Mae WestCary GrantEdward Arnold
I'm No Angel
Medium: film
Year: 1933
Director: Wesley Ruggles
Writer: Mae West
Actor: Mae West, Cary Grant, Gregory Ratoff, Edward Arnold, Ralf Harolde, Kent Taylor
Country: USA
Format: 87 minutes
Website category: Other
Review date: 30 April 2008
Hmmm. Surprising. I'd been expecting to like this film!
It was a discussion of Universal's The Mummy that drew my attention towards the Hays Code and in particular the pre-Code films of 1930-34. The Hays Office was the all-powerful censorship body which crushed Hollywood beneath its heel for decades, but before it got going properly in 1934 there was a short period when films were sometimes known to get lively. This sounded interesting, so I did a little reading on the subject and ended up buying one of the things. I'm No Angel (1933) was Mae West's third movie and one of the few she made not to be heavily censored. Of course this is entirely due to its release date. The Hays Office banned it from being re-released in both 1935 and 1949. Apparently it's often regarded as one of West's best films, at a time when she was America's top box office attraction and the saviour of Paramount Pictures from bankruptcy. Incidentally she didn't just star in this movie but wrote it too.
It still suffered a few alterations, mind you. The song lyrics seem to have drawn particular attention. "Nobody Loves Me Like A Dallas Man" was originally "Nobody Does It Like A Dallas Man", for instance.
I'd been looking forward to this movie for a while. What I hadn't expected was to dislike Mae West.
First up, this "sex symbol" thing. She's overweight, she's middle-aged and I appreciate the thought but no, I hadn't particularly wanted to see her knickers. Even her fans admit that her success wasn't based on her looks, despite the fact that every male character in this film claims to think her a knockout. However more importantly she's not acting. I can cut her some slack since in 1933, actors were still in the middle of working out how to move on from the silent era. You don't watch these films for Method acting. Nevertheless West delivers all her lines identically, murders her song lyrics and is coasting on her screen persona. In fairness it's an entertaining persona. You can see what all those audiences were responding to. However one could say the same of the St Trinians girls in those black-and-white British films and they can't act either. West could have been so much better had she been prepared to shake up her line deliveries a bit.
She can certainly be funny, though. The script's packed with one-liners (written by her) and some of them are zingers. She's particularly good in the courtroom scene.
It's strange to think that this film was controversial in 1933. These pre-Code films generally get a U certificate from the BBFC, which says it all, really. For starters, there's no sex. Mae West's character is a shameless gold-digger and serial man-hopper, yet I'm not sure she ever went to bed with any of them. Surely she did? Didn't she? The beginning is a little shocking with its casual amorality and criminal behaviour, but the only actual lawbreaker soon goes to jail. Far more unsettling for me were the ever-grinning black servants, who certainly seem nice people (and amazingly happy) but nonetheless left me slightly queasy. Are they walking cliches? Or are they realistic and was I simply reacting badly to the alien world of 1930s America? I don't know which is true, but the result was an ill-at-ease Finn. Also the lion-taming scenes startled me, despite the obvious special effects.
Oh, and check out that title card at the beginning. "Sponsored by the NRA. We do our part."
Cary Grant's playing the male lead, though I barely recognised him. He's so young! He's okay, but showing few signs of the screen legend he'd eventually become. It's West's film and she's clearly loving every minute. Unfortunately I didn't really like either the role she's playing or the story she's telling. Her character's painted as such a man-eater that I couldn't work up any interest in seeing how she'd fare with her latest one. She'll just dump him and find another any minute now, won't she? For me I find that such characters work far better when their unfaithfulness is just a character trait rather than the actual story, which may be part of why I had more fun in the courtroom. Instead of just sweet-talking her latest conquest, she's got to deal with a judge, a jury, two lawyers and a courtroom full of witnesses.
In fairness my assumptions were undermined when she ended up going straight and getting married. I don't know. Maybe I'd been taking the film too much at face value. Had I known Mae West better, perhaps I'd have known to take all the flash and dazzle with a pinch of salt. Certainly it seems clear that I was missing a lot of context which would have been familiar to a 1933 audience, of which a huge part is undoubtedly prior experience of Mae West's screen persona. She was a huge, huge star. In many ways, I think this movie is rather poor. As a film, it leaves a lot to be desired. However as an extended stand-up routine with an entire cast full of straight men, it's hard to beat. I can't pretend that I'm in a hurry to seek out other Mae West films, but if you're planning to check out this one, I think that's the spirit in which it should be approached.