I still remember the very first Lana Turner movie I watched: The Three Musketeers, in which she starred as the evil but beautiful Lady de Winter. I watched that film mostly for Gene Kelly, one of my favourites; but I remember being struck by Lana Turner. So icily beautiful, but so ruthlessly, coldly calculating and vicious too. She was exactly as I’d imagined Lady de Winter to be when I’d read The Three Musketeers (it’s a different matter that the film diverged considerably from the novel).
Today may be the birth centenary of Lana Turner (the ‘may be’ because some say she was born on February 8, 1920, rather than 1921). Born in Idaho, as Julia Jean Mildred Frances Turner, ‘Lana’ came to California with her mother after her father was murdered in 1929. By the time she was 17, Lana had landed her first role in cinema, and by the early 40s, had started becoming an actress to be reckoned with. ‘The Sweater Girl’, as she was known, ended up being projected mostly as little more than a sex symbol by MGM, but proved, over time, that she could act with the best of them. Films like Peyton Place, Imitation of Life and The Postman Always Rings Twice gave her a chance to show that her acting talent was everywhere as good as her legendary beauty.
And there was this, a far cry from the seductive beauty queen image of her earlier roles, but a role that allowed Lana Turner’s acting to take centre stage. Madame X, about a woman who ends up paying throughout her life for a few days of indiscretion.
Madame X begins with Holly Anderson née Parker (Lana Turner) coming to her new home along with her bridegroom, Clayton ‘Clay’ Anderson (John Forsythe). It seems to have been a bit of a whirlwind romance and a sudden wedding, and Clay’s very correct mother Estelle (Constance Bennett), though she’s gracious enough, looks briefly shattered behind the happy couple’s backs.
Holly soon settles into life as the wife of the ambitious, popular and wealthy Clay. His family has long been associated with politics, and Clay himself is a diplomat with an eye on politics. They party, they socialize, they are very much a part of the in crowd. Among these, one of the first people Holly is introduced to is Phil Benton (Ricardo Montalban), who makes it quite clear to Holly from the start that he is attracted to her. She makes it equally clear that she isn’t interested.
But as time passes and Clay focusses on his career, he has less and less time for Holly and their now-four-year old son, Clay Jr (Teddy Quinn). Clay is constantly travelling to distant capitals on diplomatic missions; even when he’s planning to return, he gets orders to travel elsewhere… Holly, at home with their son, finding herself growing more and more lonely and unhappy. Thus, when Phil Benton, still lurking in the background and still lusting after Holly, invites her out, Holly initially refuses, but then relents.
Unfortunately, the note from Phil, while fairly innocuous in itself, falls into Estelle’s hands. She doesn’t confront Holly with it, but it’s obvious that this is one mother-in-law who isn’t going to sit quiet while her son is cuckolded. But Holly goes about her way, beginning an affair with Phil while Clay is far away in London or wherever, and Estelle doesn’t do anything… yet.
It’s a brief, torrid affair, and it comes to a quick, sudden end when Clay comes home unexpectedly. He’s got wonderful news, a rise in the ranks of the politicians and statesmen is in the offing, he could get posted to Washington, they can finally have that red frame house in a quiet neighbourhood that Holly has always been dreaming of. Within moments, Holly has realized that she was oh so wrong. Clay is the man for her, Clay is the only man she’s ever loved, could ever love.
Holly therefore goes to meet Phil, to tell him that it’s over.
Phil is a sore loser; he refuses to let Holly go so easily, and he tries to stop Holly when she starts to leave. They’re at the top of a staircase, and Phil loses his footing. He goes tumbling to the bottom of the stairs, and when a horrified Holly rushes downstairs, she finds that he’s dead. Holly is so panicky, she runs off and goes home. In her panic, she doesn’t even realize that she’s left her scarf hanging across the railing at Phil’s home.
At home, Estelle confronts Holly. With not just Holly’s scarf (the very one Holly had forgotten at Phil’s), but also the news that she, Estelle, has been keeping a tab on Holly all this while: she has hired a detective to follow Holly about. She knows about the affair with Phil, and now, about Phil’s death. Holly is all for making a clean breast of it, but Estelle dissuades her: the muckraking will only cause a scandal that will ruin everything the Andersons hold dear. Their name will be mud, and Clay’s political career will be hit so badly, it will be the end of the road for him.
There is only thing for it: Holly must die. To the world.
Later that night, Estelle, Holly and Clay Jr are on board the family yacht. Estelle has everything ready. A passport, in the name of Elizabeth Miller, is handed over. Holly will be paid money regularly so that she can look after herself. She has passage to Switzerland.
Holly can do nothing but acquiesce. For her husband’s sake, and for the sake of her little son, whom she loves so much, but whom she now must be separated from. There’s a sad little parting as Holly hugs little Clay one last time, before quietly going out on deck with Estelle. Estelle watches as a boat takes Holly across the water to another ship, and from there on, Holly’s on her own.
