I’m No Angel (1933)
“A story about a gal who lost her reputation – and never missed it!”
I’m No Angel (1933)
Director: Wesley Ruggles
Cast: Mae West, Cary Grant, Gregory Ratoff
Synopsis: Circus performer Tira seeks a better life pursuing the company of wealthy New York men with improbable comic complications along the way.
On a high after She Done Him Wrong, Mae West (Belle of the Nineties, Klondike Annie) sought to consolidate her success by once more casting Cary Grant (Alice in Wonderland, The Awful Truth), her sophisticated young co-star from that smash hit, in I’m No Angel, a pre-code follow-up, the title of which played on West’s colourful past and bawdy reputation. They make an odd couple, it has to be said, almost as incongruous in their way as the later pairing of West and W.C. Fields. The 29-year-old Grant was tall, urbane and elegant; 40-year-old West was short (just 5’0”), wide-hipped and, well – common. While it’s easy to imagine West, or any character she played, falling for a man like Grant, the obverse is less so. Nevertheless, West was a Hollywood sensation at the time, and she wielded her power, as fleeting as it might have been, with confidence and determination. She wanted Grant for her love interest in I’m No Angel, and she got him.
She plays Tira, a hoochie-coochie dancer grinding her hips in a seedy fairground sideshow which boasts that her act is so hot the tickets are made of asbestos – a spurious claim which makes the tame routine that follows something of a disappointment, even if it does send the exclusively male audience wild. Tira talks a good show, though, even if she does briefly let her true opinion of her audience show as she makes her exit. She doesn’t think much of Big Bill Barton (Edward Arnold – You Can’t Take it With You, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), the fairground owner, either. Bill wants her to put her head in a lion’s mouth, but he only gets his wish when Slick Wiley (Ralf Harolde – A New Kind of Love), a low-life pickpocket who considers Tira to be his girl, assaults an amorous punter in her room and she needs Bill’s money to hire a defence lawyer. The act’s an instant hit, and before you can say ‘leonine halitosis’ Tira’s top of the bill in New York and living in a plush hotel room in which four black maids paint her nails and peel her grapes.
Success gives her the opportunity to pursue her favourite pastime: seducing wealthy men, one of whom is Kirk Lawrence (Kent Taylor – The Scarlet Empress) who is so smitten by Tira that he showers her with expensive gifts even though he’s engaged to be married to a society ice maiden (Gertrude Michael – Bugles in the Afternoon). Kirk’s obsession with Tira concerns Jack Clayton (Grant), his cousin and business partner, so greatly that he pays her a visit to ask her to stop seeing him. However, the meeting results in Jack and Tira falling hard for one another.
West’s degree of control over I’m No Angel is demonstrated by the fact that every other character in the movie revolves around her like satellites trapped within the sphere of her magnetic personality. Her leading man doesn’t even make an appearance until the film is half over, and when he does finally show up, he spends most of his time marvelling over Tira’s wonderfulness. Today, in an age in which we’re bombarded with images of stick-thin actresses and models whom we are conditioned to consider the epitome of perfection, West’s status as a sex symbol of Hollywood’s golden age seems a little bizarre. But then, she was an unconventional sex symbol even in the 1930s, and her popularity was due more to her frank and earthy attitude towards sex than her looks and figure. However, her film career was almost fatally hamstrung by a more rigorous enforcement of the Production Code in 1934, which meant that I’m No Angel proved to be the final film in which she was permitted to deliver her saucy double-entendres without facing real interference from the censors.
Tira’s attitude in I’m No Angel is surprisingly modern. She trades on her sex appeal to get what she wants – “Take all you can get, and give as little as possible,” is the mantra by which she lives her life – and the practiced way she repeatedly tells a man “I gotta meet my Aunt” when she’s on her way to meet another suggests she’s at least as equally adept at using members of the opposite sex as they are. The key difference is that, with Tira it feels a defensive weapon rather than an offensive one. Those men unwise enough to try and exploit her soon find the tables turned on them, and it’s no coincidence that the gown she wears in her boudoir is adorned with a spider’s web motif. If Tira is a spider, however, many of the men in her life are snakes and skunks, as evidenced by the figurines she keeps on a table next to their photographs.
There’s much to admire about Tira, but unfortunately the same can’t really be said about I’m No Angel. Although West’s infamously risqué quips are often highly amusing, they’re mere dressing on a strictly second-rate plot which serves no purpose other than to glorify its star, whose tough demeanour makes her difficult to root for.
(Reviewed 15th March 2016)