on filming techniques learned during its making. He never revisited the musical genre, and he never again released a movie so hopelessly out of touch with his audience.  

But it wasn’t a crossroads for the tovarischi, Kosloff and DeMille. They had a friendship even “Madam Satan” could not destroy. 

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