Soon, the newspapers have the news of Holly’s probable death splashed all across.
Holly goes to Switzerland, where she gets into disguise (she has her hair dyed), and then on to Copenhagen, where the sight of little children running around outside the shops reminds her of Clay. One little boy, about Clay’s height, sends her shaken mind into a tizzy, so that she sees him as Clay. When she discovers that the boy (whose mother comes to snatch him away from Holly’s impassioned embrace) is a stranger, Holly is in so much emotional turmoil that she ends up fainting in the snow.
A passing motorist, a concert pianist named Christian Torben (John van Dreelen) rescues Holly and takes her home, where, over the course of several months, Holly recuperates. Christian is obviously in love with her; he begs her to come with him on a tour when he has to travel for concerts, and Holly happily goes along.
Until one night, when Christian proposes. Holly is distressed and turns him down, but Christian seems unfazed. He takes pride in the epithet ‘Christian the Determined’, which he says he’s known as. He appears to think that given time and persistence, Holly will agree to marry him.
But the next morning, Christian wakes to find that Holly (who has, decorously, been sleeping in another room in the suite) has gone, leaving behind a note to say thank you and goodbye. This is the last we see of Christian, and the last we see of Holly in a world that has some relation to the genteel and luxurious world of the moneyed that she has so far been part of.
From now on, it’s all downhill for Holly. The next time we see her, she’s sitting in a seedy bar, from where she’s picked up by a man…
and the next time we see him, he’s busy stealing money from Holly’s handbag while she sleeps. This is what Holly has become. And from here on, it just gets worse and worse, until the day Holly ends up murdering a man. Not the accident that Estelle was able to use so skillfully to manoeuvre Holly out of her son’s life, but a wilful murder, a deliberate obliterating of a life.
Madame X was based on a 1908 play (originally titled La Femme X) by the French playwright Alexandre Bisson. The play was adapted for the screen numerous times, beginning with a 1916 film that starred Dorothy Donnelly. The most well-known Hollywood adaptation, prior to the Lana Turner starrer (which was directed by David Lowell Rich), was a 1937 version that starred Gladys George. I haven’t seen any of the other Madame X adaptations, but watching this film, I realized near the end that Madame X was almost certainly also the base material for the 1958 Hindi film Adalat.
Some spoilers ahead:
Of course, given Hindi cinema’s unwillingness to have its heroines be anything but completely chaste and pure, Nargis’s character doesn’t have an extramarital affair; she is pursued and finally kidnapped by the villain, and ends up in a kotha, singing songs (note: never dancing, since that is oh so immoral). But otherwise, the fact that her beloved son grows up away from her, and that she finally kills a man because she doesn’t want her son to be faced with the truth of his mother’s degeneracy, is the same story as Madame X. And that the son (in Adalat, played by Jawahar Kaul) is the lawyer who, unwittingly, represents her in court, unaware that this old lady he’s trying to save is his mother. Madame X, but softened for Indian audiences, and with the melodrama dialled up a few notches.
What I liked about this film:
Madame X is also, by Western standards, pretty melodramatic, but if you’re not completely jaded, you might find its end, as I did, a bit touching. The concept of a mother risking her everything just to keep her son safe and secure in the world he lives in, while not an unusual trope (at least not for those of us who’ve grown up on Hindi cinema!), is handled with a certain sensitivity here. For one, Holly never does tell, and her son never does realize: so that tearful, loving, ultra-melodramatic reunion does not happen. Yet, there’s a loving sweetness, an affection between a young man (Keir Dullea) and a pathetic (but still strong) mother-figure, that is touching.
Much of the credit for the convincingness of this must go to Lana Turner. Her acting is one of the highlights of Madame X: she is superb as the tired, absinthe-addicted woman who puts an X under the confession she signs. The Holly Parker-Anderson of the first half hour or so is the usual Lana Turner: beautiful and very attractive. The Elizabeth Miller/Madame X of the rest of the film is a very different woman. You can still see the ravaged beauty under those wrinkles, the dark patches, the sagging skin (the makeup team did a great job here, mostly), but as much as how she looks, the deep sorrow and frustration in her eyes is what makes me empathize with this woman.
What I didn’t like:
Not much, really, though I did wonder at the need for the Christian episode. Was it merely to act as a stepping stone to show the transition from Holly as a wealthy, pampered socialite to the lonely and disreputable woman on her own? With Christian goes Holly’s one chance at being once again a part of ‘respectable society’, in a world too that is sufficiently far from the one where she’s known. It is, however, an all-too-brief episode, and one that I wished had more substance to it (or that Christian had resurfaced later in the story), but as it is, it left me feeling a little dissatisfied.
And, one thing I found hard to believe: how is it that a client doesn’t even know the name of the attorney who’s representing her until the very end of the case? I find that impossible.
But, a film worth watching if you like Lana Turner. She’s really good in this one.