Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Stop me if you've heard this one

TCM are showing the melodramatic Madame X at 1:00 PM ET on February 18. Ruth Chatterton stars as a woman married to a wealthy man, bearing him a son. Unfortunately, she strays and loses custody of the son. This sends her into a downward spiral, which continues until she kills a man who tries to blackmail her into keeping her past a secret, since her son is now a prominent attorney. She gets put on trial, and who has to defend her? Yes, you guessed it -- her son. Of course, he doesn't know that he's defending his mother.

If this plot sounds familiar, it's because it is. Ruth Chatterton's appearance as the fallen woman with the long-lost son is the first talkie to have this hoary plot. But, there were several silent versions in the 1910s and 1920s, and the story is based on a play that had premiered in 1908. Also, it's not by far the only talking version of the story. MGM, which did our 1929 version remade Madame X in 1937, with Gladys George starring. Just when you though a studio might come up with an original idea, Universal took the idea and made a much glossier version of the story in 1966, with Lana Turner (as hard as it may be to imagine her as a fallen woman) as the mother and Keir Dullea as the son.

And if you think that's not enough, the 1929 Madame X was one of a string of movies in the early talking period marketed at women known as "weepies", although today we'd call them chick flicks. The Madame X storyline was popular not under its own title, but under several other names too. Ruth Chatterton was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar (but lost to Mary Pickford in Coquette). Two years later, Helen Hayes won for a very similar role in The Sin of Madelon Claudet. In 1933, Irene Dunne played a similar role in The Secret of Madame Blanche.

Of all these movies, only the Lana Turner version of Madame X seems to be available on DVD.

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