A delightful pre-Code comedy dripping with sex and starring a cinema trailblazer
A pleasure specific to cinema is its movie stars. Great stars are so bewitching, their presence alone is enough to warrant watching a movie over and over again. Alongside being wonderfully entertaining, this week’s classic comedy is one of those rare delights in which a movie star shines so brightly nothing else seems to matter. The film is “I’m No Angel” and the star is the incomparable Mae West. A force of nature, the American Film Institute (AFI) named her the 15th Greatest Female American Screen Legend. She was a trailblazer who changed the course of American cinema, saved a studio, brought the joy of sex to movie screens, and made an indelible mark on culture. So forget realism or intense drama. This week’s highly amusing romp offers an introduction to one of Hollywood's most influential figures and an opportunity to be dazzled by her deliciously witty fun.
Synchronized sound had found its way to movies just a half-dozen years before "I'm No Angel" and was just settling into a comfortable, less awkward spot. Hollywood had become the mecca of the film industry and it was ruled by studios whose business model was largely based around crafting select actors and actresses into larger than life heroes with unearthly beauty and magical qualities that audiences continually paid to see. Then in 1933, comes along a woman very much of this earth, with racy dialogue and suggestive movements in place of superhuman features. She's older, a bit more plump than any other movie sex goddess, and has the self-assurance to portray powerful women who unapologetically love sex. She was like nothing and no one ever seen before on the silver screen. That woman was Mae West, and in 1933 she made two giant hits that rattled Hollywood, the second of which was "I'm No Angel".
West stars as “Tira”, a part time lion tamer and exotic circus dancer (who will “throw discretion to the wind and her hips to the north, east, south and west”), with a great love for men and jewels. Not one to settle down, she thinks of marriage “only as a last resort”, and has a knack for getting gents to shower her with gems. Ruled by astrology, she frequently consults fellow circus performer “Rajah the Fortune Teller” to hear what her future holds. “Rajah” warns her of trouble and predicts she will soon meet two male millionaires. He turns out to be right on both accounts, and along the way we're treated to “Tira’s” gyrating hips, a few songs, watching her flirt with countless men, go to court, stick her head in a lion’s mouth, and fall in love to the point where she’s willing to settle down.
I won’t say more about the plot, which is basically a setup to showcase West’s gifts, but the film is fun, filled with humor, and the plot rapidly moves along. Though nothing's blatant, it oozes with sexual innuendo, mostly in the form of sharp one-liners and quick-witted double entendres. That too is thanks to West. Not only does she act and sing in “I’m No Angel”, but she also wrote the story, screenplay, and all the film’s terribly clever dialogue. Many of West’s quips have seeped into our culture, and some of her best are in this film, such as “When I’m good I’m very good, but when I’m bad, I’m better”, “It’s not the men in your life that count, it’s the life in your men”, “‘Beulah’, peel me a grape”, and her signature phrase, “Come up and see me sometime”. For decades, West tirelessly jotted down jokes, wisecracks, aphorisms, and one liners (over seventy thousand in the course of her life) which she would use, alter, and incorporate into her scripts.
Wanting to be a lion tamer as a young girl, West got the idea for “I’m No Angel” from a circus story by Lowell Brentano (credited with “Story Suggestion by”) and tailored it to fit her wisecracking, good-natured, sex goddess persona. “Tira’s” remarkable confidence, hourglass figure, deliberate swagger, unique speech pattern, eye rolls, hands on hips, fluffing of hair, purring of oo’s, ooh’s and mmm’s, and a tongue-in-cheek attitude were all ingratiating West trademarks. Because of her distinct style, West's been exorbitantly imitated for close to a century and as a result, viewers who have never seen her before might find her to be a caricature, but she's the original creation. And if you watch her acting, you'll see she's believable and natural.
“Tira” is so much more than just a lusty female who spouts steamy one-liners and gets men hot and bothered. She’s an intelligent woman of power whose strength is evident from the moment we first see her dance. As the male audience drools over her with desire, “Tira” is in control and the men are merely her puppets, underscored when she privately calls them “suckers” just before leaving the stage, and immediately reinforced as she runs into her boss “Big Bill” who urges, "Aw come on 'Tira'. You're gonna be a good girl and work them lions tonight, ain't ya?", to which she unflinchingly responds, "No. I'm gonna be a bad girl and go home to bed”.
