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23 June 2018

Mae West in I'm No Angel: Hot, Hot, Hot!

Mae at the premiere of I'm No Angel, October, 1933

"The only show on Earth where the tickets are made of asbestos!" 

I'm No Angel is pretty much everyone's favorite Mae West movie, and so it should be -- it has everything. Made in the afterglow of her first starring film, the enormous hit She Done Him Wrong, it was released before the censorship authorities got themselves organized to shackle her imagination. Featuring fabulous costumes, good songs, lions, elephants, a crooked ex-boyfriend, a pet monkey, an antagonistic rich bitch, a courtroom scene, not one, not two, but four maids/confidantes, and Cary Grant, it's deliciously funny right from the start.

Mae's $100,000 script sets the scene in a hardscrabble circus, with animal acts, trapeze artists, and a sideshow featuring Joe the Turtle Boy ("He plays the zither!"). Director Wesley Ruggles handles the busy scene without ostentation but with complete understanding. Mae is Tira, an ambitious exotic dancer promoted as "the singing, dancing marvel of the age!" in the high-speed pitch of the barker, Flea (Russell Hopton). He goes on to promise,

"With the right type of encouragement, she'll throw discretion to the winds -- and her hips to the north, south, east and west!"

As a screenwriter, Mae always took care to build up her own entrance, with other characters praising her and eagerly anticipating her appearance. Here she both employs and parodies this convention. Roustabouts unfold a rickety runway through the crowd, and two trumpeters, costumed in threadbare uniforms, stand on either side of the doorway to play a fanfare.

Tira appears "... the gal who proved you don't need feet to be a dancer!" It's Mae in one of her most fabulous costumes, sheer silk chiffon with thousands of carefully hand placed beads and sequins that barely cover key portions of her alluring hourglass figure. No corsets, bones or stays here, or indeed any undergarments of any kind; it fit like a glove and she was stitched into it. But it's a good thing you don't need feet to be a dancer because you never see hers; she preferred floor-length skirts because she wore stilt-like shoes that added at least 4 inches to her height, and also influenced her uniquely swaying walk.

"Just look at those eyes," Flea says; "I said those eyes!"

Tira sashays out along the runway and the all-male crowd goes wild. She takes note of their hungry gazes.

"A penny for your thoughts," she murmurs, swishing to the end of the runway, and turning to swish back.

"No wise cracks, now," she warns. She pauses in the entrance to the stage tent. "Get the idea, boys?"

Then she disappears inside.

Men surge to the ticket seller. Inside Tira starts her performance, singing one of her best-known songs, "Sister Honky-Tonk," which contains the immortal lyrics:

"I've got the face of a saint
On the level, it ain't paint
Beware of these eyes
I'm a devil in disguise
And they call me Sister Honky-Tonk!"

She also does an extremely effective hip-swiveling shimmy that certainly rivets the attention of the crowd. And I must say, I've never seen anything like it in any American movie of this era.

And here we should take note of why this is everybody's favorite (except Joseph Breen and other censors). What makes Mae West's approach to sexuality so transgressive and shocking? It’s simple. She likes sex. She doesn't have to be coaxed. She certainly doesn't have to be conquered. She doesn't think men are, to quote Daphne in Some Like It Hot, "rough, hairy beasts," and she doesn't thin their desire for sex is nasty or disgusting. She likes men.

Tira wears a pleased smile throughout her performance because being irresistibly attractive is fun, and as far as she's concerned she's spreading sunshine. The audience gets to view her gorgeousness, and she gets to bask in their admiration. Everybody's happy. Sexuality isn't about possession, anger, jealousy, guilt, shame, or censure; it's about joy. Tira enjoys what she's doing as much as they enjoy seeing her do it. Responding to an enthusiastic, "Oooh, Mama!" she replies with one of the most telling lines in the film: "I know just how you feel, honey!"

"I know just how you feel, honey!"

Now, as Tira leaves the stage, after giving the fellows their money's worth, she does remark, "Suckers." But that's because these poor guys have to pay to see something that comes so naturally to her. She's not taking advantage of anyone; they get more than they paid for.

