Sunday, May 15, 2022

Mae West Earns Her Halo in I'm No Angel

As one of the chief films to both pull Paramount Studios out of bankruptcy and bring about the creation of the restrictive Production Code, 1933’s I’m No Angel provided new screen sensation Mae West a worthy follow-up to her first starring vehicle, She Done Him Wrong (an adaptation of one of her biggest stage successes, Diamond Lil), which offered sexy, sassy entertainment to Depression-era masses hungry for light diversion and a offered a perfect vehicle to introduce West’s major talents, carefully honed over years of stage work in vaudeville and on Broadway, to a much wider public. Director Wesley Ruggles helped West solidify her previous success by keeping Angel’s pace steady at a brisk running time of 87 minutes, while properly showcasing West as Tira, a foxy circus beauty with prime undulating skills, keeping her and her ample charms and wisecracks front-and-center throughout the movie as Mae ambles her way through her own wry, sagely written screenplay in consistently diverting fashion.

Radiating supreme confidence and earthy good humor while provocatively singing and sashaying her way around every man in sight, Mae West puts on a memorable one-woman show as Tira, a circus beauty with “Big Bill Barton’s Wonder Show” who, when not undulating and “oohing” to bring the crowds in, keeps them rapt with her daring lion-taming act. West also keeps things lively by slipping out of one terrific outfit into another, and the striking wardrobe created for West provide one indicator of the first-class production values Paramount wisely poured into Angel, with one spider web-designed gown in particular perfectly befitting the star’s seductive persona as first one beau then another potential mate pay Mae a call. West has such a grand time playing up her sexuality and suggestively tossing off one innuendo after another one might feel sorry for the Production Codes advocates who clearly were missing out on the fun, except for the fact that after Angel, they stepped in to make sure West wasn’t allowed to move about as freely ever again during her 1930’s heyday. Fortunately, by that point West had firmly established her public persona as a screen siren quite unlike any other, with the audience in on the joke as West made fun of sex in an unashamed, sly manner, which allowed her to keep her career going on stage and in films for the next several decades, achieving living legend status long before her passing in 1980.

After gaining a major career boost opposite West in She Done Him Wrong, Cary Grant once again proves an ideal leading object of desire for West to ogle and vamp around upon first sight. As the affluent, attractive Jack Clayton, who quickly becomes West primary conquest, it’s interesting to see Grant in this early leading man mode. He’s classy, very handsome and has an easy rapport with West (they share a wonderful sequence bantering at a piano), but the charismatic spark found in his breakthrough Sylvia Scarlett performance and in just about every subsequent role hadn’t taken root yet. However, even in a more standard leading man guise, Grant has a great, carefree manner with West in Angel as the two impishly trade suggestive dialogue, and the audience can tell Mae clearly enjoys working with and eying her magnetic co-star (upon first seeing Grant walking around the Paramount lot, West famously stated “If he can talk, I'll take him.”). Years later West quickly named Grant when asked who her favorite male lead was, and Angel clearly justifies her conviction, as the two are admirably in-synch on screen, whether playfully toying with each other or romancing in a more arousing manner.

The rest of the cast do well enough, although this is clearly West’s show all the way, as it should be and as her snappy script intended. As Big Bill, Edward Arnold and his forceful, gruff acting style is well-suited to his role, and he gets to set up one of West’s best Angel retorts after he tells Mae “I changed my mind.” Nat Pendleton makes a brief impression as circus man Harry and Gregory Ratoff lends his distinct vocal delivery style as Tira’s supportive lawyer. Gertrude Michaels is properly terse as a jealous would-be rival (West had no true rivals when it came to the men in her films), while Walter Walker scores perhaps the strongest of these players as the cooperative judge clearly open to West’s flirtatious byplay during the terrific climatic courtroom scene, wherein West takes on all lawyers, jurors and witnesses with aplomb. Also look quick for Hattie McDaniel as a manicurist who briefly banters with West humorously and is introduced telling Mae to “sing it, honey.”

Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray offers a sterling print which sufficiently presents Leo Tover’s bright cinematography. For West, the success of Angel cemented her place among the top box-office draws of the era, with placement in the top ten in 1933 and 1934. The film stands as the last opportunity for West in her prime to perform on-screen at her sauciest and most suggestive until, in 1968, the production code was lifted in favor of the MPAA ratings system, and West was finally permitted to entertainingly add her famous saucy retorts to the otherwise-woeful Myra Breckinridge. With Angel allowing West to bemusedly partake of witty, sexy interplay with a variety of handsome suitors in her trademark beguilingly uninhibited fashion, the film maintains a fresh appeal nearly 90 years after its initial smash release and offers perhaps the best example of West in her most iconic mode as the smart, funny, vamping, original cinematic luminary for the ages.  

I recently had a lot of fun putting together a tribute video to West using her 1932-1940 screen output, including a handful of famous Mae quips to start the proceedings, before getting to the song tribute involving Elle King's "Ex's & Oh's" (Elle comes on like Mae's great-granddaughter, both in her vocal style and her demeanor seen in the playful video for King's 2014 hit). Reviewing the films demonstrated what a daring, one-of-a-kind performer West was- she marched to her own tune with apologizes to no one, writing her own material with great wit and aplomb. The tribute can be viewed over here at YouTube:


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