I’m No Angel Was Mae West’s Last Pre-Code Movie, and Her Best

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I’m No Angel Was Mae West’s Last Pre-Code Movie, and Her Best

Mae West was almost 40 before she made her first appearance in a Hollywood movie, but thanks to a gleefully, infamously lurid stage career, she arrived in Tinseltown more or less a household name. After a childhood and young adulthood spent in vaudeville, she started writing her own plays in her mid-twenties. Her first, simply entitled Sex, won her outraged notices from the critics, fabulous success from ticket buyers and an eight-day stint in jail for “corrupting the morals of youth” (which only served as a welcome promotional tool). A string of other notoriety-driven hits, which inspired further brushes with the law, followed.

Well aware of the potential controversy they were bringing to the table, but more preoccupied by the potential for big box office bucks, Paramount brought West to Hollywood in 1932, for a supporting role in the George Raft vehicle Night After Night. Though her part was small, West was allowed to write her own dialogue, and—as she tended to do—she made a big impression; Raft would later remark, “She stole everything but the cameras!”

The following year, she got the chance to have her name above the title in She Done Him Wrong, starring opposite Cary Grant (much to his irritation, she liked to claim she discovered him, though he’d already appeared in eight movies, three times as romantic lead). It was so successful, it’s often credited with saving Paramount from bankruptcy. 

I’m No Angel, turning 90 this month, was her third movie. Describing the narrative of a Mae West production is usually beside the point—in Fred and Ginger films, the plot would just be wispy connective tissue for their extraordinary dances; for West, it was a flimsy structure over which she could drape her robust stream of innuendo. Still, considering the sheer lunacy of it, perhaps it’d be a shame to deprive ourselves.

West plays Tira, a circus dancer and lion tamer who agrees to up the ante in her act by putting her head inside a lion’s jaw, so she can pay the legal bills of her rotten boyfriend, in jail for murder. The increased danger makes her into a bonafide star, and moves her up in the world from a “tent to a penthouse.” With her new station comes a new class of men, and soon she is embroiled in a steamy relationship with the fabulously rich and totally besotted Kirk (Kent Taylor)—who just so happens to be engaged to another woman, the snooty Alicia (Gertrude Michael). Kirk’s cousin, Jack (Cary Grant), is richer and snobbier, and horrified by the situation. He goes to see Tira in an attempt to put an end to the affair—but comes away having fallen in love with her himself. 

Cary Grant doesn’t appear until over halfway through the movie, at minute 48 of 87. It’s no accident that I’m No Angel’s leading man takes so long to show up—though it feels strange to say this about one of the most beloved and charismatic stars of all time, he is little more than a prop here, a handsome vessel for West’s fusillade of ribaldry. It’s fascinating to watch an early-career Grant be so thoroughly outshone by the brilliant, bawdy broad.

Yes, above all else, Mae West’s movies were showcases for Mae West, and I’m No Angel is the best of them all. The first time we see her, she’s walking her signature walk—that iconic swaggery strut-stride, made all the more impressive by the frankly ridiculous 9.5-inch heels she would typically wear—above the heads of a crowd of leering men. 

And yet one of the many things that makes I’m No Angel (and all of West’s work) so delightful to watch is the way she’s allowed to leer right back at them, her gaze as mischievous as it is lascivious. Whether it be a circus strongman (“I ain’t gonna hurt him, I only wanna feel his muscles”) or the gleefully shameless way her eyes rake all the way up and down Grant the very moment he first walks through her door, West’s unabashed flaunting of her libido, her brazen male objectification, is quite dazzling to witness—90 years later, it’s still enough to elicit a gasp or two.

West had had the lifelong ambition of being a lion-tamer, and I’m No Angel gave her an excuse to live out that dream. Much of her central performance sequence is clearly rear projection (she does not actually stick her head in a lion’s mouth, for one thing, although she had wanted to!), but with the help of real-life lion tamer Mabel Stark, she was able to get in the cage with the lions. For a woman famed for her ability to wrestle the powerful into submission—whether it be men or censorship boards—it’s almost too perfect a metaphor.

From lions to lines—you can’t talk about Mae West without covering her renowned knack for pithy, provocative one-liners. While I’m No Angel birthed some of her most well-known—“It’s not the men in your life that count, it’s the life in your men;” “When I’m good, I’m very good… but when I’m bad I’m better;” ”Beulah, peel me a grape!”—there’s barely a scene that passes without an example of why West’s wit won her so many fans. Of course, it wasn’t just the words, but her wry, arched-eyebrow delivery that made her wisecracks so delectable. When spoken in her famous drawl, even the most abstract of jests (“What did you do—get your hair cut or have your ears moved down?”) becomes its own unique form of art.

It’s a bitter irony that a walking innuendo machine like West only starred in three films before the arrival of the puritanical Hays Code, which would severely limit her ability to let her filth flag fly—though she’d still slide a surprising amount under the radar. The rest of her ‘30s and ‘40s work in Hollywood was a mixed bag; while many of the films she made after the Code’s enforcement were enjoyable, none ever quite reached the glittering heights of I’m No Angel. Her final movie of the run, 1943’s The Heat’s On, would be her last for the next 27 years. She was taking her show back on stage, and wouldn’t return to the silver screen until the 1970s, for a pair of fascinating, infamous disasters

So much of the experience of watching West at her best is wondering, “How did she get away with that?” While the question is often in reference to her double entendres, it also applies to the rich vein of self-congratulation shooting through all her movies. A huge proportion of I’m No Angel consists of the supporting cast lavishing praise upon Mae West, who wrote the screenplay (though the opening titles credit Lowell Brentano with “suggestions”—you can imagine how those meetings might have gone!). That this doesn’t make the film completely unbearable really lies in West’s luxurious, outrageous confidence; a tangible gravitational force that sucks you in and leaves you starry-eyed in her wake. 

Mae West wasn’t an ethereal, fine-featured beauty in the way of a Dietrich or a Garbo; she was curvy and short, and arrived at stardom in her middle age. She proudly retained her broad, slightly nasal Brooklyn accent no matter who she was meant to be playing. She fought hard for everything she had. It showed, and she was proud of that. Watching her revel in the spoils of that work, wearing a string of fabulous dresses and writing screenplays where Cary Grant fell instantly in love with her, is truly joyful. She let viewers both celebrate her, and celebrate with her—and 90 years later, both are a still an absolute pleasure to do.

Chloe Walker is a writer based in the UK. You can read her work at Culturefly, the BFI, Podcast Review, and Paste.

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