By playing an über-confident, unapologetic woman who loved sex and dared to be overtly seductive, West broke all the rules. In all her films (including "I'm No Angel") she never played anything but who she was – a street-talking gal from Brooklyn – and did so with pride, humor, a kind heart, and a wink towards the audience. She exploded onto screens and shocked, amused, and enthralled audiences, and immediately became a superstar and the most controversial screen star of her day.
Also separating West from all other stars is that she was completely her own creation and not that of a studio. She controlled her own image and created her own myth so convincingly, even West herself believed it. Actress Marjorie Main put it beautifully in an interview in Boze Hadleigh’s book “Hollywood Lesbians: From Garbo to Foster”, "Mae's the voluptuous type. She's not exactly underfed. And she's nice to look at, but she's not in a league with most of the other blondes or redheads or brunettes this town has put up on a pedestal. People thought Mae was sexy 'cause she thought sexy, and she talked that way… She believed in herself so much ‘that way’ that she convinced everybody she was a sex personality and a beauty”.
An interesting tidbit is that West stood at just five feet tall, and to make herself taller and more imposing, she had custom platform shoes made that rose over 9” off the ground and looked like a shoe on top of a shoe. The hemlines of her dresses were designed so only the “toe” of the bottom platform "shoe" would be seen. The height and weight of the shoes affected her walk, helping create her famous sashaying strut.
A major reason West could shape her own image was that she authored or coauthored nine of the eleven scripts in which she starred, writing the stories and parts for herself, infusing them with lighthearted humor and irony, tossing social mores on their head, and rebelling against Puritanism. Challenging patriarchal society, West made all the characters she played equal to or even more powerful than the men around her. She adopted characteristics predominantly reserved for the men of her day, and by playing the role of the man while remaining very much a woman, she turned gender roles upside down.
Her women (like “Tira”) could never be tricked or fooled and rarely if ever showed vulnerability, and West was always the sexual aggressor with an unquenchable desire (something considered normal for men and shameful for women) – again, with zero remorse. A line spoken by her in the film “She Done Him Wrong” (also written by West) sheds light on her attitude: “Men’s all alike, married or single. It’s their game. I happen to be smart enough to play it their way”. Today, West is often called a feminist. She was way ahead of her time.
Born in Brooklyn, New York to a prizefighting father and a typical stage mother who modeled corsets, Mae West began entertaining people at age five, made it to vaudeville at fourteen and Broadway at eighteen. She tried everything she could to satisfy her hunger for the spotlight, and her big break came in the 1918 production of “Sometime”, in a role in which she added some of her own wisecracks and suggestively shook her body while dancing the shimmy. The shimmy in particular drew West major attention and she became associated with it. Realizing the dance would be a fad (and wanting a lasting career), she figured she had to take her career into her own hands. So in 1926, she wrote and starred in a play she titled “Sex”. Critically blasted and condemned as dirty and vulgar, her name and the show were buzzing everywhere with controversy, and "Sex" became a hit.
While appearing in “Sex”, West began directing another play she authored, “The Drag” in 1927. An early supporter of gay rights, it was about homosexuality and drag queens, and featured an entirely gay cast. “The Drag” briefly opened out of town, did well financially, and caused more controversy. As would be the case throughout West's career, moralist groups tried to shut her down (this time because of “The Drag’s” open portrayal of homosexuality), and they managed to close the play and prevent it from opening on Broadway. Their influence caused New York authorities to show up backstage during “Sex”, and after over three hundred performances, arrest West on moral obscenity charges. Knowing it would create publicity, she opted to serve jail time rather than pay a fine, and spent eight days behind bars. She was right, it gained her even more renown.
Continuing to write and star in sexually controversial plays, West noticed that her audiences consisted primarily of men. In an attempt to attract women to her shows, in 1928 she wrote “Diamond Lil”, a period piece about a racy woman set in the 1890’s featuring West in extravagant costumes, hats, and jewelry. She added humor and found a funny and respectable way to portray sex, and women (and men) flocked to see it. She became the toast of Broadway, and her portrayal of "Diamond Lil" gave audiences the first sampling of what would become movie star Mae West. She was now a legitimate, albeit racy, Broadway sensation.
