Cast & Crew
In Paris, Alice Claudet, the wife of Dr. Jacques Claudet, tells her friend, Dr. Dulac, that she is leaving her husband because he pays more attention to his charity patients than to her. Dulac, an old friend of Jacques', knows that the young woman has made many sacrifices for her husband, but he also knows that another woman, Jacques' mother, Madelon Claudet, has made even larger sacrifices for him. Hoping to inspire Alice, Dulac tells her the story of Madelon Claudet: Many years earlier in rural France, Madelon's father owns a farm located near a medical school, which attracts many students, including a young man named Larry, an American with whom Madelon falls in love. Soon after they decide to marry, Larry receives a cablegram from home advising him to return immediately because his father has suffered a stroke. Though Larry longs for Madelon following his departure, he accepts the will of his parents, who arrange for him to marry an American girl. Meanwhile in France, Madelon gives birth to Larry's baby, and though she initially does not want to look at the infant, she soon grows to love the boy. Without any means by which to support the child, Madelon accepts money and jewels from the wealthy Carlo Boretti, who makes Madelon his mistress. When Madelon's father arranges for her to marry Hubert, a Normandy farmer, she readily accepts, though she is immediately rejected by the man when he learns that she has a child. After placing the boy in the custody of her friends, Victor and Rosalie, Madelon continues her relationship with Carlo and sends them money to support the child. One day, when Rosalie asks Madelon for more money, which she needs because Victor has gambled away their farm, Madelon gives her a valuable ring that Carlo had given her as a gift. The ring, however, is soon discovered to be stolen property when Carlo is arrested on charges of theft. He admits that the ring and all his other jewels were stolen, and while being dragged off by the police, commits suicide. Though innocent, Madelon is put on trial for Carlo's crimes; she is found guilty of being his accomplice and is sentenced to ten years in prison. In 1919, ten years later, Madelon is released. She tries to take her son of out the state boarding school, where he has been kept after Victor was killed. However, Madelon is told that they will not release him until she can prove that she can support him. Years pass and, unbeknown to Jacques, Madelon has become a prostitute in order to put him through medical school. When Jacques finally becomes a successful physician, the old and destitute Madelon visits him at his home but does not tell him who she is. Dulac ends the story by telling Alice that he met the frail but proud Madelon on the street in front of her son's house and arranged to have Jacques support her without her or his knowledge. Having been shown how selfish she has been, Alice promises to reform, and then suggests that Dulac bring Madelon to live with them so she will be reminded of how lucky she is to have Jacques.
Oliver T. Marsh
The Sin of Madelon Claudet
When Larry is called away to America, Madelon's troubles begin. He abandons Madelon for a woman back home from his own social class. Madelon is left pregnant and all alone. Deliverance seems to arrive in the form of a wealthy man Carlo Boretti (Lewis Stone) who offers to keep Madelon in luxurious style, though she fears telling Boretti about the child she's had out of wedlock.
On the eve of her apparent salvation, as Boretti agrees to both marry Madelon and take in her illegitimate child, who has been living with friends Rosalie (Marie Prevost) and Victor (Cliff Edwards), disaster strikes yet again. Boretti is arrested, Madelon is sent to prison and upon her release many years later is faced with a terrible choice. Will she reenter her son's life and mar his future with her shame? Or will she stay away and allow her son to become a doctor? Madelon chooses the latter, and pays for Jacques's (Robert Young) medical training by becoming a prostitute, a further fall from grace marked in The Sin of Madelon Claudet with a shocking authenticity.
Hollywood in the Twenties and Thirties was filled with stories of women whose one bad mistake ended in lifelong misery and heartache. The one chance for redemption for such women was often a gesture of self-sacrifice so extraordinary, it would remove the taint of sin. In Madelon's case that martyrdom came in an exquisite case of mother-love, a theme revisited in films like Stella Dallas (1925, 1937) and Imitation of Life (1934) and another maternal tearjerker, "Madame X," Alexandre Bisson's play that was adapted numerous times for the screen.
M-G-M producer Irving Thalberg was determined to bring prestige to the studio by luring Broadway's finest to Hollywood. Theater star Helen Hayes was one of his chosen transplants from the world of the theater. Hayes was enticed to join M-G-M by the chance to star in the film version of Edward Knoblock's 1923 "The Lullaby," a play known for its sexually frankness that had starred Florence Reed on Broadway.
