The sound movies were made for Mae West, a performer credited with pulling Paramount Pictures out of almost a hundred million dollars of debt in 1933. The two movies that did it that were banned less than a year later. If West didn't bring on the Production Code, she was a leading target for the censors who wanted to clean up Hollywood. From 1930 to 1934 American movies tried just about everything to appeal to the public, and original cuts of pictures like The Sign of the Cross had references to everything from illicit sex to lesbianism, as well as sadistic violence and outright nudity. The Island of Lost Souls dabbled in bestiality, vivisection and evolutionary heresy. Pictures like Shopworn, The Blue Angel, Possessed, Scarface, Madame Satan and A Farewell to Arms had bluenoses up at arms.
Then Mae West came along. She was a performer and playwright famous for notorious Broadway plays like Sex, for which she served ten days in jail, and The Drag, a play about homosexuality that was allowed in New Jersey but not New York. Audiences loved West and West loved audiences, even through the movie screen. Her characters broke all the rules for conventional female behavior by being sexually aggressive and verbally suggestive; it's obvious that West and/or the women she played loved sex and wasn't ashamed of it. Women were as delighted as men because Mae was in charge. In contrast to the typical siren or vamp, she used not her body but her brains, outsmarting men rather than bewitching them. She knew she was 'low class,' yet her films always showed her as a basically righteous woman with a code of behavior ... society's hypocrites were the ones that needed straightening out!
Mae West enjoyed an upsurge of college and camp popularity in the late 1960s, grouped together with the irreverent W.C. Fields and the anarchic Marx Brothers. She became something of a grotesque fossil in pictures like Myra Breckinridge and her last, Sextette. Modern audiences have probably lost touch with her except as an oft-quoted cultural caricature. Miss West made nine classic-era pictures at Paramount and Universal, and Uni's Glamour Collection corrals five of them, including her first supporting role and her final effort, a pairing with W. C. Fields.
Night After Night
1932 / 70 min.
Starring George Raft, Constance Cummings, Wynne Gibson, Mae West, Alison Skipworth, Roscoe Karns, Louis Calhern
Cinematography Ernest Haller
Original Music Ralph Rainger
Written by Louis Bromfield, Kathryn Scola from the novel Single Night by Vincent Lawrence
Directed by Archie Mayo
Ex-boxer turned speakeasy owner Joe Anton (George Raft) wants to affect a more cultured image to impress a society girl who comes alone to his club, Miss Jerry Healey (Constance Cummings). His old flame Iris Dawn (Wynne Gibson) is murderously jealous, while another girlfriend Maudie Triplett (Mae West) is more gracious accepting. Joe invites his tutor, grade school teacher Miss Mabel Jellyman (Alison Skipworth) to help him with his manners. But Joe's main pal Leo (Roscoe Karns) can't stop a bigger problem -- another mob headed by Frankie Guard (Bradley Page) wants to take over Joe's speak.
Night After Night is a star vehicle showing George Raft in top form as yet another noble tough guy with connections to the underworld. It's structured around a couple of days in a high-class NYC speakeasy; in 1932 Prohibition was still the law, but the movies didn't take it any more seriously than the public did. Raft's ex-pugilist has ambitions to a classier future and takes lessons from Alison Skipworth's slumming teacher lady, while fending off bitter dame Wynne Gibson. The movie has an undeserved reputation as a bore, as it generates quite a bit of interest; Constance Cummings' good girl is enchanted by Raft's dangerous world and reacts sensually when he faces down a pistol confrontation: "You're a Pirate!" she exclaims. She doesn't want him to be more refined.
Mae sashays in at about the halfway mark and kicks the movie's excitement quotient up about four notches. She's genuinely bracing in her bawdy, plainspoken appeal and cuts immediately through the false deportment Raft and Skipworth are trying to maintain. Almost everyone knows her famous opening line by heart:
Hatcheck girl: Goodness, what beautiful diamonds!
Maudie: Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie.
Mae doesn't do any seducing in this picture, unless you count her wild drinking night with Allison Skipworth, a venerable actress who was already twenty-five years old when the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral broke out and started making movies in 1912. They end up hung over in the same bed, although it's not implied that anything happened. Mae wears a slip that barely covers anything; she suggests amiably that Skipworth ditch the kiddie learning racket to run one of her beauty parlors, starting at $100 a week.