It appears that Tira has more than one talent; the circus owner, Bill Barton (Edward Arnold), tries to convince her to go on again as a lion-tamer (this was something Mae had always longed to do, and she had the assistance of a female lion-tamer, Mabel Stark, who also ran a refuge for wild animals). But she refuses, saying the act is on too late and that she'll do it the next night.

Tira's next stop is the tent of her friend Rajah, the Hindu fortune teller, who has prepared an extensive horoscope for her. He also reads her future in his crystal ball, and his predictions leave plenty of room for wisecracks.

"Tomorrow will be very lucky," he says. "I see a change of position."

She rolls her eyes. "Sitting or reclining?"

"I see a man..."

"What, only one?"

"He has brown eyes ... no, I see two men!"

"You don't mean twins!"

"No, two different men..."

And that's most of the rest of the plot in a nutshell.

Mae sets up her character in the first few scenes. Tira is as kind and supportive as her other heroines, ambitious, witty, and honest, willing to treat anybody right who treats her right. Dressing to go out, she chats with her friend Thelma (Dorothy Peterson), who's depressed about her love life. Tira encourages Thelma to respect herself, and says if her boyfriend won't treat her right she should find a man that will. She tells her, "Say, you're a good looking dame; there's plenty of guys that would go for you in a big way!"

Then she hustles off to meet her date in the local hotel. Unfortunately, this leads to some serious complications thanks to her old boyfriend Slick, and to pay some sudden legal bills she agrees to do a dangerous stunt act with the lions. Happily for everyone, this act becomes a huge sensation, whisking everyone off to the big time in New York City.

Tira and her friend Romeo
Now the circus is transformed into the Big Show, in a Madison Square Garden type arena, attended by swells in evening clothes. Properly clad trumpeters blow a tuneful fanfare, and Tira appears in a sparkling white uniform (with bell-bottomed trousers), a white shako hat with ostrich plumes, and riding an elephant. In front of an enthusiastic, excited crowd, she performs her lion act, with real lions, and finishes by putting her head in a lion's mouth (Mae really did this, with the help of Miss Stark).

Backstage after the show she chats with her maid, Beulah (Gertrude Howard), when a party of society people comes to visit, including a tall, dark, and handsome -- and rich -- stranger (Kent Taylor), and a particularly nasty debutante (a terrific characterization by Gertrude Michael).

Next you see Tira in her element, in her new, luxurious penthouse apartment, trying on new outfits with the help of her four black maids, played by Gertrude Howard, Libby Taylor (her real maid), Hattie McDaniel, and a fourth actress who I have not been able to identify. Tira has been out every night with Kirk Lawrence, the handsome rich guy, and she's enjoying her success. The five of them chat more like girlfriends than servants, discussing men and their foibles. Beulah knows all about Tira’s devotion to her horoscope, and has also been deputized to correct her grammar and vocabulary if need be -- Tira doesn't want to seem low-class. In a delightful cap to this scene of girlish fun, Tira is so happy with a new dress that she breaks into  a spontaneous little song and dance, inviting Beulah and Libby to join her.

Libbey Taylor,Gertrude Howard, and Mae do a spontaneous dance

The fun is interrupted when the doorbell rings, and it turns out to be Alicia, Kirk's stuck up fiancee. Tira and Beulah exchange a meaningful glance, and Tira kicks her train out of the way.

"Pardon me," she says briskly, and strides off to confront the enemy. Some pretty high words are exchanged, and after literally shoving Alicia  out the door, she sashays across the room in triumph.

"Beulah," she calls, "peel me a grape."

As a screenwriter, Mae knew exactly what she was doing. Tira's wisecracks show you her intelligence and wit; but they also show her insecurity. She's not really an all-powerful goddess; she worries that using the wrong grammar and revealing lower class origins will cause "society" to look down on her. She has obviously shared this with Beulah, and relies on her reminders not to use revealing language, like calling a necklace "beads." The peeled grape is an example of the pointless refinements rich people indulge in; it’s no sillier than finger bowls. Her humor is not just witty; it shows her character, and the characters she's interacting with, as well. Tira's fight with the society girl tells the story of her life. She's smarter, prettier, sexier, and wittier; all Alicia has going for her is an unearned fortune and a massive sense of entitlement. Of course the audience roots for Tira.

