Klondike Annie (1936)
“She Made the Frozen North… Red Hot!”
Klondike Annie (1936)
Director: Raoul Walsh
Cast: Mae West, Victor McLaglen, Phillip Reed
Synopsis: A nightclub singer flees to Alaska after killing her jealous lover in self-defence.
Raoul Walsh’s Klondike Annie is so old that, when it mentions the ’90s, it’s referring to the 1890s, with no thought given to the possibility that it might still find an audience in the next century. The title character is played by Mae West, for whom, cinematically speaking, the 1890s had already proven to be a fruitful time, what with both She Done Him Wrong (1933) and Belle of the Nineties (1934) proving to be box office hits. By 1936, though, the Production Code had finally become a force to be reckoned with, which meant that, in order to conform to the Code’s vision of what was suitable for public viewing, the guts had to be ripped out of Klondike Annie before it reached the screen. Even after cuts had been made – including a murder scene without which its heroine’s flight from the law makes little sense – many regional censors in the States banned the film completely, and powerful newspaper magnates Paul Block and William Randolph Hearst were so incensed by West’s depiction of bad-girl-turned-good that they refused to carry adverts for the picture in their newspapers.
The storyline is functional, and nothing more. It’s based on a play West wrote in 1921, which was never published or produced. She plays the title character, aka Rose Carleton, aka The Frisco Doll, a sultry nightclub singer who, as the film opens, is a virtual prisoner of shady nightclub owner Chan-Lo (Harold Huber (The Bowery, The Thin Man). We first meet Rose as she croons a number called ‘I’m an Occidental Woman in the Mood for Oriental Love’ from behind a veil. Her eyes move back and forth as if on hinges, but her head barely moves, and there’s a half-smile on her lips. And, rather than a sultry sex symbol, she looks like someone relishing the prospect of an unsavoury prank she’s about to play on her audience. With her round moon face and wide hips, West always was an unlikely sex symbol, relying more on the promise of unbridled illicit games implicit in her near-the-knuckle quips to excite her audience instead of her rather plain looks. The rise of the Production Code robbed her of the biggest weapon in her armoury, and her movies were never quite the same after 1933.
Rose is restless in the clutches of Chan-Lo (“you stifle me,” she informs him in that inimitable drawl), and a suave but ageing businessman arranges her escape, even though his love for her is unrequited. But, in a scene excised from the movie and now lost forever, she’s forced to kill Chan-Lo to save her own life, so that her escape from her abductor becomes a flight from the law. She finds passage to Alaska on a ship captained by the coarse, lumbering Bull Brackett (Victor McLaglen – Rio Grande) who, like every man in the movie, falls heavily for her charms. Rose plays it cool, but gives the impression she’s keeping him in reserve in case nothing better comes along. She certainly doesn’t seem too concerned when he forces himself upon her after having discovered her true identity, even though she’s fallen under the gentle influence of Sister Annie Alden (Helen Jerome Eddy – Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), a missionary on her way to spread the gospel to the Klondike panhandlers. Annie’s a frail old bird though. She falls ill and dies on the voyage – just as the police come aboard in search of The Frisco Doll…
Klondike Annie is considered by many to be one of Mae West’s better movies, but it’s difficult to understand why. Although evidence of the censor’s imprudent hacking is apparent throughout, little of what remains suggests they butchered a classic. West struggles to persuade us that she could fool anyone into believing she is a God-fearing missionary, and while McLaglen is good value for money as always, he and West never hit it off in the way you’d hope they might. Worst of all, Phillip Reed as an Alaskan police officer with whom Rose strikes up a relationship is no match for West’s robust and forthright manner. There’s enough of West’s trademark sassiness to just about make Klondike Annie worth catching, but it makes for pretty thin gruel.
(Reviewed 28th February 2016)