Roscoe Karns is good in the film as is Louis Calhern in a brief role. So is leading lady Constance Cummings, who must have been fried to discover that West had run away with the picture.
Night After Night must have been a trial run that paid off for Mae, for Paramount immediately launched her in an adaptation of her biggest stage hit Diamond Lil, re-titled She Done Him Wrong. Going into 1933, West's success was such that the studios gladly battled with the censors to present her act undiluted.
I'm No Angel
1933 / 87 min.
Starring Mae West, Cary Grant, Gregory Ratoff, Edward Arnold, Ralf Harolde, Kent Taylor
Cinematography Leo Tover
Art Direction Hans Dreier
Original Music Harvey Brooks, Karl Hajos,Gladys DuBois, Ben Ellison
Story, Screenplay and Dialogues by Mae West
Produced by (William LeBaron)
Directed by Wesley Ruggles
I'm No Angel is Mae West at the height of her powers, coming back for more after the big success of She Done Him Wrong. Paramount sunk $200,000 into the film, half of which went to West for her original screenplay, which is a doozie. As the only objectionable aspects of the film were Mae West's dialogue and "come up and see me" attitude, the picture played to packed audiences ... for a little over half a year, when it was literally pulled from circulation.
Exotic carny dancer Tira (West) flees a possible law problem to New York, where she demos a new lion-taming act while taming society bachelor Kirk Lawrence (Kent Taylor). Kirk's friend Jack Clayton (Cary Grant) intercedes to do his friend a favor, and ends up falling for Tira himself. When they become engaged Tira's old carny cronies Big Bill Barton (Edward Arnold) and Slick Wiley (Ralf Harolde) give Clayton the idea that Tira is two-timing him. Tira takes Clayton to court on a breach of promise suit, and ends up having to defend her virtue by personally cross-examining witnesses.
I'm No Angel starts with Mae West's Tira in the carnival midway, where she cons the suckers with her sexy walk and some deliciously-timed smiles and eyelash wiggling. She's screen center in the majority of scenes and proves herself a great singer with "hot" tunes like They Call Me Sister Honky-Tonk and Nobody Loves Me Like That Dallas Man. The script's general thrust is to prove that although Tira entertains many gentleman friends, she's a decent woman -- if one can accept a little amorous larceny. If men like to give her money and jewels, that's their business, as she never asks for anything.
West shows the limits of Tira's adventurism and then creates a courtroom drama to exonerate her in the eyes of the audience. The promoters who sullied her good name in the eyes of dreamy Cary Grant are revealed to be crooks; Tira keeps a picture of Edward Arnold next to a figurine of a skunk. The men who claim she trifled with them are uncovered as sneaks who never gave their real names. And when boyfriend Kirk (Kent Taylor) accuses her of dumping him for a richer prize (Grant), Tira points out the fact that Kirk courted her when he was already engaged to another woman.
The fun is watching West enjoying her feminine prerogatives while anticipating her next verbal wisecrack. Many of the double-entendres openly invite pornographic interpretations, all generated from the audience. West's remarks are sexy/provocative while being totally inexplicit; they contain few if any biological references. She's immodest, but always honest.
Some of the best humor is between West and her maids, played with gusto by Gertrude Howard and Libby Taylor. They conspire with her, giggle over the flood of loot from male admirers, and even sing with her. They stand in strong contrast with typical stoop 'n fetch yes-ma'am maids in other pictures -- these girls are part of the fun. Beulah intuits when Tira has found a new potential conquest by bringing her horoscope before she even knows she wants it. "Now that's service," purrs Tira.
West wears plenty of showy gowns and flashy furs; her outfit for the carny midway is a fairly outrageous Little Egypt costume. West's appeal was all verbal; she didn't go in for revealing clothing or do bathtub scenes. She turned 40 in 1933 and really did a lot with what remained of her figure. The hourglass image (repeated on the disc cover design) had been wishful thinking for years.
