Welcome to another Film Friday! Today we’re continuing our series on films released in 1935, the first full year in which Hollywood studios were forced to adhere to the Production Code, which became official in the summer of 1934. The pictures we’ll be looking at are not connected by performers, but rather by their common bond to the censoring of creativity. So far we have covered The Goose And The Gander, Dangerous, No More Ladies, Star Of Midnight, and Alice Adams. Today we’re looking at Goin’ To Town.
Goin’ To Town (1935)
Former dance hall queen Cleo Borden, newly rich, falls for and pursues an upper-crust Englishman.
Starring Mae West, Paul Cavanaugh, Gilbert Emery, and Marjorie Gateson. Screenplay by Mae West. Story by Marion Morgan and George B. Dowell. Directed by Alexander Hall.
Today’s post sees the return of Mae West, who was our featured Film Friday star back in December. In addition to covering her three Pre-Code films, I discussed my (harsh) disdain for Belle Of The Nineties (1934), which was conceived as a Pre-Code picture but figuratively castrated by the Hayes Code, leaving it an odd combination of classic Mae and Mae-lite. Needless to say, I was not pleased. For our series of posts on films from 1935, I thought it would be interesting to examine Mae’s following film, Goin’ To Town, which was the first Westian picture fully conceived after the Code’s enforcement, and the only film (other than 1932’s Night After Night) to feature a story not conceived by Mae herself.
Cleo Borden, a saloon dancer and femme fatale, signs an agreement with cattle rustler Buck Gonzales to marry him if he will deed his oil-filled land to her. When Gonzales is killed, Cleo instantly becomes a millionaire. On the ranch, Cleo tries to seduce British land surveyor Edward Carrington, but he resists her after realizing she placed a bet on her conquest of him. Carrington then leaves for the international horse races in Buenos Aires and Cleo follows, hoping to transform herself into a lady by entering her own horse “Cactus” into the race. In Buenos Aires, high society is both amused and appalled by Cleo’s bawdy humor and bold style, while the Russian millionaire Ivan Valadov begins to keep company with her. Cleo bets Valadov’s mistress, Mrs. Crane Brittony, $20,000 that Cactus will win, and she in turn places $20,000 on her horse, Bonnie Lassie. Lady Brittony schemes to keep Cactus out of the race, but her plans are foiled by Cleo’s Indian assistant Taho, and Cactus wins.
Meanwhile, Lady Brittony’s nephew, Fletcher Colton, an obsessive gambler, loses his fortune; and Cleo, believing she needs a title to win Carrington, offers to marry him in name only. Back in the United States, the new couple resides in Southampton, where Cleo stages an opera of Samson and Delilah. Carrington arrives at the gala with the newly-acquired title of Earl of Stratton to swear his love to Cleo. Meanwhile, Lady Brittony tries to ruin Cleo’s reputation by staging a rendezvous with Cleo and Valadov in Cleo’s boudoir. While Valadov hides in Cleo’s room, however, Colton discovers him and pulls a revolver from Cleo’s drawer. The two men struggle, Colton shoots himself and Cleo is accused of murder. When Cleo discovers Valadov’s cigarette in the ashtray and Taho implicates him for Colton’s murder, however, Valadov confesses Lady Brittony’s scheme. Cleo then becomes Lady Stratton. (This summary brought to you courtesy of TCM.)
Though the story wasn’t conceived by Mae, it has many of the usual trappings — lots of men, jealous women, vintage decor, and a plot that seemingly takes a back seat to Mae’s dialogue. As usual, there’s some scheming and intrigue (murder!), but those parts are rushed through in favor of some longer more quip-heavy (from Mae) scenes with our star. That’s never a bad thing, but I just want to remind viewers that one shouldn’t be watching a Mae West film for its realistic and engrossing plot. That’s not the main draw here. More oblong than ever before, West dominates the entire film and leaves little room for other performers to make impressions.
Like in her diminished prior picture, Mae has a few good lines here and there — not as many as before, but enough to keep us entertained. There’s music, as usual, and for the most part, the songs are pretty good, as Mae sells them in her usual style. However, the most bizarre moment of any Mae film that we’ve covered yet is the Samson and Delilah opera sequence where — yes — Mae sings opera. She doesn’t even lampoon it or try and make it a joke; she sings it earnestly. The problem is, given her character and the tone of the film, we’re desperately looking for a humorous sequence, and the opera bit comes off as genuine camp — unintentionally funny because it seems almost inappropriate. The best parts of the film come earlier on, as Mae struts and cavorts around her requisite gaggle of male admirers.
How does this picture stack up in comparison to other Mae films? Well, it’s certainly not a classic of the caliber of She Done Him Wrong (1933) or I’m No Angel (1933), but it may be AS good as Belle Of The Nineties, which even though I was harsh on back in December, really earned my disapproval because it was impossible not to compare it to the former OUTSTANDING films. Stepping away, I can appreciate the Post-Code Mae West, even if she isn’t as funny or free as her Pre-Code incarnation. Though this picture doesn’t seem as disjointed as Belle Of The Nineties, Goin’ To Town strangely parallels the newly censored Mae. While prior films concerned Mae’s besting of the snooty upper class, this picture has Mae desperately trying to assimilate and become one of them. It would almost seem like this is a bizarre mocking of her relationship with the censors — whom she is no longer able to best. Are we seeing a cleaner Mae? (Indeed the working title was “Now I’m A Lady.”) Yes — but it’s still Mae West, so there are some laughs, and surprisingly, moments of pathos too. If you’re a Mae fan, it would do you no wrong to go West with Goin’ To Town.
Come back next Friday for another 1935 film! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week on That’s Entertainment!