August 4, 2015

Ruth Chatterton, Madame X


Ruth Chatterton in Madame X is a curious case. If this were the year 1929, I have no doubt in my mind that you and I would consider her work here as a tour-de-force. This is because all the elements are in place that would indicate it to be so; we have a melodramatically depressing storyline that throws the lead character into the wringer, Chatterton is allowed to transform from young and beautiful to tattered and downtrodden, and the character of Jacqueline is given a number of major Oscar! moments to seize our attention. But this is 2015. Coming in on 90 years after the film was released, this is the perfect case of a film that hasn't aged well. Chatterton's acting, try as she might (and boy does she try), runs the gamut of subtly well done/'I've-never-acted-in-a-sound-movie-before' hammy/hysterically over the top. Take her first big scene with Lewis Stone--her voice, her enunciation, her beats between lines and her posturing is a laughable and awkward. Her later scenes where she is drunk off her ass and shrieking are jarring on the ears. Her courtroom scenes in which she passionately defends herself is a mix of wholehearted and too forceful in approach. It seems as though she really knows what she wants to be doing--and God knows she's doing her damnedest here--but Chatterton doesn't possess the moderation to tone everything down (because if there's one way to describe the performance, it would be that there's a little too much of everything). Pulling back a little in most of these scenes would have made for a better overall performance. And it's exactly in the moments where she doesn't speak, those moments where she conveys years and years worth of struggle through her eyes (the way she alludes to her husband's history of cold detachment early on, the way she looks as though she is assessing the state of her life and how she has arrived to this point later on) that makes a real impact. It's...a solid performance, and I can see the merit is there and I appreciate it, I even like it a lot more than I did the first time around. It just so happens to be a product of its time, one that is accidentally (yet wholly) clumsy when it aims to be powerful.


  1. It's been too long, but I know I saw this on TV once, and even have the movie on VHS somewhere (among 1500 packed away in boxes in the garage). It was okay, but not good enough an oldie to keep revisiting.

    For me, Chatterton will always equal "Dodsworth." And I love her in that very unsympathetic role. There's a moment in the film "Dangerous Liaisons" where Glenn Close delivers the devastating point, "Vanity and happiness are incompatible." Chatterton's Fran Dodsworth epitomizes that very fact throughout the 1936 film (and would have been a far more logical nomination).

    There's also Chatterton's 1933 precode gem, "Female," as a car company owner who likes to take her stud employees home for test drives. "Madame X" may be forgettable, but those two aren't.

  2. It's interesting to revisit these posts when I've finally seen a film after years of trying. For starters, 'Madame X' has one foot firmly in the Victorian melodramas of early 20th-Century theater and the other barely scraping the edge of early talkies. This means: lots of heavily contrived, over-the-top situations/dialog and acting styles primarily rooted in theatrical presentation. Almost everyone seems to be aiming for the back row of the theater or for silent-era 'largeness'. I mean all of this as observation, not criticism. After all, what do you expect from 1929, when sound film acting wasn't fully understood, the technology was prehistoric and new styles of acting had yet to be developed?

    Which brings me to Ruth Chatterton. Yes, she's over-the-top at times, hasn't yet figured out how to effectively use her voice (not helped by the fidelity-free early sound shrillness) and isn't always modulating her performance for the film medium. So, these aspects of her performance don't land well with modern viewers, but I will allow for all of them because of everything she does right in 'Madame X', which is a lot. Chatterton gives her all to this role and is utterly invested in her character. Her overwrought emotionalism frequently gives way to heartfelt realism (and then reverts, unfortunately) to the point where you experience what she's going through viscerally. In addition, she underplays at times (yes, that's what I said ... Chatterton underplays), especially in her two 'drunk' scenes where she seems to be talking to herself as much as to the other character. It's hard to pull off drunk scenes and she does it magnificently. Most importantly, though, her line readings and subtle reactions indicate a thoughtfulness to this performance that is quite memorable. Time and again, you can read her thoughts in the pauses and reactions that flesh out this character far better than the molting dialog. In fact, Chatterton effectively overrides a creaky plot, the set-em-and-forget-em early sound camerawork and the overwrought melodrama beloved at the time to turn in a performance that still succeeds in moving us 90 years later.

    It's easy to dismiss early sound films, but there's much to learn from and appreciate through them. One of those pleasant surprises is discovering Ruth Chatterton in 'Madame X'.