By MATTHEW BAKER
The Sin Of Madelon Claudet (1931) Directed by Edgar Selwyn
One of the most legendary moments in Players history came in 1989 when Helen Hayes broke the gender barrier and became the first woman inducted into the club. Everyone knows she had long enjoyed the title First Lady of American Theatre. Yet, despite theatre’s ephemerality and cinema’s permanence, Ms. Hayes’s film performances tend to be far less widely remembered. The primary exception is her iconic performance in Airport, which won her the 1970 Oscar for best supporting actress. However, that famous Academy Award was her second. The first had come nearly four decades earlier, when the 31-year old Ms. Hayes became only the fifth actress in history to win the trophy. The film was The Sin Of Madelon Claudet.
Seduced and abandoned by an American painter, the daughter of a French farmer finds herself pregnant and alone in early 20th-century Paris. Initially devastated and guilt-ridden by her break with propriety, young Madelon grows strong and determined to provide for her baby when he is first laid upon her chest after she has given birth. The emotional shift from defeat to strength shown in Ms. Hayes’s eyes is one of many moving moments that the camera captures of this star who always claimed to be more comfortable on stage.
To provide for her son, Madelon takes up with a charming Italian aristocrat (Lewis Stone at his most charismatic and debonair) who turns out to be … not all that he seems. When Madelon and her lover are arrested for his nefarious deeds, neither the gendarmes nor the judge is willing to believe that she is merely an innocent dupe, and she is imprisoned for complicity in his crimes. The film proceeds to show us a passage of time from the boy’s childhood to adulthood and exposes the sacrifices Madelon makes for his well-being and his future. Ms. Hayes’ strongest scene comes late in the film when she finds herself in her son’s office. She touches his desk, his books, his diplomas, and drinks up the joy of knowing he has done well even as he is physically absent from the room.
While the gender politics of this 1931 chestnut might be charitably described as old-fashioned, it benefits from being a pre-Code production and deals both frankly and sympathetically with a fallen woman. Ultimately, it is a touching study in parental devotion that paved the way for later classics such as Stella Dallas, Mildred Pierce, and To Each His Own.
The Sin Of Madelon Claudet runs 76 minutes and can be viewed free at this link: https://ok.ru/video/273626499747.
Matthew Baker is a New York City historian and tour guide, newsletter editor for the National Federation of Tourist Guide Associations, and producer of the annual GANYC Apple Awards. A Player since 2000, he is artistic director of Poetry At The Players. His "Players On Screen" posts feature lesser-known appearances by our members.