Helen Hayes was nicknamed "the first lady of the American theater". "The Sin of Madelon Claudet" (1931) was her debut feature length "talkie". It won her an Academy Award that year for "Best Actress".
Sound pictures of course offered a new challenge for Hollywood. Many a stars faded away with the advent of sound. Their voices did not match their screen persona. John Gilbert has always been a classic example of this. So Hollywood did perhaps the only natural thing it could. It took talent from the stage. These actors had already proved to have commanding voices which audiences accepted. That is how Helen Hayes came to have a film career.
I've seen "The Sin of Madelon Claudet" twice now. It never struck me as a great film, but, Hayes makes it watchable. She gives one of the best performances in the film. For its time it was probably a brave film and a daring role.
"The Sin of Madelon Claudet" is a kind of classic, liberal fairytale. A whore with a heart of gold lucks out. It is not quite that easy but essential that is the idea. Of course the film does insert some moral preaching despite being what we have come to describe as a "pre-code" film.
Hayes plays the title character, a French woman who falls in love with a struggling American painter, Larry Maynard (Neil Hamilton, best known as Commissioner Gordon on TV's "Batman"). The two run off to Paris, (despite her father's wishes) hoping to get married. But after receiving a telegram about his sick father Larry must travel back to America. Madelon fears if he goes away now he will never return. Her instincts prove right but what she didn't expect is she is now pregnant with his child.
Madelon catches a break when a rich sugar daddy comes along, Carlo Boretty (Lewis Stone, whom I've never seen play a sugar daddy before). He was a friend of Larry's. Carlo suggest Madelon live with him so he can spoil her. In return he asks for a little affection. You normally wouldn't find two people living together out of wedlock. She agrees to this but does not inform him about the birth of her son. The boy now lives with some friends; Rosalie (Marie Prevost) and Victor (Cliff Edwards, in a surprising non-comedic role). Once a week Madelon sneaks out to see him and bring him gifts.
Without revealing too much Madelon finds herself in prison serving a 10 year sentence. When she is released she becomes a prostitute to help her son (played as an adult by Robert Young) go through medical school, telling him his real mother has died. She makes the ultimate sacrifice so her son can have a better life.
The film, directed by Edgar Selwyn, based on the play "The Lullaby" by Edward Knoblock, presents Madelon as a honorable woman for making this sacrifice. It is the right thing to do. But I find the film has a dark misogynistic message saying women should stay pure or terrible things will happen to you. Also, women must learn to sacrifice their needs and desires in order to please a man. Every female character is matched with a lesser man, or a man they think is lesser, but they all go out of their way to support them.
This idea of the mother sacrificing everything is not entirely new. Bette Davis even made a film similar to it called "The Great Lie" (1941). I wonder though how audiences responded to this back in 1931. America was in a depression at this point. Did parents feel by bringing life into this world they were doing the wrong thing? Would it be better for them to leave their child at some stranger's doorstep?
I suppose what makes "The Sin of Madelon Claudet" work, if it does, is the strong sentimentality of the situation. The film tries to raise the emotional stakes very high. It wants us to bust out in tears by the end. One of the characters actually does. But a more modern audience watching this film will probably not like it. Too old-fashion they will say. Too sentimental. And for today's audience they will have a point.
What I think hurts the film the most is it is too short, 75 minutes. It brushes over large events. We see Madelon go to jail and in the next scene she is released. 10 whole years have passed. The Larry vanishes from the story. Madelon's venture into prostitution provides no inner conflict. It happens in a split second. Nothing about the film seems realistic. On some level I suppose it wasn't suppose to. It is a kind of fairytale and it has a moral message. So of course events are exaggerated for dramatic effect, I understand that, but the message doesn't feel sincere. It feels exploitative at best.
The depression actually offered a lot of these kind of hard on their luck stories of families being torn apart. If you do watch this film, may I also suggest watching the original, "The Champ" (1931) with Wallace Berry. In that film it is a father and son who separate. Many consider it the king of "tear jerkers".
But it sounds like I'm beating up on this film and I really don't mean to. People should watch the film. It is worth seeing as a curiosity piece. It is good to get familiar with the history of early Hollywood and you will get to see Helen Hayes perform. She didn't have much of a film career. After 1935 her appearances consisted mainly of TV movies or appearances on TV shows. She was in "A Farewell to Arms" (1932) directed by Frank Borzage, which was, for its time, a racy film. It deals with sexual disease. It is a good film, better than this one anyway. Hayes would win another Oscar for her supporting role in "Airport" (1970). Putting her in a special class of being one of the few actors to win an Oscar every time they were nominated.
"The Sin of Madelon Claudet", the very title is a warning to young woman, what exactly was her "sin"? Is a film worth watching for film buffs, though if you are a film buff, you've probably already seen this. It is worth watching if you are starting to gain an interest in classic Hollywood films. It is pretty hard to find. It has not been released on DVD and it is out of print on VHS. Perhaps your local library may carry it (mine does) or a video store such as Facets may have it. By today's standards this is not a wide audience picture. So only a very select few will enjoy this.