I’d heard lots about Mae West, and seen plenty of still photos, but never any films. So when I came across this one, it seemed like a good introduction to the star—especially as I’m No Angel also stars Cary Grant. I’m all for Mr Grant: that man was awesome.
One and a half hours (or what was it? Seemed like an eternity) later, I’m wondering what this was all about. Mae West has some great one-liners in the film (she wrote it, after all—story, screenplay and dialogues; so all the juiciest lines are hers), but other than that? Ahem.
Tira (Mae West) is a performer at a circus run by Bill Barton (Edward Arnold). Her act consists of shimmying around in a slinky gown, singing a bit, and (when she’s in the mood for it), getting into the lion cage and showing them who’s boss. Most of the time, though, she simply sways her hips and makes the men drool.
[Aside: I can’t figure this out. I honestly—and I am not exaggerating or trying to be clever—I honestly thought this couldn’t be Mae West. I’d heard she was a beauty etc etc, and this blowsy female, all saggy and baggy, couldn’t possibly be mistaken for a beauty. But it did turn out to be the woman herself. We live and learn, as I always say.]
While Tira’s doing her thing, one of her colleagues, `Slick’ Wiley (Ralf Harolde) is busy relieving the audience of goggle-eyed men of their valuables. He and Bill Barton are in on this together, using Tira as a distraction while they go about boosting their profits.
Her act over, Tira goes off back to her tent, passing the fortune-teller’s tent on the way. The fortune-teller has made out Tira’s horoscope, and after a bit of crystal ball-gazing, tells Tira that he sees a dark man in her future.
Tira seems to have great faith in the horoscope (all through the rest of the film, she spends most of her time examining it). Once in her tent, she sets about getting ready for a date. One of the other girls drops in, and Tira shows off all the trinkets her admirers having been showering her with over the years.
Tira’s date is with a wealthy man (William B Davidson) who’d been part of the audience at her show. She meets him in a hotel room; he gets amorous, and just as they’re getting started on some heavy petting (with Tira petting his huge diamond ring) Slick Wiley bursts in. He claims that Tira’s his wife. Fists fly, and Wiley knocks out the other guy. He tugs off the diamond ring and runs off with it, only to be arrested soon after.
Since Tira is also mixed up in this (“Like an olive in a dry martini”), she needs a lawyer. She phones her old lawyer pal Benny Pinkowitz (Gregory Ratoff), and when he’s agreed to come and fight her case for her, she asks Bill Barton for a loan. “I’m willin’ to do my share,” she pleads. “I’ll even stick my head in the big cat’s mouth!”
Tira gets taken literally at her word, and ends up doing a daring act with lots of lions. It involves her opening a lion’s jaws and putting her head in. Must be pretty ewww, I’m thinking. Lion breath?
But Tira’s a big hit, especially with the young, handsome and wealthy Kirk Lawrence (Kent Taylor). Lawrence has come to the circus with his fiancée Alicia (Gertrude Michael), who’s not at all pleased that Lawrence is so smitten with the lion tamer. The entire party—Alicia, Lawrence, and some friends—go off to meet Tira after the show, and after the others have left, Lawrence manages to wangle a date with Tira.
Lawrence goes pretty loony after this; he showers Tira with expensive gifts left, right and centre, until the gossip columns are all abuzz. Alicia comes to tell Tira to break it off with Lawrence, and is more or less thrown out on her keister.
Next in line to try and persuade Tira to get her claws out of Lawrence is Lawrence’s even wealthier cousin Jack Clayton (Cary Grant, at last!) Jack turns up at Tira’s, ready to do battle, but succumbs to her charms, and ends up falling for her—and she for him. The next we know, they’re billing and cooing while singing duets at the piano.
Tira gets engaged to Jack, and then goes off to let Bill Barton know that she’ll be leaving the circus. She’s going to be a wealthy lady now, no more lion tamer acts for her.
And Barton, seeing all that beautiful money beginning to slide away, realises that Tira’s romance isn’t good for his business. The only way he can make sure Tira goes on raking in the moolah for him is to stop Tira and Jack’s wedding…
Yes, well. No surprises on how he goes about doing that. And what happens thereafter.
What I liked about this film:
Cary Grant: so delectable. I’ve always adored Cary Grant (ever since I saw Arsenic and Old Lace as a teenager), and he’s just wonderful in this one too. The only problem is that he’s got too little screen time. He appears only when half of the film is already over, and even then, he’s not there enough.
Mae West’s one-liners: she’s got some superb ones in I’m No Angel. One of her most famous double entendres—“When I’m good, I’m very good; but when I’m bad, I’m better,” is from this film. Also “It’s not the men in your life that counts. It’s the life in your men.”
What I didn’t like:
Mae West, for one. I don’t like the drawl, I don’t like the affected hands-on-hips pose or the swagger, and I can’t swallow the endless tributes to her beauty by all the men in the film. She has a double chin; her arms are pudgy; her chest is sitting on her tummy and both bulge unprettily. No; she isn’t beautiful. Which, all said and done, wouldn’t have been a problem if:
1. Everybody hadn’t gone on about how gorgeous Tira was;
2. The lead actor was someone else. For heavens’ sakes, pairing up a 29-year old hunk like Cary Grant with a 40-year old (and looking it) Mae West? There’s something embarrassing about it; almost like cradle snatching.
The treatment of blacks in the film. Tira has three black maids—Beulah (Gertrude Howard) and two others, and all of them are treated in a patronising manner that I just couldn’t stomach. Yes, I know this was how it was 70 years ago, but it still makes me uncomfortable.
Verdict: Thumbs down.