Sep 7, 2013

Helen Hayes, The Sin of Madelon Claudet

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Won: Academy Award - Best Actress | Venice Film Festival - Audience Referendum, Favorite Actress

As I recall from Inside Oscar, producer Irving Thalberg was surprised that he managed a successful Oscar campaign for Helen Hayes and The Sin of Madelon Claudet, a movie which ended up being such a mess the first time they made it that it had to be reshot and retitled. In spite of this, I came into the film with great expectations for Miss Hayes' debut, as you would for any actress deemed the "First Lady of the American Theatre".

 photo ScreenShot2013-08-29at53243PM.jpgIn all actuality, this is a vehicle that would garner Oscar attention for any capable actress. The film is rich with melodrama and the role on paper has Oscar written all over it--a woman gives birth out of wedlock, gets falsely imprisoned, loses her son, and becomes a prostitute to support him through medical school. She also gets old. Watching it, it feels like an amalgamation of previous Best Actress entries, as if Madame X and Sarah and Son got together and hooked up with elements of Sadie Thompson and Cimarron. I was surprised by how natural Hayes' acting felt, expecting her to be a lot more hammier given her theatre background (not that I know a thing about theatre). There is a moment in the middle of the film, where Madelon, fresh out of jail, talks to her son. He quips, "If I were a doctor, I'd treat myself...then I'd never die" to which Hayes giggles and awkwardly clutches her face--it's a small, easy to miss moment, but it feels fresh, as if Hayes was improv-ing on the spot, and it's little details like these that separate this performance from all those awfully self-aware performances of other actresses during this era. Same goes early on when Madelon takes a look at her baby after giving birth and having wished she and the baby had died--the shame and happiness that is simultaneously plastered on Hayes' face makes it such a memorable part of the film, and could have easily been overcooked if acted by someone else.

 photo ScreenShot2013-08-29at64835PM.jpg The film's pacing gets rushed in the end, zooming through the whole prostitution arc of Madelon's story, which is interesting seeing as the film is literally titled after Madelon's sin of being a hooker. In a matter of minutes we see regular, sweet Madelon turn into a flirty prostitute and then a wretched old prostitute/thief and then an sickly old woman with no development in between. This doesn't exactly ruin the film, though I feel they could easily have cut out parts of the story to lengthen the prostitution plot point. Madelon's early prostitute scenes are nicely done--Hayes does what Janet Gaynor in Seventh Heaven could not do--she portrays the innocent girl and the confident prostitute convincingly. Her scene as a haggard older hooker is oddly over-the-top and inconsistent with the rest of the performance, and I wasn't exactly enthralled over her heavily made-up old lady scenes, but overall this is solid work that I found to be well acted, re-watchable, and a deserving win for a very legendary actress.


  1. I really like this performance!

  2. Agreed, it's a great one! I'm looking forward to reading your thoughts on her some time.

  3. Despite determined efforts by MGM and Thalberg, and fine work turned in by Hayes herself, the studio never did manage to build her into a box office sensation, or any glamorous star. Hayes recalled when cruising through central America with the Thalbergs (while Irving recuperated from a 1932 heart attack), the crowds mobbed Norma Shearer for autographs and Helen for spare change.

    One intended Shearer role, Another Language was taken over by Hayes while the Thalbergs were in Europe, and resulted in a very good movie, a contest of wills between a young bride and a domineering mother-in-law, which would have had very personal overtones had Shearer played it. Oscar wasn't done with Hayes either, and once she really was a little old lady, Airport would provide the means to gain another.

  4. I'm on the fence about this one. On the one hand, I found Hayes at times theatrical in a way that I couldn't only attribute to early-talkie adjusting. On the other hand, I can't deny that I was moved by this performance and have an appreciation for her work here. I will say, I don't think she has the charisma here (that she had in abundance in 1970's 'Airport') that I'm looking for. A decent performance ... not one of the greats ... and one that makes me wish her novice film career wasn't so abbreviated.