Just before her fortieth birthday, Hollywood called. Paramount Pictures requested her for a small supporting role in 1932’s "Night After Night”. She agreed to do it only if she could rewrite her lines. Given the go-ahead, West gave her character clever one liners and double entendres, including her now famous exchange with a hat-check girl who exclaims "Goodness, what beautiful diamonds", to which West’s character replies, "Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie”. “Night After Night” was West’s film debut, and in it she was electric (the film’s star George Raft is often quoted as saying, “She stole everything but the cameras”). Fan mail for West flooded Paramount and they realized they might have found themselves a new moneymaking star.
On the brink of bankruptcy and optimistic about West, Paramount offered her a contract. She insisted she write all her own scripts and oversee everything – from the actors to the costumes to the lighting (West was even known to direct her directors). The studio granted all her wishes. For her first starring vehicle, she adapted “Diamond Lil” for the screen, changing her character's name to "Lady Lou” and the title to "She Done Him Wrong”. This 1933 film was a smash hit, earned a Best Picture Academy Award, singlehandedly saved Paramount from bankruptcy, and made West one of the biggest movie stars in the world.
“She Done Him Wrong” established West’s onscreen persona of bringing sex out in the open and making it fun, while remaining an empowered woman in charge. Her impact was enormous. Even her corseted costumes and big hats influenced fashion from New York to Paris. To expand on her blockbuster success, West and Paramount immediately began work on her next film, “I’m No Angel”, released later that same year. “I’m No Angel” was an even bigger hit, spending three weeks at #1 at the box-office and becoming (and remaining) West's highest grossing film. She was a top ten box-office star in both 1933 and 1934, and Hollywood’s highest-paid entertainer and the highest-paid woman in America in 1935.
But West’s salty humor and sexual innuendos didn’t go unnoticed by conservatives, moralists, and religious folks who wanted to stop her films from being made. Since 1927, censorship was voluntary in Hollywood films. But as movies significantly changed with the advent sound, violence suddenly felt more real (see my post on “Scarface”), and there was a perceived increase in what were considered racy films – particularly those of West. Fearing outside censorship, Hollywood chose to censor itself, and on July 1, 1934, the Motion Picture Production Code went into full effect censoring sex, violence, and anything it deemed immoral from Hollywood movies (you can read about it in my “Red Dust” and “Red-Headed Woman” posts).
Joseph Breen, a devout Catholic, was now in charge of the Code and pre-approved all Hollywood scripts before they were filmed to decide if they could earn the Code's now required certificate of approval. He kept an especially close watch on West, and given that suggestive dialogue was at the core of her image, things became very difficult for her. She'd add blatantly sexual things to her scripts she knew Breen would omit, hoping they would distract him from taking out the things she wanted to keep. Because “She Done Him Wrong” and “I’m No Angel” were pre-Code films (made before the enforcement of the Code), they offer the best glimpses of West’s unfiltered style and talent. Then overnight, everything changed.
West’s third film, “Belle of the Nineties” (originally titled “It Ain't No Sin”) was heavily censored to the point where the ending made little sense. Even with her flair for making seemingly banal words on a page sound salacious, censorship issues got so bad for her she could narrowly present the carnal image that audiences adored. But her popularity was so strong that all seven films she starred in at Paramount from 1933 to 1937 (including "Goin' to Town" and "Go West Young Man”) landed in one of the top three box-office spots, though profits continually diminished after “I’m No Angel”. By 1937, she found herself labelled "box-office poison" (alongside Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, Fred Astaire, Joan Crawford and others), and after her 1937 film "Every Day's a Holiday”, Paramount and West parted ways.
West turned to radio, and after making a few suggestive comments to "Adam" while playing “Eve" in a "Garden of Eden” sketch, West and the mention of her name were banned from NBC Radio. Universal Pictures lured her back to the big screen to appear opposite W.C. Fields in 1940’s "My Little Chickadee” (which was a hit and her least favorite of her films), followed by "The Heat's On" at Columbia Pictures in 1943 (which was not a hit). Venturing back to the stage, she launched a successful career in theaters and clubs, including a triumphant revival of "Diamond Lil" in 1949 and a Las Vegas show surrounded by half-naked muscle men in place of chorus girls.