West does write a stereotyped New York Jewish lawyer into I'm No Angel, named Benny Pinkowitz and played by Gregory Ratoff as fussy and nervous. Gertrude Michael's snooty socialite earns Tira's scorn, including the pretty-darn-trashy humiliation of Tira spitting a mouthful of water on her back. Cary Grant does very little except be suave and desirable, which West probably figured was more than enough.
Bolstered by religious pressure groups, the MPPA's axe fell in 1934 with the actual enforcement of the Production Code. To show the moguls that they meant business, the censors enacted a ban on certain kinds of entertainment. Gangster movies had been banished the year before but now were officially verboten. Mae West was practically read the riot act, as both She Done Him Wrong and I'm No Angel were yanked from exhibition and totally suppressed. The Legion of Decency took firm control, and would hold it for the next 30 years.
Goin' To Town
1935 / 74 min.
Starring Mae West, Paul Cavanagh, Marjorie Gateson, Taho, Fred Kohler, Ivan Lebedeff
Cinematography Karl Struss
Art Direction Hans Dreier, Robert Usher
Film Editor LeRoy Stone
Original Music Sammy Fain
Written by Marion Morgan, George B. Dowell, Mae West
Produced by William LeBaron
Directed by Alexander Hall
OIl & cattle country saloon singer Cleo Borden (West) inherits Buck Gonzales' (Fred Kohler) ranch and its oil riches when he's killed rustling cattle (why?). She takes charge of the property and uses crude methods to woo the chief oil engineer, formal Englishman Edward Carrington (Paul Cavanagh). When Carrington leaves for Buenos Aires, Cleo follows to race Cactus, her pureblood racehorse, and causes a stir when she cleans up in wagers. Cavanagh is intrigued, but Cleo thinks he hates her, so she marries into a good name by making a deal with a dissolute gambler still in the social register. Back in the states, Cleo puts on an opera of Samson and Delilah and sings the Delilah part. Cavanagh, having been given a English title, wants her after all, but a hateful sister-in-law (Marjorie Gateson) hires a slimy Russian gigolo (Ivan Lebedeff) to put Cleo in a compromising situation.
Considering that the Production Code had knocked the wind out of Mae West's sails, Goin' to Town isn't bad. It's just that greater restrictions were put on her character, especially her basic motivation. The old Mae that we all loved lived for sensation and affection and had few thoughts on her mind beyond attracting men and letting nature take its course. Saddled with a complicated, overpopulated plot, Mae's Cleo Borden is the one doing the pursuing. Yes, the old Mae definitely took the initiative in the parlor, but she didn't go running around the globe after her men; they all came to her.
Cleo Borden encounters a series of problems winning Edward Carrington for her own. She takes up horse racing, joins the social set in Buenos Aires and even marries somebody else to enhance her appeal. The old Mae would never work so hard or encounter so much resistance. By the time the last act rolls around, Cleo is sidelined while a "who's sneaking into the boudoir" murder game takes over.
Mae is still delightful and hasn't lost her touch with a torch song, even though some of the sizzle has been taken out of the lyrics. She makes plenty of wisecracks, but the edge is off because we know she won't be able to really sell them. She's actually quite good in her opera scene, which surprises us by being played straight. The best moment in the picture comes when she uses an instrumental passage in the music to sashay in a circle around the tenor playing Samson, swinging her hips and selling the look as if she were on a burlesque runway.
Mae is also no longer paired with a top male star. Paul Cavanagh (the leering creep 'gentleman' in Tarzan and His Mate) is polite but no dreamboat like Cary Grant. Goin' to Town isn't top West mainly because it's obvious that she is being re-written and sanitized by the Production Code Office. Cleo Borden is almost insecure, a word incompatible with the old Mae.
Go West Young Man
1936 / 82 min.
