Welcome to another Film Friday! Today we’re continuing our look at the work of Paramount’s lightning-in-a-corset, the iconic 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.
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.
So far we’ve covered Night After Night (1932), She Done Him Wrong (1933), and I’m No Angel (1933). Today we’re looking at Mae’s first Post-Code film, Belle Of The Nineties (1934).
Belle Of The Nineties (1934)
Having no trouble surviving on her own terms in a man’s world, Ruby fends off the unwarranted attentions of a steady stream of libidinous males, reserving her affections for a muscular boxer called Tiger Kid.
Starring Mae West, Roger Pryor, John Mack Brown, and John Miljan. Written by Mae West. Directed by Leo McCarey.
Like Norma Shearer, Miss West was one of the brightest stars dulled by the enforcement of the Production Code in the summer of 1934. Released in September, Belle Of The Nineties has the unfortunate distinction of being a Post-Code film, even though it was designed and produced as another Pre-Code romp: It Ain’t No Sin. As a result, this film is a strange hybrid of classic Mae West and filtered Mae West. Unfortunately, the filtered wins — but just barely.
Ruby Carter, the American Beauty queen of the night club-sporting world, shifts her operations from St. Louis to New Orleans, mostly to get away from prizefighter Tiger Kid. Installed as the prize attraction of “The Sensation Club,” run by Ace Lamont, she quickly becomes the toast of the town and also marked as personal property by Ace, arousing the fury of Ace’s former flame, Molly Brant. The not-overly-bright Tiger comes to town and is set for a title match with the champ by Ace, while the latter also has him steal some of Ruby’s jewels. Ruby, no dumb-belle, figuring Ace has the fix in on the fight, uses some of her other jewels to lay a trap for Ace. Tiger confesses, after the fight, to Ruby his role in the jewel robbery and… [he] goes after Ace… (This summary brought to you courtesy of TCM.)
While the original treatment under the original title suggests a premise with more of the grit supplied by Mae’s two prior efforts, the finished product presents a story completely lacking in the zest of the star’s former outings. While Mae sashays around again in the Gay Nineties and reads every single line with her trademark delivery, she practically guarantees the audience’s amusement — even if the viewers are aware that the brilliance of her wit has been marred considerably. And it is considerable, especially when compared the films we’ve already covered. She does get a few classic lines in here and there; when asked if she’s in New Orleans for good, Ruby replies: “I expect to be here — but not for good.” But, unlike the other pictures, the laughs are not consistent. (However, Mae does get the opportunity to sing a couple of nifty numbers, sublimely backed by Duke Ellington and his orchestra.)
Am I being unduly hard on this film? Well, yes. But the film isn’t up the standards that Mae had already set for herself. So it is an unqualified disappointment. But it’s not a total loss — there are many wonderful moments, but they require sitting through an obviously castrated 73-minute film. Mae looks good, sounds great, and sells the film like it’s just as good as her previous pictures. But it isn’t. It’s not repulsive, but it’s not classic Mae. Understand that before going in.
Come back next Friday for another Film post! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week on That’s Entertainment!