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16 October 2015

Klondike Annie -- Mae West's Masterpiece? Maybe It Is

"Sister" Annie tells it like it is

Klondike Annie is one of the lesser-known Mae West movies for several reasons -- for one thing, it isn't really a comedy. It's really an adventure, with Mae herself as the chief swashbuckler. Directed by Raoul Walsh, best known for helming macho tales like High Sierra and White Heat, it has an undertone of reality -- and danger -- that is almost unsettling, especially if you're expecting another glamorous romp like I'm No Angel. Instead, it's a peek behind the mask at the very real perils that an unprotected woman faced, especially one who is frankly and unapologetically sexually aware. And as such it gives Mae even more stature for her extraordinary skill in navigating her way through them almost unscathed.

The story takes place in the 1890s, opening in San Francisco where we meet Mae as the notorious chanteuse the San Francisco Doll, performing for slumming swells in a Chinatown night club. She gives a great show, singing "I'm An Occidental Woman in an Oriental Mood For Love" to the fervent applause of an audience drawn from all over the city, high and low.

All the luxury in the world doesn't make up for loss of autonomy

We learn that the Doll, whose real name is Rose Carleton, is being kept a virtual prisoner by Chan Lo, the Chinese crime boss who owns the club (played by Harold Huber, whose facility with accents made him an invaluable character man) and is obsessively jealous of her. She's planning her escape, with the help of her Chinese maid, Fah Wong (Soo Yong), and a wealthy admirer. By torturing one of Rose's allies amongst the servants (a startling scene), Chan Lo's minions discover her plan.

Here is another problem with the film -- a key scene where Rose struggles with Chan Lo, and accidentally stabs him, was edited out for some markets, and has apparently been totally lost. When this incident is referred to later in the movie, it's the first the audience has heard of it, which is quite confusing. It's possible that the problem with the scene was violence, but frankly I believe it was actually racism. It seems silly now that the censorship-minded were offended by a scene between a Chinese man and a Caucasian woman when of course the Chinese man was played by a well-known Caucasian actor -- but you will find the same thing in quite a few movies of the period. (When the man IS really non-white -- like the noble Filipino doctor that one of the American nurses falls in love with in So Proudly We Hail, for example, both of them die heroically rather than the studio risking any kind of relationship.)
The invaluable Harold Huber as Chan Lo argues with Rose

It's a close call, but Rose and her maid are able to reach the docks and embark on a steamer heading for Alaska, captained by Bull Brackett, played by Victor McLaglen, who naturally falls immediately under her spell. And this is another clue that this is a different kind of Mae West movie, because McLaglen's enormous, powerful form and the character's rough manner carry just a hint of an implied threat. This is the "man's world" that Mae set out to conquer alone, her only weapons her wits -- and her sex appeal.
"You do it -- stirring gets on my nerves."
The combination of these two attributes -- wit and sex -- soon has the massive captain following her around like a puppy, and she, with her complete knowledge of the male animal, knows just how to handle him. He's happy just to stir her morning coffee for her. Fortunately, she knows how to put the brakes on, too. Bull does everything in his power to win her favor; this includes protecting her -- by concealing her -- from molestation by his own rowdy crew. Rose and Fah Wong take the air on deck only when he has cleared the area so no one will see them. They stroll back and forth, chatting together in Chinese.

Yes, that's right, Chinese. This demonstrates one of the things I love most about Mae -- her respect and appreciation of other peoples ethnicity, culture, and traditions. She always accepts individuals for who they are, assumes they know something worth knowing, and is happy to learn from them in a friendly way. This applies to her friend, the upper class Miss Jellyman in Night After Night, Rajah, the Indian astrologer in I'm No Angel, her Native American jockey in Goin' to Town, all of her maids, and practically anyone else she meets. She sees no reason why she shouldn't sing a gospel song, as in Belle of the Nineties, or learn how to speak Chinese, or perform a scene from grand opera in French, or sit in with Duke Ellington's jazzmen. And she never says oh, I couldn't do something so difficult -- she just assumes that she can master any skill she wants to master, if she puts her mind to it.