West made television appearances (one interview was deemed too risqué and never aired), recorded record albums and singles, and wrote and published books, including her 1959 autobiography, "Goodness Had Nothing to Do with It”. A savvy business woman, she invested in real estate and reportedly became a multimillionaire. In 1970, she returned to the screen in the critical and box-office failure "Myra Breckinridge”, now considered a camp classic. At 84 years old she appeared in her twelfth and final film, 1978's “Sextette" (based one of her stage shows), in which she played a movie sex symbol marrying for the sixth time. The film was the only one of hers (other than "Night After Night") to not chart in the Top Ten at the box-office.
Like her screen characters, the larger-than-life West boasted of having hundreds of male lovers (a famous West quote is “An orgasm a day keeps the doctor away”), and she supposedly had leanings towards boxers, muscle men, chubby guys, and Black men. In 1930, she moved into the penthouse in Hollywood's Ravenswood apartments, which she famously decorated in all white, displayed a nude statue of her on a pedestal, and had mirrors on her bedroom ceiling which she said were for “observation”, because “I like to see how I’m doing”. She lived there until her death.
West became a recluse for the last decades of her life. In the documentary “Mae West: And the Men Who Knew Her”, her friend Robert Osborne said of her, “I’m not sure she ever got out and smelled the flowers or went out and had picnics in the park, or went sailing in the bay or whatever. But obviously, those things weren’t important to her or she would have done them. She pretty much stayed in that apartment, the Ravenswood in Hollywood, and lived her life out as ‘Mae West’, playing the image that she had created… I don’t think I ever saw the real Mae West, but I’m not sure I was the only one who never did. I think that the real Mae West was so highly covered by this actress playing ‘Mae West’, I’m not sure a real person still existed”.
In 1911, at the age of 17, West married a fellow vaudevillian, which she immediately regretted, and to be rid of him, quickly had him sent out of town on tour. She said she preferred to have lots of men and be dedicated to her career rather than be dedicated to one man. According to West, she and her husband only lived together for a few weeks. It was her only marriage (which she denied until after it was public knowledge). During her 1950's Vegas act, West became involved with one of the show’s muscle men, Paul Novak. They lived together and were devoted to one another for the last 26 years of her life. Mae West died in 1980 at the age of 87.
West’s impact on cinema and culture is immeasurable. Overnight, she fearlessly blazed a trail for women to be sexual and equal to men, and for the joy of sex to grace Hollywood movies. Then just as quickly, she inadvertently put an end to it by being one of the primary arguments for creating the Motion Picture Production Code, which would shape the course of American cinema for decades. She's the only movie star who fought with censors over her career rather than a studio. Never backing down in her eight decade career, she was censored in theater, film, TV, and radio, and said of it "I believe in censorship. I made a fortune out of it”. Her famous hourglass figure inspired Allied soldiers during World War II to nickname their inflatable life jackets “Mae Wests”. She's influenced performers as varied as Zsa Zsa Gabor, Madonna, Cher, Bette Midler, Barbra Streisand, Mariah Carey, Rhianna, Beyoncé and countless others, has been impersonated, parodied, and mocked in cartoons, by drag queens, and more, and became (and remains) a gay icon. In 1971, the student body of University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) voted Mae West "Woman of the Century" to honor her relevance as a pioneering advocate of sexual frankness and as a courageous crusader against censorship. She was, and remains a true legend.
West’s leading man in “I’m No Angel” is no other than Cary Grant who plays “Jack Clayton”. Grant should be very familiar to my readers and certainly to anyone who watches classic Hollywood movies. AFI named him the Second Greatest American Male Screen Legend, and Grant has appeared in more great Hollywood classics than perhaps any other star. “I’m No Angel” was his twelfth film in just over two years of making movies, and his second and final with West. When West was about to begin filming “She Done Him Wrong”, she didn’t have a leading man and according to her, she was walking on the Paramount lot and saw “the best looking thing in Hollywood” walk by. She turned to her producer to ask who the man was and he replied “Cary Grant”, and told her he’s a bit player who has only been used for screen tests. She answered, “If this guy can talk, I’ll take him”. Grant could talk, and he became her leading man. A daring move on her part. The giant success of “She Done Him Wrong” made Grant world famous, thrusting him into leading man roles.
