I’m No Angel
US (1933) Dir. Wesley Ruggles
One of the most recognisable stars of the 1930’s in Hollywood, and one of the more unlikely sex symbols of the era by today’s standards was a 40 year-old bold-as-brass Brooklyn born peddler of innuendo and sass who upset the censors as much as she delighted the cinema going audiences – the incomparable Mae West.
After the huge success of her first starring vehicle She Done Him Wrong Paramount set West to work on a follow up to capitalise on this wave of interest, the result being the highly quotable (and often misquoted) I’m No Angel.
West plays Tira, a lame tamer who also works as a distraction for a pickpocket racket run by Slick Wiley (Ralf Harolde) and Big Bill Barton (Edward Arnold). While Tira sings on stage, Slick relieves the audience of gawping men of their riches. When one admirer Ernest Brown (William B. Davidson) pays Tira a visit in her hotel room, his is attacked by Slick and robbed of his money.
Slick is caught and jailed and Tira needs money to hire a lawyer so she agrees to perform the dangerous stunt of putting her head in a lion’s mouth. This sets Tira off onto the road to stardom and to New York, where she catches the attention of wealthy Kirk Lawrence (Kent Taylor). Kirk however is already engaged, so his cousin Jack Clayton (Cary Grant) goes to warn Tira off Kirk only to fall in love with her himself.
The story and script came from West herself which explains why she had all the best lines, and presumably made herself the object of desire for all men in the film too. There is barely a scene where West is not present and even then she is the topic of discussion – similar to how Homer felt Poochie should have been treated in that classic Simpsons episode.
I doubt this was noticed back in the day or even thought of as a big deal since films lived and died by the stars fronting them, and after She Done Him Wrong West was presumably given carte blanche to create a worthy successor. It may have been self-indulgence or ego stroking on West’s part or perhaps it was a sly dig at women in cinema forever being the dainty love interest and/or damsel in distress.
The character of Tira doesn’t really need a man in her life but wants one for reasons undisclosed. She plays the field and accepts any gift bestowed upon her from her many admirers yet has enough moral fibre to hit the brakes if the suitor is spoken for. Even when Tira has her own money, she still lets the man pay the bill but thinks nothing of lavishing herself with an extensive (and outrageous) wardrobe.
So it is odd that such a fiercely independent and headstrong woman would allow herself to be objectified for the sake of the men in her life in the pickpocket racket, but again this is another generational issue, and Tira was just as much about her personality as her sex appeal, a heavily diluted concept in the ensuing years in film, while a 40 year-old sex symbol is almost unheard of today!
But if we look beneath this, we find that West is playing a smart game in satirising this particular staple of the arts (and life) in effectively showing how the men are the weak ones by losing themselves over her. By breaking this down, Slick and Big Bill wouldn’t have a scam if Tira wasn’t there to act as a distraction, and later their meal ticket when Tira wants to get married.
Despite being a rich and successful lawyer Jack is too easily smitten by Tira, just like his cousin, and essentially is presented as a bit of lovesick puppy, as are all the men after Tira. West smacks the double standard of the lothario vs. the strumpet debate right in the face with the court scene in the final act, which no doubt cemented West’s iconic status as a female icon for the women in the audience.
Tira sues Jack for breach of contract when he is unwittingly duped by Slick and Big Bill into breaking off their engagement; Jack’s defence lawyer’s strategy is to paint Tira as a voracious maneater and floozy. Tira defends herself and turns the tables on each of the men from her past brought in as witnesses, exposing them as the weak willed, immoral two timers they are.
Of course what made West more famous was her smutty wordplay and innuendo laden quips, usually the province of male comedians only, who wish they could deliver a double entendre with the cheeky wink West could. Along with lines like “When someone has lot on their mind I like to help them get it off” this film also continues some of the quotes West is legendary for:
“When I’m good, I’m very good. But when I’m bad, I’m better.”
“Well, it’s not the men in your life that counts, it’s the life in your men.”
“Come up and see me sometime.”
Although earlier Tira also tells Jack “You’d better come up and see me.”
Some things haven’t aged well, such as West’s awful singing, or the fact she had black maids – who at least had lines and characters beyond the usual servile platitudes – and the lion taming act. The risky stunt with the lion’s mouth was achieved by West leaning in behind the lion’s head which was then superimposed over West to look like her head went in its mouth.
I’m No Angel is a product of its time that shows the pure, unadulterated Mae West for anyone only familiar with her legend, along with a young but still dapper Cary Grant. Apparently cited as one reason for the Hayes Code being introduced, it’s offensive impact is negligible these days but West’s politically incorrect yet almost proto-feminist boldness is to be admired.