"Nobody at MGM knew exactly what to do with me," recounted Hayes in her autobiography of her move from the East to the West Coast. "The studio already had most of the female superstars under contract Garbo, Harlow, Shearer, Crawford, Jeanette MacDonald, Marion Davies. How was a plain Jane like me to stand out in such a glamorous lineup?"
"There were so many things I didn't have or wasn't, that it seemed best for me to quit then and there. But Mr. Mayer had an idea. I would be promoted as 'The Great Actress.'"
The Sin of Madelon Claudet was initially previewed at a theater outside of Los Angeles. It was an unmitigated disaster panned by the press. Reviewers noted Hayes' impressive performance, but took issue with the sappy, conventionalized story. Thalberg hoped to salvage the film by calling in a new playwright, Charles MacArthur, who also happened to be Hayes' current husband. MacArthur did a thorough revision, dispensing with tangential characters and creating a framing story in which Jacques' doctor mentor Dr. Dulac (Jean Hersholt) tells Madelon's story to Jacques' young wife Alice (Karen Morley). Alice complains that she has sacrificed too much for Jacques' medical career. Dulac responds with the tale of Madelon's ultimate sacrifice for love.
During breaks on the filming of Arrowsmith for Samuel Goldwyn (a loan-out project), Hayes tried to squeeze in the shooting of new scenes for The Sin of Madelon Claudet. But when Goldwyn got wind of her moonlighting, she was advised to finish his first.
In its new form, retitled from The Lullaby to The Sin of Madelon Claudet, the film was a hit. Hayes was again praised by critics, but this time alongside the film. Hayes also received an Academy Award for Best Actress in a role that had her age over the course of several decades, transforming with utter credibility from a young innocent to a haggard old woman.
Despite that early success in Hollywood starring in her first feature film, Hayes' first love was the stage. In between her theater work she would occasionally return to Hollywood for supporting parts, including a performance in 1970's Airport for which she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar®.
Director: Edgar Selwyn
Producer: Irving Thalberg
Screenplay: Charles MacArthur based on a play "The Lullaby" by Edward Knoblock
Cinematography: Oliver T. Marsh
Production Design: Cedric Gibbons
Cast: Helen Hayes (Madelon Claudet), Lewis Stone (Carlo Boretti), Neil Hamilton (Larry), Robert Young (Dr. Claudet), Cliff Edwards (Victor), Jean Hersholt (Dr. Dulac), Marie Prevost (Rosalie).
BW-76m. Closed captioning.
by Felicia Feaster
The Sin of Madelon Claudet
This film, which was initially entitled Lullaby and reviewed as such in Photo, Hollywood Reporter and Motion Picture Herald, marked the sound screen debut of Helen Hayes. A Hollywood Reporter pre-release news item notes that in the rewrite stage of the film, Alan Hale's role was developed into one of the leading characters. The file for the film in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library contains a studio cast sheet dated June 15, 1931, which lists the following actors in the cast: William Bakewell as "Jacques"; Aileen Pringle as "Suzette"; Bradley Page as "Salignac"; Claire McDowell as "Angeline"; Lloyd Ingraham as "Claudet"; Margaret Seddon as "Grandmother"; and Tenen Holtz as "Emil." Although the Hollywood Reporter review also listed these actors in the cast, it is doubtful that they appeared in the released film because much of the film was rewritten and reshot, and because a September 1931 "revised" version of the studio cast sheet does not include their names in the cast.
According to a biography of Hayes and her husband, Charles MacArthur, Kay Francis was one of a number of actors who were offered the title role. Francis reportedly rejected the offer, stating "I would have to be out of my mind to play that silly French prostitute. Why that dumb little bunny actually walked the streets so that she could buy clothes for her son. Phooey! How can you generate sympathy for such a shallow woman?" The Hayes biography also states that after a disasterous first preview, the film was shelved and not revived until head of production Irving Thalberg returned from his trip to Europe. After examining the film, Thalberg was convinced that all the film needed was some minor changes, and he instructed MacArthur to rewrite the script. In addition, the biography points out that although Hayes was on loan to Samuel Goldwyn and was filming Arrowsmith at the time Lullaby went back into production, she secretly spent her one day off, Sunday, working on the film. When Goldwyn found out about her moonlighting, he demanded that she stop working on this film until she completed her work on his film.
Although the film encountered few censorship problems at the time of its release, in 1936 a PCA official wrote that its chances for re-issue certification were "doubtful primarily because of prostitute theme and details." Hayes received an Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of the title role. The film was also voted one of the ten best pictures by the Film Daily nationwide poll.