Though handsome as always in “I’m No Angel”, he's not yet the Cary Grant the world came to know and love. He was a contract player still hoping to get better roles and trying to navigate Hollywood. As Grant described in Marc Eliot’s book, “Cary Grant: A biography”, “I copied other styles I knew until I became a conglomerate of people and ultimately myself. When I was a young actor, I’d put my hand in my pocket trying to look relaxed. Instead, I looked stiff and my hand stuck in my pocket wet with perspiration. I was trying to imitate what I thought a relaxed man looked like”. Even if Grant teeters on awkwardness at times, he gives a decent and believable performance, and one can see glimmers of the suave, confident, dynamic and iconic movie star to come, such as when “Jack” is in court or when he looks at a photo of “Tira”. “I’m No Angel” elevated Grant's star status and gave him a salary increase from $450 to $750 a week.
West often exaggerated truths, and her claims of discovering Grant are only partly true. She was certainly the one who gave him the break that propelled his career, but he was already working in movies. Though his previous roles were mostly small, he appeared in films featuring some of Hollywood's hottest leading ladies such as Carole Lombard, Sylvia Sidney, and most notably opposite Marlene Dietrich in 1932’s "Blonde Venus”. But the tremendous success of “She Done Him Wrong” unquestionably provided Grant’s first big break, bolstered by “I’m No Angel”, which set him on the track to stardom. The Cary Grant we think of would begin to emerge with “Sylvia Scarlett” in 1936 (which Grant thought of as his big breakthrough), and fully materialize in 1937’s “The Awful Truth”. A cinema legend, Grant has appeared in six classics already on this blog, “Bringing Up Baby”, “Notorious”, “The Philadelphia Story”, “His Girl Friday”, “Arsenic and Old Lace”, and "North by Northwest”. Just click on any of the titles to read more about the fabulous Cary Grant’s life and career.
Another recognizable face in “I’m No Angel” is that of Edward Arnold who plays “Big Bill Barton”, the shady head of “Big Bull Barton’s Wonder Show” circus. He is tough, gruff, and almost “Tira’s” equal – almost. A very popular and sought-after character actor gifted at comedy and drama, Arnold excelled at portraying authoritative men such as "Big Bill”, who often had a jovial yet corrupt side. Edward Arnold began in theater, then appeared in silent films from 1916 through 1920 (starring in many Westerns), and then on Broadway. In 1932, the middle aged, 5’10”, 200 pound actor began the bulk of his prolific film career, appearing in over a dozen films prior to "I'm No Angel”. Stardom came in 1935 with the title role in “Diamond Jim”, and in his career he accrued just shy of 150 film and TV credits, working right up until his death in 1956. One of the many other classics in which he appeared is "You Can't Take It with You", a film already on this blog where you can read more about the wonderful Edward Arnold.
West repeatedly credited Black music, entertainment, and performers as being one of her strongest influences in forming her own art. She always included Black actors in her films, though unfortunately predominantly as her maids who spoke in the stereotypical “Yessum” dialect. But what was unusual was that West made sure their names appeared in the film credits (those with the largest parts), and their characters were more human than the typical servants in other Hollywood movies of the day. Her maids seemingly have a life of their own and come off more as sidekicks (until she tells them “Get the door” or some such thing), and when onscreen with them, West is at her most relaxed and having her most fun. That’s all highly unusual for a mainstream Hollywood Studio Era film. That said, the Black actors were still reduced to playing servants who spoke like less intelligent people, and there are one or two cringeworthy remarks made by West in this film.
Four actresses play “Tira’s” servants in “I’m No Angel”, and I want to point out three of them, the first being Gertrude Howard as “Beulah Thorndyke”, “Tira’s" primary maid. “Beulah” is the recipient of one of the most famous lines in cinema, as “Tira” asks her to “Peel me a grape”. While West steals the spotlight and pretty much every close-up in the movie, Howard’s presences is surprisingly felt throughout (even more so than virtually all the men), as she brings to life a servant filled with personality, brimming with goodhearted warmth and joy. There's not a lot known about the early days of Arkansas-born Gertrude Howard, though she did appear on Broadway in 1911 in the chorus of "The Wife Hunters". Her film career began with the 1925 silent "The Circus Cyclone", and from 1927 until her untimely death, she worked steadily in 25 features and one short film, including "Hearts of Dixie", "His Captive Woman", playing "Aunt Chloe" in 1927's "Uncle Tom's Cabin", and "Queenie" in 1929's "Show Boat". But she is best remembered for "I'm No Angel". Her final film was 1934's "Peck's Bad Boy". Gertrude Howard died in 1934 at the age of 41. West reportedly paid her funeral expenses.
