|"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."|
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|
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|
|Preaching a heartfelt sermon|
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.