Mae West found herself in top flight company with Leo McCarey’s Belle of the Nineties working for the best director she’d ever have and performing some of the most difficult and most unusual material of her career.
The Production: 3.5/5
Don’t go into Belle of the Nineties expecting the typical Mae West barrage of one-liners and bawdy shenanigans; with director Leo McCarey in charge, it’s probably the most legitimate of West’s films in that he’s expecting more of his leading lady in both song and story, and while the narrative and characterizations could have used some better fleshing out, the dramatic elements don’t overpower or diminish Mae but show that she could have gone farther with her dramatic acting gifts if she had wished to pursue that rather than the sexual innuendo which was her stock-in-trade and which she mostly reverted to for the remainder of her career.
Burlesque sensation Ruby Carter (Mae West) is carrying on a passionate affair with up-and-coming boxer the Tiger Kid (Roger Pryor), but his manager Kirby (James Donlan) cooks up a scheme to make the Kid think Ruby is two-timing him. After their break-up, Ruby leaves for New Orleans for a long term engagement at a club and casino run by Ace Lamont (John Miljan). She’s a sensation and is courted by all the city’s swells, but she settles on Brooks Claybourne (Johnny Mack Brown) who showers her with jewels. Lamont is incredibly jealous of the attention his star is showing Claybourne, much to Ace’s girl friend Molly’s (Katherine DeMille) displeasure. Coincidentally, the Tiger Kid is in the city to meet Battling Burke for the world championship, but Ace tricks him into robbing Ruby of her jewels in order to raise capital for the fight. He does it, but Ruby catches on and decides to hatch her own scheme to get back at both men who she feels have betrayed her.
Mae West’s script not only includes the usual one-liners and song sequences (though two songs go by before Mae opens her mouth to croon one), but there’s melodrama and even manslaughter in the mix as well as boxing before the end titles come up. Of course, Mae West was no stranger to the manly art of self-defense. Her father was a boxer, and for a good deal of the thirties, her lover was also a prizefighter, and she was a frequent attendee to fights in the 1930s. Director Leo McCarey shoots much of the championship fight from an elevated angle to give watchers a better view of the ebb and flow of the contest. But there are other moments in the film that show him to even better advantage and also give Mae West some of her most unusual cinematic moments. We get an amazing succession of shots of Mae early on as the song “My American Beauty” is crooned on the soundtrack while she brings forth images of her as a butterfly, bat, rose, spider, and eventually the Statue of Liberty (a pose she’d reenact thirty-five years later in publicity for Myra Breckinridge). With Duke Ellington and his Band’s help, she sings “Memphis Blues,” something definitely out of her usual wheelhouse (the film has some of her usual stuff, too: “St. Louis Woman, I Like ‘Em All,” “My Old Flame,” all by Sam Coslow and Arthur Johnston, but none of them as memorable as any of the songs in She Done Him Wrong or I’m No Angel). The film’s real highlight, though, is a camp meeting where the preacher and later Mae in counterpoint sing “Troubled Waters” as McCarey jumps back-and-forth between the artists and then does a stunning double exposure to put them into the same shot. It happens at Ruby’s most torn moment where she knows (but also regrets) she’s going to have to deliver some low blows to people who have injured her and gives the film a gravitas not often found in Mae West’s pictures.
And Mae West rises to the occasion in Belle of the Nineties: she sings songs more rangy and difficult than she usually attempted and plays the dramatic stuff easily while continuing to toss off her witticisms which have been tamed from the obviously sexual double-entendres of her earlier movies. She also looks stunning in a succession of Travis Banton gowns (Belle of the Nineties had a budget more than triple that of her earlier two starring vehicles, and Mae was given a top notch director in Leo McCarey who had worked with Laurel and Hardy, W.C. Fields, and the Marx Brothers previously, the studio’s top dress designer, and Oscar-winning cameraman Karl Struss, all worthy of the studio’s highest ranking box-office star – for 1934, Mae ranked fifth at the box-office). Roger Pryor isn’t quite the charm boy that Cary Grant was in the previous pictures, but he’s OK as the boxer without having that kind of screen charisma that separates a star from a rudimentary actor. John Miljan is certainly more than adequate as the film’s villain, and Katherine DeMille plays the jealous girl friend cast aside with requisite outrage and contempt. Johnny Mack Brown is really wasted as Ruby’s rebound romance with not nearly enough screen time (in fact, with his physique, he and Pryor might have switched roles amenably). Libby Taylor plays Ruby’s domestic Jasmine who has as warm a relationship with her mistress here as Mae’s previous maids did in the earlier movies.
3D Rating: NA
The film’s 1.37:1 theatrical aspect ratio is rendered in 1080p resolution by the AVC codec. Cameraman Karl Struss has used diffusion quite a bit throughout the movie, so it’s never as sharp as some of the earlier West films being released this month. Grayscale isn’t as solid here either with black levels varying sometimes to merely dark gray on the fringes but with solid whites. There are the occasional scratch and splotch, too, and some stock footage shows its age as well. The movie has been divided into 8 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono soundtrack sounds pretty much what you’d expect a 1934 movie to sound like in terms of fidelity (meaning bass levels are fairly weak), but there are no instances of age-related anomalies to bother the listener. Hiss, crackle, pops, and flutter have been completely eliminated. The dialogue has been well recorded and has been blended well with the music and the sound effects.
Special Features: 2/5
Audio Commentary: writer and critic Samm Deighan offers another fairly interesting discussion of the movie at hand offering nicely researched information on many of the major players before and behind the camera (though Johnny Mack Brown is ignored and she mispronounces Karl Struss’ last name a bit before finally getting it right).
Theatrical Trailer (1:54, HD)
Kino Trailers: Night After Night, I’m No Angel, Goin’ to Town, Every Day’s a Holiday, My Little Chickadee.
Mae West found herself in top flight company with Leo McCarey’s Belle of the Nineties working for the best director she’d ever have and performing some of the most difficult and most unusual material of her career. While the Kino Blu-ray isn’t as pristine as She Done Him Wrong or I’m No Angel, fans of the star and/or the director will find the high definition image and clear sound more than enough reason to upgrade their previous DVD.
Some of our content may contain marketing links, which means we will receive a commission for purchases made via those links. In our editorial content, these affiliate links appear automatically, and our editorial teams are not influenced by our affiliate partnerships. We work with several providers (currently Skimlinks and Amazon) to manage our affiliate relationships. You can find out more about their services by visiting their sites.