Another actress playing a maid is Libby Taylor as “Libby”, “Tira’s” secondary maid and hairdresser. While West was in New York promoting "She Done Him Wrong", she met the Chicago-born actress who was working as a cook in a Harlem restaurant, and offered her a job as her personal cook, maid, personal assistant, and to become part of her entourage. Taylor accepted, and West took her to Hollywood and put her in two of her films, "I'm No Angel" and "Belle of the Nineties". Taylor’s first film was playing maid to Bette Davis in "The Cabin in the Cotton" in 1932, and Taylor worked steadily (mostly playing maids) in 67 films though 1953, including many classics such as "Libeled Lady", "Hollywood Hotel", "Imitation of Life", "Reckless", "Diamond Jim", "The Great Ziegfeld", "The Buccaneer", "Babes in Arms", "For Me and My Gal", "The Little Foxes", and her final, "Bright Road" in 1953. Libby Taylor died in 1961 at the age of 59.
And finally, very briefly playing “Tira’s” manicurist in one scene is an actress most classic movie watchers know, Hattie McDaniel. McDaniel’s big line in “I’m No Angel” is “You know Miss ‘Tira’, I’ve been under the impression that you is a one man woman”, to which “Tira” responds, “I am. One man at a time”. Even in a blink-of-the-eye role, McDaniel’s presence is solid, and she adds her own special flavor. McDaniel had been appearing continuously in uncredited film roles like this one since 1932. Her first important role (and first credited part) came the next year in John Ford’s 1934 film "Judge Priest", and in 1939, McDaniel became the first Black actor to win an Academy Award for her most famous role as "Mammy" in "Gone With the Wind”. You can read much more about the life and career, of Hattie McDaniel in my post on that classic.
With succinct direction by Wesley Ruggles, beautiful cinematography by Leo Tover, ravishing costumes by Travis Banton, and expansive art direction by Hans Dreier and Bernard Herzbrun, this week’s classic also offers you a look at one of Hollywood’s biggest, most controversial, most influential, most lasting, and most entertaining stars. Get ready for one heck of a fun romp, and enjoy “I’m No Angel”.
This blog is a weekly series (currently biweekly) on all types of classic films from the silent era through the 1970s. It is designed to entertain and inform movie novices and lovers through watching one recommended classic film a week. The intent is that a love and deepened knowledge of cinema will evolve, along with a familiarity of important stars, directors, writers, the studio system, and a deeper understanding of cinema. I highly recommend visiting (or revisiting) the HOME page, which explains it all and provides a place where you can subscribe and get email notifications for every new post. Visit THE MOVIES page to see a list of all films currently on this site. Please leave comments, share this blog with family, friends, and on social media, and subscribe so you don’t miss a post. Thanks so much for reading!
YOU CAN STREAM OR BUY THE FILM ON AMAZON:
Not currently streaming, but keep checking your favorite sites
PLACES YOU CAN BUY THE FILM:
As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases, and any and all money will go towards the fees for this blog. Thanks!!
TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):
It’s often reported that in her movies, Mae West said only variations of her signature quip “Come up and see me sometime”, but that’s not the case. In “I’m No Angel”, she utters that famous line as we know it, telling “Juror #4" over the phone, "And don't forget, come up and see me sometime”.
For those interested in additional Mae West fun, here are a dozen more of her famous quotes:
"I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.”
"Between two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before."
"Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?"
"I only like two kinds of men, domestic and imported."
"You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough."
"A hard man is good to find."
"Too much of a good thing can be wonderful."
"When women go wrong, men go right after them."
"Women are like roads. The more curves they have, the more dangerous they are."
"Anything worth doing is worth doing slowly."
"Marriage is a great institution, but I'm not ready for an institution."
"I'll try anything once, twice if I like it, three times to make sure."