This contretemps leads to an exciting complication, however, when Tira receives a visit from Kirk's even handsomer cousin, Jack Clayton, who has been asked by their upper-crust family to intervene. Cary Grant plays Jack. Grant displayed a few rough edges in their previous film together, She Done Him Wrong. But he was a fast learner, and by this time he was suave, elegant, and composed.

Jack seems much struck as Tira greets him clad in a skintight black satin, topped with a sheer negligee decorated with a sequined spider web, complete with spider. For the scene the spider sits on her hip; when she first appeared wearing it on the set, however, Mae had placed the spider in a much more titillating spot. We don't know where, exactly, but according to Edith Head the crew greeted her appearance with about half an hour's worth of appreciative howls and wolf whistles. We can only speculate.

Body heat

“I wish I’d met you sooner,” Jack says.

“You’ve started a new train of thought in my mind,” Tira replies.

As soon as the door closes behind him, Beulah appears with Tira's horoscope in hand.

Beulah is right on the spot with Tira's horoscope
Everything seems to be going well; Tira breaks up with Kirk and becomes engaged to Jack. But Bill Barton, who has a financial stake in the show, doesn't want to lose his meal ticket, and plots with Slick to break up her romance. Which brings us to another one of Mae's great story ideas -- after he breaks their engagement, believing she’s been untrue to him, Tira sues Jack for breach of promise, assisted by her faithful friend and lawyer, Benny Pinkowitz (the wonderful multi-talented Gregory Ratoff).

With Gregory Ratoff as Benny Pinkowitz

One of the many classic scenes in this film is Tira's visit to Benny's office to fill him in on her complaint. He pats her shoulder sympathetically as she bravely controls a quivering lip, saying, "If I was a home girl, I'd be heartbroken."

Next, we move on to the courtroom scene, which of course is a showcase for Mae to triumph over the forces of stuffiness. Tira asks the judge for permission to question witnesses herself, including Beulah, who explains that she has been "subpoen-iated.

Tira  questions a witness

Witness after witness falls before Tira’s cross-examination, including the weaselly Slick, uncovering the plot by Barton to break up her romance. Jack directs his attorney to drop his defense and settle the suit.

Goodbye to the judge

Moving right along, we next see Tira ushering the judge out of her apartment after a pleasant social visit. Then she receives a phone call:

“Juror Number Four? Of course I remember; you were the one with the nice, kind face.”

Jack shows up at her door, wondering if perhaps she can forgive and forget? She can!

“You need a rest. Let me take you away somewhere,” Jack says.

“Would you call that a rest?”

And the movie ends to the strains of the quite astoundingly risqué title song, which is not heard in its entirety during the action:

“I’ll take your blues, stomp down your troubles,
Rock you with a steady roll.
Here’s your connection,
Take my affection,
You’re my new ace in the hole.”

The good people at Joseph Breen’s office must have had to be revived with smelling salts after that one!

A few words should be sai about the reasons Mae is not respected as she should be as a screenwriter. Or the reason, really; there's just one. Rampant sexism. It was apparently unbelievable that a sexy blonde babe like Mae could create her own witty, sizzling, professionally crafted dramatic vehicles.

Nevertheless, Mae's screenplay for I'm No Angel was well worth the enormous sum Paramount paid for it; it's sexy, funny, engaging, and the blueprint for another enormous hit. In 1933, Mae West had two of the top ten grossing films. I don't know of another star, or writer, who has done that. I also brought in twice its cost, profits Paramount Pictures could certainly use. They could count on Mae for profit; every one of her films made money. Audiences knew what they wanted. What makes this film so lovable, and so endlessly re-watchable, is the glimpse of the woman who created the goddess -- not exactly the girl next door, but not invulnerable, either. Photographed at the gala premiere of this movie, she wears a delighted smile, as well she should; she knew she'd hit one out of the park -- again.

Mae's stilt-like shoes raised her to 5'4"