Performance of the week: Helen Hayes in The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931)

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Helen Hayes, “The First Lady of the American Theatre”, won her first Oscar for playing Madelon Claudet in The Sin of Madelon Claudet.

The Sin of Madelon Claudet is a very, very, dated film. It’s almost 83 years old (!), and to be honest I find it quite mediocre as a whole. On one hand, I don’t want to judge it for its age, but then again there are some brilliant classics from that era, like It Happened One Night and of course, Gone With the Wind (which is more modern than some of the 50s films even). This movie is intended to be a melodramatic weepie, but with only a mere 1h15mins for its runtime, everything just feels too rushed for its own good. Just imagine that in 20 minutes alone (spoilers ahead, although the story is too predictable to really “spoil”), we get to see how Madelon is settling in her second marriage, how she is implicated for a crime she did not commit, then sentenced to jail for 10 years and released!

Other than that, it is also quite stagey, especially the design of the sets and the way the actors enter and leave the scene.

Thankfully, Helen Hayes enters this movie and elevates it to another level altogether. I haven’t watched a lot of a Helen Hayes’ films, other than Anastasia (1956), in which she (in my opinion) out-acted the Oscar winner of that movie Ingrid Bergman, whom I usually love fyi. I have also watched clips of her second Oscar winning performance in Airport, and from what I gather, she seems to be the kind of actress who can command the screen effortlessly, pretty much like divine Dame Judi Dench.

In The Sin of Madelon Claudet (I really don’t want to type this out anymore), Helen Hayes gives what I consider one of the most natural performance of that era. It’s really remarkable work, especially given how melodramatic the material that she had to work with was. There are really terrific moments throughout her performance that she plays with extreme subtlety. One would the famous child birth scene, where she wished the baby was dead. It’s a really haunting scene, and you could see the exhaustion and pain of the character. What is even more remarkable is how naturally she transits from that depressive state to motherly love when she finally lays her eyes on her son.

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There are a few other truly terrific moments that I remember vividly: her fear and desperation when she was arrested, her pain which was seen through her eyes (despite acting cheerful) when she decided not to reveal her identity to her son, and finally when she was a broken down prostitute.

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Madelon goes from point A to point F, a naive girl who thinks she’s in love, to a broken down, bitter woman who will do anything for her son. Hayes’ really showed how Madelon’s life had worn her down. It’s a really masterful performance that I feel should be used in acting classes.

As mentioned earlier, the movie’s transition between these different phases of Madelon’s life is very abrupt, and it’s really up to Hayes’ understanding and grasp of the character to not make it seem like different interpretations. For the most part, she succeeds. I always felt that this was the same Madelon I’ve watched right from the beginning. However, the nature of the film did affect the impact of the performance a little as everything happens way too fast. Because of the brevity of each phase, I felt that the performance was held back from being the truly devastating work it could have been.

I also felt that her earlier scenes were bothering on theatrical, like when she was settling into her first marriage with that loser Larry Claudet. It’s not bad, but the acting was a bit obvious there. I just find it a bit funny when the two of them pressed their faces together and looked upwards with that blissful expression.

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Still, this is a very very minor issue, and honestly speaking, I have seen much worse from that era. The naturalism from the rest of her performance makes up for it.

All in all, this is a masterful performance (with a few flaws) from a legendary actress who’s a bit forgotten nowadays. It really showed the talent that Helen Hayes had, and I would even say that her naturalism in this role is more well handled some of the modern performances I’ve seen today. 4.5/5.

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