I’m No Angel (1933)

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.

Cary Grant and Mae West in I'm No Angel

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.]

Tira at work

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.

Bill Barton and Wiley share the 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 and a friend look at her gifts

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.

Wiley gets arrested

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 makes a rash promise

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?

Tira gets ready to stick her head in the lion's mouth

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 starts hitting on 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.

Alicia confronts Tira

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.

Jack Clayton falls for Tira

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.

Cary Grant in I'm No Angel

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.


8 thoughts on “I’m No Angel (1933)

  1. Kudos for watching the whole film! I got this one for Cary Grant and after 15-20 min, couldnt endure it anymore. I did FF to check out if Cary really was there, but couldnt finish it even for him! I think older woman younger man should be more present in movies, but definitely not like this. She is the blowziest lead I’ve ever seen in A grade Hollywood and looks like she should be in some kind of bedroom farce with lots of double entendre – NOT in a romcom with Cary.


  2. You know, I was just thinking that older woman-young hunk isn’t a bad idea for a film, provided it’s well done, and provided everybody’s not trying to pretend the woman’s a nubile Helen of Troy… certainly not Mae West. I can’t fathom the apparent fascination for this woman: she’s almost vulgar. You’re so right, a bedroom farce would’ve been more suited to her than a romcom – esp. not with Cary Grant.
    I need to see some more Cary Grant (Charade? That Touch of Mink? To Catch a Thief? North by North-West? Something) to get over that.


  3. well, im going to have to say that both of you are really narrow minded and shallow if you think that you can criticise someone who became Hollywoods highest paid woman in the nineteen thirties. To say that u cant understand the fascination with mae west is your opinion but she must have been ever so slightly fascinating to her fans for her films to have been so popular and for her to have earned so much money. Oh and basically you have both just said that women who look like real women shouldnt appear in films with good looking younger men. and if you love Cary Grant so much- go watch a film in which hes the leading man – dont moan about the fact he was only in the film for a limited time- and rightfully so. Mae West is far more famous than Cary Grant if you do your homework. Lastly, dont watch old films if you cant appreciate them – go watch legally blonde or something


  4. Oh, dear, dear. Simmer down, please. By the way – I do watch old films (in fact, if you look at this blog a little closely, you’ll find that it’s only about old films). And hey, everybody’s entitled to their own opinion, right? I don’t like Mae West, but I don’t grudge people the right to say that they do. And I do know that she was very famous and earned pots of money – which, in my opinion, is not a criterion for worshipping anyone.

    Besides, I’m just reviewing the film, you know – so the “go watch a film in which he’s the leading man” comment is a bit unwarranted. I saw the film, I didn’t like the fact that he wasn’t in it for a long time (though he was the leading man), and I said it. I don’t see why I shouldn’t – on my own blog, what’s more – say what I felt about the film.

    Chill, Laura. We all have our likes and dislikes. I’m sorry if you took it personally, and that you disagree with me so strongly, but honestly, have you never seen a film in which there was someone you didn’t like (even if they were otherwise famous and very popular)?


  5. I just finished watching She Done Him Wrong and this in a double-bill over the last two days. Both have Cary Grant in supporting roles.

    I agree that viewed with today’s standards, it’s hard to see and understand Mae West’s appeal back then. But all said and done, facts cannot be denied. The huge success of her films saved Paramount from bankruptcy. She was not only considered beautiful but also a sex symbol. And she could be extremely witty. It is often observed that women tend to be attracted to bad boys more. Well, the opposite also holds true: “bad” girls – or at least women who cultivate that image – also have their fair share of admirers from the opposite sex.

    Back then such films probably were just seen as harmless fun. Those were the days of Great Depression. People were starved for some respite in the form of entertainment so cinemas were always full. Mae West may have started out in her late 30s and past her prime but her timing was still perfect as the censorship was not as stringent back then as it would be in a few years – and she would be one of the main reasons for that! Her brand of suggestive dialogue and innuendo was the rage back then. Not just in her films – that was a side career for her honestly – but also in her scandalous Broadway plays. After the Code was in force she went back to theatre, sick of people telling her what to write and what not to. In her way she was one of the feminist icons of her day, being a strong, assertive woman in the creative field.

    All that being said, these two films are not the ones I would fancy rewatching frequently. I’m No Angel is the better of the two – it has a good story with a properly etched beginning, middle and end and does have some funny scenes as opposed to just witty lines. She Done Him Wrong is too messy. It also follows the same structure of Mae West having tied several men around her little finger who then go through all sorts of complications because of her. Except its plot points just come and go. They start randomly and are resolved just the same. However, Grant does have a greater role in the story rather than just a milquetoast love interest of West.

    The courtroom scene is entirely improbable but yet the highlight of the film and West actually has to do a proper scene with dialogue and acting as opposed to everyone being the straight man to her standup comic routine. Because 95% of her dialogue is exactly that in both the films: reaction in the form of worldly-wise wittycism. Someone says or asks something, she quips readily.

    My favourite line was during her long distance phone call to her lawyer. When the operator asks her to spell ‘Pinkowitz’, she goes… “W as in ‘witch’.” Then pause. Then, “No… ‘witch’.” Then she looks at her manager and says, “She misunderstood me.” That make me laugh out loud – the innuendo was clear but so unexpected.


    • I agree that Mae West’s dialogues and her boldness were good – she is genuinely funny in that brassy, saucy way of hers. But somehow the entire package just didn’t appeal to me. Especially all those men gushing over her beauty… nope, I saw no beauty there. If, on the other hand, there had been no mention of beauty, I wouldn’t have minded. After all, there have been actresses I’ve loved despite their not being really my idea of good-looking (Judy Holliday, for instance, whom I adore but don’t think of as particularly gorgeous).

      I shall skip She Done Him Wrong; thank you for the warning.


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