Starring Mae West, Warren William, Randolph Scott, Alice Brady, Elizabeth Patterson, Lyle Talbot, Isabel Jewell, Margaret Perry
Cinematography Karl Struss
Art Direction Wiard Ihnen
Film Editor Ray Curtiss
Original Music Arthur Johnston
Written by Mae West from the play Personal Appearance by Lawrence Riley
Produced by Emanuel Cohen, Adolph Zukor
Directed by Henry Hathaway
Spoiled film star Mavis Arden (West) makes a personal appearance in Washington DC to open her new film Drifting Lady, and reconnect with prominent politician Francis X. Harrigan (Lyle Talbot). Her fed-up publicity agent Morgan (Warren William) is tasked with the job of keeping Mavis single, as specified in her Hollywood contract; he sabotages their rooftop meeting. On the way to Harrisburg Mavis' car breaks down, forcing her to stay at Mrs. Struther's boarding house and Inn. Everybody's excited, especially waitress Gladys (Isabel Jewell), to have such a glorious guest. But young Joyce Struthers (Margaret Perry) is crestfallen when Mavis sets her sights on garage mechanic and inventor Bud Norton (Randolph Scott), the most beautiful man she's ever seen. Wise Aunt Kate Barnaby (Elizabeth Patterson) advises Joyce to fight back, but how can the country girl compete with Hollywood glamour? Morgan has to use every trick he knows to break this one up, even insinuating that Bud has Joyce "in the family way."
Go West Young Man was rewritten by West from a successful Broadway comedy, giving West an entirely new different character to play. Because she's not doing a watered-down version of her naturally talented man-killer, we're more willing to accept changes, and the movie works quite well. West's Mavis dominates but isn't the whole show, and is in fact not in control of most situations. But she adapts well to the demands of a farce with a satirical edge.
The movie starts out showing a big chunk of Mavis' latest picture. On screen, she sings On a Typical Tropical Night with Xavier Cugat before juggling the attentions of some desperate lovers, the kind willing to kill themselves even though they saw her for the first time only an hour before. Mavis gives a very Lina Lamont-ish speech afterwards.
The main idea here is that Warren William's flack keeps messing up Mavis' attempts at romance, enforcing her chastity for his employer, "producer A.K. Greenfield, President of Superfine Pictures Inc." Morgan breaks up the rendezvous with the congressman by sending a dozen reporters in their direction, and later ruins a little hay-hay in the hayloft by inviting all the neighborhood farm kids to get autographed pictures. The twist is of course that William wants Mavis for himself.
The play sketches a nice picture of the Pennsylvania hayseeds, and a fair one. They go all ga-ga over Mavis, even though she's calls the place a dump. Isabel Jewell (Lost Horizon, The Seventh Victim) does a funny imitation of Marlene Dietrich as Lola-Lola, sitting backwards in a chair, and gets ideas about going to Hollywood. Although warned off, Mavis makes a play for Randolph Scott's Bud, a sincere, thick-skulled electronics genius, even going so far as to fling herself into a haystack at his feet: "Do you remember my first picture, The Farmer's Daughter?" Bud's demoralized girlfriend Joyce is bolstered by her Aunt Kate, who is given as many clever asides and raised-eyebrow looks as Mae West. The sympathy for country values grows when Aunt Kate turns out to be less conservative and gutsier than her status-worshipping daughter.
West's Mavis is sort of in a side pocket, not really interacting with anyone but Warren William's Morgan. Cornered by the press, she makes a nervous speech about the government helping young people with no money to get married. Mavis's essential morality also determines her choice to cease her pursuit of Bud, and after a last-minute tizzy over a mistaken kidnapping scare the picture resolves on a happy note. The movie is a satisfactory entertainment, although Mae is no longer allowed to swing her charms and let loose with the saucy language. Oh, and Hollywood will have to do without Bud's revolutionary sound system; it's too bad his character name isn't Bud Dolby.
Go West Young Man is good but we miss the sexual honesty of the early films. We have to conclude that the Production Code didn't approve of the way that Mae West's characters socialize with her black maids on an informal, just-girls-having-fun basis. Mavis has no maids and just one French assistant, who simply disappears. But the country garage employs a slack-brained "darkie" character played by Nick Stewart, billed as Nicodemus Stewart. One of the cast members of the 1950s TV show Amos and Andy, Stewart does a standard slow-witted Stepin' Fetchit routine. These later pictures all revert to standard Hollywood racism.
My Little Chickadee
1940 / 83 min.