In one happy moment, Mae sings one of her best songs ever, "Mister Deep Blue Sea" (written by Gene Austin, who was a popular recording star, and appears himself later in the film). Bull's more than enthusiastic reaction makes it pretty clear that even she will have her hands full holding him off much longer.

Mister Deep Blue Sea
Things are going along pretty smoothly when the ship stops in Seattle, where Fah Wong leaves to join her fiancee, and they pick up another passenger -- a mousy little middle-aged lady who the captain hardly notices. She is Sister Annie Alden, a missionary on her way to Nome, Alaska, to help run the mission there. Since there is only one cabin, she and Rose share. Rose approaches her in her usual amiable spirit, and they become friends. Annie kindly assures Rose that she could learn to be good if she wanted to. Annie is an innocent, but she is not a fool, and she soon learns what has been going on between Rose and the captain. But she also admires and respects Rose for her intelligence and courage. Rose is really touched by Annie's sincere concern for her welfare, and even consents to read a book of religious maxims her new friend presses on her. This is another of my favorite things about Mae -- just because she finds men very attractive doesn't mean she dislikes women; she's also a good pal to other women, always willing to help them however she can.

Sadly, however, Rose's friend isn't with her long, for Annie becomes very ill. and, despite Rose's tender care, she dies. At the same time, the ship is boarded by Canadian police seeking Rose, who is wanted in San Francisco for stabbing Chan Lo during her escape. Bull is outraged to find that she is not the lady he took her for; but he breaks down and confesses that he wouldn't care if she were a murderer. But Annie's passing provides another way out -- in a daring move, she assumes Annie's identity.
Rose cares for Annie during her illness
Rose has decided to carry out Annie's dearest wish, which was to revitalize the Nome mission. Looking lovely in a plain (though very closely fitted) gown and a bonnet that sets off her golden curls, she arrives at the Mission and finds it cold, empty, and shabby, staffed by sincere but entirely impractical idealists. She soon takes charge, and promises to fill the Mission with repentant sinners at the next meeting. She is as good as her word, enlisting the towns low-lifes and dance hall girls, dressing up the hall with banners and decorations, and even providing musical entertainment in the person of Gene Austin (who was known for playing the organ as well as singing). Rose preaches a rousing sermon, which segues into a compelling gospel number.

Preaching a heartfelt sermon
Jack Elliott, the extremely handsome young officer who first boarded the ship looking for Rose Carleton, wanted for murder, has fallen love with the woman he thinks is Annie -- and she with him. Meanwhile, Sister Annie's lost mission has become a roaring success. So her task in honor of her friend has been accomplished. Bull is becoming a problem, being increasingly jealous of Jack. Annie confides to her old friend Fanny (played by the wonderful Esther Howard), who is running the dance hall in Nome, that she can't decide which man she likes best -- Jack is very romantic, but Bull is willing to put his life on the line for her without a question.

Things wind up pretty quickly from here on. At this key point, Jack overhears Rose and Bull arguing, and realizes that Annie is really the notorious Frisco Doll, wanted for murder. But when he confronts her, he says that instead of arresting her and turning her in, he'll give up his career and they can run away together. Rose is moved, but distressed; she doesn't want him to lose everything he's worked for all his life.

Meanwhile, the late Chan Lo's clan has tracked her down and threaten revenge. In the end,  Rose leaves with Bull, leaving a note for Jack saying she doesn't want to ruin his life. And she tells Bull that she's going back to San Francisco to face the charge against her.

Once more she has navigated the dangerous waters of an independent life and remained true to herself. Mae's morality is based on honesty and fairness, so the character of "Sister" Annie is not really such a stretch. Glamorous adornments aside -- and nobody loves a beaded gown trimmed with ostrich feathers more than I do -- Mae's persona is built on strength of character. No one can make her lie, no one can make her obey, no one can tell her what to do. You don't root for her because she's beautiful and sexy and wears fabulous clothes; you root for her because she's a great person.

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