Spotlight: Sexy Pre-Code West (Post Three)

Welcome to another Film Friday! Today we’re continuing our look at the Pre-Code (and no promises, but perhaps some Post-Code) work of Paramount’s lightning-in-a-corset, the iconic Mae West!

Mae West

Mae West was born Mary Jane West in Brooklyn on August 17th, 1893. Her father was a prizefighter and eventual PI; her mother was a former fashion model. West’s professional career began in vaudeville at the age of 14. In 1911, she made her Broadway debut after secretly marrying and jilting a fellow vaudevillian four years her senior. (A scandal erupted after Mae became a star in which she erroneously alleged that though they had indeed married, they never lived together. The divorce was finalized in 1943.) West finally got her big break dancing the shimmy in a Shubert Brothers revue called Sometime (1918). Her first starring role was in the notorious Sex (1926), which West also wrote, produced, and directed under the alias “Jane Mast.” For this shocking play, West was prosecuted on morals charges, and later spent eight days in jail. The publicity helped Mae’s career and she continued to write shocking pieces like The Drag (1927) and The Pleasure Man (1928). West struck gold with her play Diamond Lil (1928), in which she played the titular character.

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She came to Hollywood in 1932 after being signed by Paramount. Her first role was a supporting character in the George Raft vehicle, Night After Night (1932). Mae was a smash success and began starring in her own films, She Done Him Wrong (1933) and I’m No Angel (1933). The enforcement of the Production Code in 1934 stifled Mae’s creativity, but she continued to make films with regularity until 1937. She made two more films — one for Universal and the other for Columbia — before returning to Diamond Lil and the stage in 1943. She headlined her own Vegas show in the ’50s and made various appearances throughout the ’50s and ’60s. She returned to the screen in 1970 for the controversial adaptation of Myra Breckinridge. She made one more film in 1978 that flopped. She died of complications following a stroke in 1980 at the age of 87.

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So far we’ve covered Night After Night (1932) and She Done Him Wrong (1933). Today we’re featuring I’m No Angel (1933).

I’m No Angel (1933)

I'm No Angel (1933)

A carnival dancer evades the law and invades high society.

Starring Mae West, Cary Grant, and Gregory Ratoff. Story, Screenplay, and Dialogue by Mae West. Suggestions by Lowell Brentano. Directed by Wesley Ruggles.

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Last week I told you that She Done Him Wrong gives today’s audience a glimpse of Mae’s work on the Broadway stage. This film, I’m No Angel, is just the opposite — it’s the quintessential representation of Mae’s work in Hollywood. (Well, Pre-Code, perhaps, which also makes it the most enjoyable.) Mae plays a carnival dancer who “climbs the ladder of success — wrong by wrong.” Like Lady Lou, Tira isn’t the most morally righteous, but she’s likable with a sense of right vs. wrong. Mae’s boytoy, Cary Grant, is back in on the action, but as usual, it’s really all about Mae.

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Tira (Mae West) works as a dancer and occasional lion tamer for a circus, but her greatest pleasure in life is in her liaisons with wealthy men. During one of her dances, she makes eye contact with a gentleman wearing a huge diamond ring. He later joins her in her hotel room for a nightcap but is interrupted by the sudden arrival of Slick Wiley, a pickpocket who thinks of himself as Tira’s “man.” Slick knocks the gentleman unconscious and steals his ring but later is arrested and thrown in jail. The circus owner offers to lend Tira money for a lawyer to avoid prosecution on condition that she put her head in a lion’s mouth as part of a new act to tour major cities. Tira agrees and becomes the star attraction, gaining fame and wealth from her success. Various society patrons visit Tira backstage, among them Kirk Lawrence and his fiancée Alicia Hatton. Alicia is disdainful of Tira, but Kirk becomes infatuated with her, and a whirlwind romance ensues, with Kirk lavishing expensive gifts on Tira.

Kirk’s friend and associate Jack Barton (Cary Grant) calls on Tira to ask her to give up her relationship with Kirk on Alicia’s behalf. Tira agrees and she and Jack fall seriously in love. One night after his release from jail, Slick enters Tira’s penthouse and pretends to be her lover when Jack arrives. Jack calls off his engagement to Tira, who, unaware of Slick’s ruse, sues Jack for breach of contract. Tira represents herself in court and proves to all concerned that she is a respectable woman and deserves substantial payment for damages. Realizing he was set-up, Jack agrees to the settlement. Later he and Tira reaffirm their love for each other. (This summary brought to you courtesy of TCM.)

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Another tightly made film, I’m No Angel is almost as campy as She Done Him Wrong, but the modern settings add an aura of glamour that heighten the realism a little bit, diminishing the camp, while still emphasizing the fun. (If I had to choose the campiest scene, it would probably be the infamous sequence where Mae puts her head in a lion’s mouth, prompting her ascension to high society.) But there’s more pathos here than in previous films, as Mae’s character, Tira, actually shows vulnerability when temporarily losing the affections of Cary Grant. But she’s triumphant in a goofy courtroom scene that, as discerning audience members, it’s impossible not to smile through. Like her last picture, most of the supporting players are one-dimenstional — props to make Mae West look good. And that’s perfectly okay, because with Mae around, there’s really no need to focus on anyone else. (Especially other women — who generally get thankless roles when playing alongside Mae West.)

The idea of a girl from the wrong side of the tracks rising into high society is a common, but usually enjoyable premise. And with Mae, it’s better than ever. However, while Mae both physically and comedically radiates in the second half of the picture that sees Tira glamorous, successful, and romancing Cary Grant, I think the best stuff occurs at the beginning — particularly when Mae’s the lusty carnival dancer. Like Lady Lou, Tira is a wonderful Pre-Code heroine: likable, but naughty. She obviously brings the rich man up to her room to seduce and steal from him. (The scene is a highlight.) But Mae’s in rare form throughout, spouting more of her infamous one-liners than in her past films combined. (“When I’m good I’m very good, but when I’m bad, I’m better,” is but one example.)

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So while this film will obviously appeal to Mae West fans, lovers of Pre-Code cinema and cinema fans in general should also check out I’m No Angel. Simply, it’s a very funny film, even if Mae isn’t usually your cup of tea. It helps, of course, if she is. Mae sings, Mae dances, Mae sashays, and Mae even puts her head in a lion’s mouth. Who could ask for anything more?

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Come back next Friday for another Mae West film! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week on That’s Entertainment! 

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