I'm No Angel
(1933) Directed by
Wesley Ruggles. Screenplay by Mae West. Mae West, Cary Grant (87 min)
The movies have never had another auteur quite like Mae West, who as early as 1934 was being called the greatest female impersonator of all time. She not only crosses the line as far as acceptable female behavior, but crosses racial lines as well, as she bonds with her Greek chorus of black maids, one of whom, Libby Taylor, really was her maid. In I'm No Angel she plays Tira, the come-hither lion tamer (without a stunt double) who controls the big cats as confidently as she controls her men.
I'm No Angel, filmed in the weeks before and after Mae West's 40th birthday, has a powerful autobiographical undercurrent. The opening carnival scenes harken back to Mae's vaudeville days as a "muscle dancer," and her lowdown number "They call me Sister Honky Tonk" a reminder of her affinity for black blues and black musicians. Tira the lion tamer shares Mae's birthday, August 17. And just like Mae, her fortunes rise from a tent to a penthouse. The trial echos the many days Mae spent defending herself against morals charges in the NY courts, after writing and appearing in a play called simply "Sex." And, the lion taming scenes fulfill a fantasy born during her childhood trips to Coney Island to see a famous wild animal act, Bostock's Lions.
The Supreme Court had ruled in 1915 that motion pictures were not "free speech," that they could be used for evil and that "The exhibition of motion pictures was a business pure and simple," that the censorship of films was Constitutional. Fearing government interference, an industry group wrote the Motion Picture Production Code in 1930, setting up a series of guidelines for filmakers, much as movie ratings are assigned today. It was not strictly enforced until the Legion of Decency exerted pressure in 1934, and some film histories point directly at Mae West, although, of course it's not all her fault. But, her wisecracking diva did drive the censors crazy. They could mark up her scripts, forbidding words like "jeez" "punk" "Lawdy" and lines like: "Tira is the only girl who has satisfied more patrons than Chesterfields, " but they could not police her intonation. Two excellent books on censorship issues in early 1930s films are Thomas Daughtery's Pre-Code Hollywood and Mark Viera's Sin in Soft Focus.
These Legion of Decency feared her assertiveness, as much or more than her explicitness. At the same time, one critic asked "How can a movie which satisfies a child of 12 be made morally safe for a man of 35? Thus far the censors have spent all their time protecting children against adult movies; they might better protect adults against childlike movies."
Mae blurs the line between biological and cultural femininity. She makes a spectacle of her lustful middle-aged desires in a world that values youth, where every woman is alluring and every man can be had. Her sultry persona was adapted from a famous female impersonator in vaudeville named Bert Savoy, whose catchphrase, "You MUST come over," foreshadowed Mae's "Come up and see me." Mae had a lot of gay male friends and wrote two Broadway plays in the 20s dealing with their underground world," The Drag" which featured a 3rd act with real drag queens in a staged wild party, and "Pleasure Man." There's coded language in her films, too. When she says, "I like sophisticated men to take me out," the meaning is: "apparently straight, but open to suggestion." Parker Tyler, a pioneer of cinema's sexual subtexts called her "the Mother Superior of the Faggots". When the Production Code banned "sex perversion" they meant no gay characters, no gay subtext.
In the 1920s, she saw the shimmy in an "all-Negro" dive in Chicago, and introduced it into her show. She lifted her vocal rhythms and inflections from the black side of show business, as well. As a heroine, she seems more like the powerful matriarchs of black culture, and the tone of her speech mingles with her maids in a shared rebellion against the ruling class, in this case, men. In "I'm No Angel" kissing Cary Grant is less important than talking about kissing Cary Grant with her "home team". Positive images of African Americans were something else that threatened the status quo. In the early 30s, there were occasional instances of intelligent black characters; for example Paul Robeson in "The Emperor Jones" and in "Arrowsmith" a black doctor acts almost as the conscience for Ronald Colman's troubled physician. Once the Code was enforced, so was Jim Crow.
In 1934, Mae West was the 5th most popular star in the country ,and earned more money than any woman in America. If she had not exactly saved Paramount from bankruptcy single handed, she had she certainly was a decisive factor. And although she didn't discover Cary Grant, she gave him his first lead roles.
When asked what she thought of the censors, Mae cracked: "Tell them they made me what I am today. I hope they're satisfied."
(Photos from Claire Drazin's Movie Star Scrapbook)