Sin of Madelon Claudet, The (1931)

The Sin of Madelon Claudet The Sin of Madelon Claudet


Accomplished stage actress Helen Hayes made her screen debut in talkies with "The Sin of Madelon Claudet," a soap opera scripted by her husband Charles MacArthur, based on  the 1924 popular play by Edward Knoblock.

As Dr. Dulac, Jean Hersholt narrates in flashback the story of Madelon, a French girl who falls in love with Larry (Neil Hamilton), a French artist. The two move in together without marrying, but their idyllic life is destroyed when Larry leaves and then marries another woman.

Madelon becomes involved with Carlo Boretti (Lewis Stone), but arrested on jewel theft, he kills himself rather than go to prison. Charged as accomplice, Madelon is sentenced and sent to jail. After ten years, she becomes a hooker to support her illegitimate son (Robert Young). She sends the money to a good-hearted doctor (Jean Hersholt), who trains the boy tin medicine.

The son becomes suspicious about the source of the money due to the irregularity of the amounts and the deliveries. When asked, Madelon lies, telling the boy the money comes from his late mother's estate. The son goes on to become a successful doctor, setting his mom in a lush Parisian apartment.

The melodrama ends with Hersholt's narration, addressed to the son's wife, who's upset by his devotion to his career at the expense of marital and filial duties. However, upon hearing Madelon's true story, she decides to stay.

Oscar Alert

Helen Hayes ages on screen from a young waif to an older woman, always a plus with Academy voters. Hayes won a second, Supporting Actress Oscar for "Airport," in 1970.

Hayes competed for the Best Actress Oscar with Marie Dressler in "Emma," and Lynn Fontanne in "The Guardsman." It's noteworthy that all three films were made by Louis B. Mayer at MGM, Hollywood's leading studio at the time.

Self-Sacrificing Mother as a Type

The self-sacrificing mother was the predominant screen type of motherhood in Hollywood films of the late 1920s and 1930s. "The Sin of Madelon Claudet" was very popular at the time, and it's been remade numerous times under different titles, including "Madame X," a powerhouse melodrama filmed in 1929, 1937, 1948, 1960, 1966 (with Lana Turner), and 1981 as a TV film.

The type is usually contained in the genre of "the woman's film," pejoratively known as a "weepie" or "weeper" (four-handkerchief films). The self-sacrificing mother is either unwed, or married but deserted by her husband. The unwed mother strives to keep the illegitimacy of her child (or children) as a secret, fearing the community's reaction of moral indignity and being ostracized. They are often scarlet women, with a shady past that bears some kind of stigma.

For example, in "Madame X" (1929), a wayward mother initially deserts her husband and son for the sake of a lover. In "Sarah and Son" (1930), a worthless husband takes away the baby from his wife and gives him to a wealthy family; the surrogate parents refuse to acknowledge the biological mother when she comes to reclaim her son.

The sacrificing mother is a tragic heroine less by personality fault than by social circumstances over which she has little or no control. In some films, the woman's husband (or husband's family) tries to take the children away from her. Furthermore, most of these movies end tragically, with either the death of the mother or her child. Few of these movies have a happy ending, and if they do, it usually takes the form of reconciliation between mother and child. In all cases, however, the mother's sacrificial efforts are justified and their ambitions–to secure a better life for their children–are accomplished. No matter how the films plot ends, the mother's worthiness is finally recognized by previously doubting husbands and/or ungrateful children.

Lines to Remember

At least one line became memorable, the one in which Jacques (Robert Young) tells his mother: "I guess mothers are hard to kill."


Madelon Claudet (Helen Hayes)
Carlo Boretti (Lewis Stone)
Larry (Neil Hamilton)
Dr. Claudet (Robert Young)
Victor (Cliff Edwards)
Dr. Dulac (Jean Hersholt)
Rosalie (Marie Prevost)
Alice (Karen Morley)
Photographer (Charles Winninger)
Hubert (Alan Hale)


Directed by Edgar Selwyn
Screenplay: Charles MacArthur, based on the play "The Lullaby," by Edward Knoblock
Camera: Oliver T. Marhs
Editor: Tom Held
Art Director: Cedric Gibbons

Running Time: 74 Minutes