Starring Mae West, W.C. Fields, Joseph Calleia, Dick Foran, Ruth Donnelly, Margaret Hamilton, Donald Meek
Cinematography Joseph Valentine
Art Direction Martin Obzina, Jack Otterson
Film Editor Edward Curtiss
Original Music Ben Oakland
Written by Mae West, W.C. Fields
Produced by Lester Cowan, Jack J. Gross
Directed by Edward F. Cline
Flower Belle Lee (Mae West) is forced to leave town when busybody Mrs. Gideon (Margaret Hamilton) sees her consorting with the notorious Masked Bandit. On the train to her next stop, Flower Belle massacres a band of pursuing Indians single-handedly, while oddball gambler Cuthbert J. Twillie (W.C. Fields) fumbles with a slingshot. Flower Belle gets the false idea that Twillie is rich and arranges for a marriage right in the train coach, but when they get to town she studiously avoids her new husband, instead continuing to meet with the romantic Masked Bandit. Two men take an interest in the new female in town, newspaper publisher Wayne Carter (Dick Foran) and dance hall owner Jeff Badger (Joseph Calleia). Badger gets the hapless Twillie appointed as the new Sheriff in the hopes that he'll be killed, thereby leaving the path open to Flower Belle. Will Twillie ever catch Flower Belle off guard and get a kiss? Will the Masked Bandit be unmasked?
My Little Chickadee was at the center of the Mae West/W.C. Fields nostalgia craze of the late 1960s, and photos from the film were made into popular posters. They collaborated on the screenplay, which gives both ample space to do their patented schtick, interfering with one another as little as possible. Fields gets his share of time to fumble about and dither, and West generates the romantic interest while making fun of her man-killer persona. The show is funny and has quite a few timeless quips ("Ah, what a euphonious appellation!") but doesn't hang together all that well -- its farce never really settles down to being about much of anything. The mystery of the Masked Bandit is a throwaway that doesn't even take the time to point out that the romantic "hero" is none other than the town's murderous bad man.
But the joke moments are choice. Most of the really good verbal gags are Fields', as Mae is of course sidelined by the Code. Most of her lines discourage amorous behavior, a real switch for her: "I wonder what kind of woman you are."/"Sorry, I don't give out samples." Fields doesn't do much physical comedy but instead hits us with all manner of quips, from "Godfrey Daniel" to "Drat!"
There is plenty of cheap Indian humor, as Fields is first seen being dragged to the train on a travois by his Indian friend Milton (George Moran) in full "Ugh!" cigar store mode. Fields makes some cracks about Ubangis but reserves his most racist line ever for a moment of frustration when he's locked out of Flower Belle's room: "Hey, there's an Ethiopian in the fuel supply!" Experience with an earlier era of racism is required to decipher that one. 1
If anything, Mae looks both trimmer and younger in this picture than she does in the earlier pictures. For once, her full-length dresses (for a Depression-era star, she always favored fashions from an earlier time) start to suggest an actual hourglass shape.
My Little Chickadee was Mae West's last successful movie. She did a dreary Columbia picture a couple of years later, followed by those two utterly awful "liberated" comedies from her later years. She wrote 1978's Sextette on her own, like a real-life Norma Desmond. I never saw Miss West, but she reportedly lived for decades three blocks away from me in the Ravenswood Apartment building on Rossmore Avenue. An editor saw her when she was filming Sextette and said she became confused when she tried to navigate an office building by herself. He couldn't tell if she was addled or just too vain to wear glasses, but she was polite when he helped her board the elevator.
Mae West: The Glamour Collection's five titles are in immaculate condition, even the 1932 Night After Night. The gauzy, glittery Karl Struss close-ups look terrific and do a great job of inviting us up to see Mae. The soundtracks benefit even more from quality restoration, and all of those flat-four jazz songs and torch ballads sound great.
I suppose there could be another Mae West Collection, but what's left are She Done Him Wrong, Belle of the Nineties, Klondike Annie and Every Day's a Holiday. Unless Universal scrapes together other film clips -- newsreels, perhaps -- there might not be enough Mae West content for another boxed set.
**** On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Night After Night rates:
I'm No Angel rates: