Wesley Ruggles’ I’m No Angel is quintessential Mae West with more songs, more banter, and more unbridled innuendo than any other West film, the last time she’d be able to have things her own way without the interference of the Production Code.
The Production: 4/5
After wowing the American movie going public with the smash hit She Done Him Wrong, Mae West doubled down on her popularity with what turned out to be the best movie she’d ever make, Wesley Ruggles’ I’m No Angel. With a basketful of snappy banter, a succession of dazzling gowns and flashy jewelry, and a first class production that allowed its star the optimal opportunities to sing songs, cast witticisms, and strut her stuff in numerous ways, I’m No Angel is an entertaining romantic comedy even for non-West aficionados.
Small-time circus Jill-of-all-trades Tira (Mae West) longs to escape the cooch shows and penny-ante existence she’s trapped in, and circus owner Big Bill Barton (Edward Arnold) and barker Flea Madigan (Russell Hopton) hit on the idea of selling Tira to The Big Show by utilizing her talent with lion taming. Pretty soon, she’s headlining the show and beginning to meet the society swells she’d prefer to make time with. Wealthy, engaged Kirk Lawrence (Kent Taylor) falls for Tira and plans to ditch his snooty fiancé Alicia (Gertrude Michael) for her, but he’s talked out of it by his handsome boss Jack Clayton (Cary Grant) who finds Tira immensely appealing when he goes to ask her to drop his friend. The two become very close and contemplate marriage for themselves, but Barton is afraid of losing his big circus draw if Tira marries, so he contracts with oily criminal Slick Wiley (Ralf Harolde) to do what he can to break up the happy couple.
The credits make it clear that Mae West was responsible for the story, script, and dialogue of I’m No Angel (though there is grudging credit for adaptation and continuity by Lowell Brentano and Harlan Thompson), and with the lady in charge, it’s no wonder that the camera remains on Miss West’s every word, note, and movement at least ninety-five per cent of the time. While it is a mostly one-woman show, there are plenty of other characters in her orbit, from the suckers and hangers-on she has to deal with (William B. Davidson plays a married sleaze) to her domestic help and to her more romantic liaisons with men who really matter to her (sharp-eyed viewers will spot Gary Cooper’s picture in the lady’s hope chest and muscleman trapeze artist Nat Pendleton gets a scene where he declares his feelings early on). Although it isn’t a musical, Mae sings (in that throaty, quavery manner that’s hers alone) more in this picture than in any other, and they’re all fine, catchy songs that suit her to a “t,” all written by Harvey Brooks, Gladys du Bois, and Ben Ellison: “They Call Me Sister Honky Tonk” as she shakes and shimmies during her cooch dance, “That Dallas Man” used to seduce Davidson, her sassy strut with her maids to “I’ve Found a New Way to Go to Town,” her love song to Cary Grant “I Want You, I Need You,” and the title song sung at the film’s denouement. Director Wesley Ruggles does a great job establishing settings and mood throughout, from the seedy circus ambiance at the beginning to the glamorous apartment Mae inhabits once she makes the big time. There’s also a sensational sequence in a courtroom, the true highlight of the movie, where Mae takes it upon herself to act as her own counsel as she interrogates witnesses out to trash her reputation, flirts with the judge and jury, and generally wins the day.
The essence of Mae West is contained in I’m No Angel. It contains her finest and cleverest writing and without much Production Code interference, they are not the watered down bon mots that would plague her later films while her Brooklyn persona has never been clearer or more dynamic than it is here. Cary Grant has gained in confidence and ease before the camera since his last encounter with Mae in She Done Him Wrong himself. He’s not quite the charming, debonair Cary of later in the decade, but he’s well on his way. Kent Taylor gets some intimate scenes with the lady, too, and does himself proud. Edward Arnold, Ralf Harolde, and Russell Hopton all make firm impressions as the “professional” men in Tira’s life. Meanwhile, Gertrude Howard emerges as perhaps the finest of the actresses who played domestics in Mae’s films (she gets the honor of being asked to peel a grape for her mistress) while Libby Taylor and Hattie McDaniel are also around to wait on the pampered lion tamer. Gregory Ratoff has some funny bits as Tira’s lawyer Benny Pinkowitz, and Gertrude Michael is perfection as the haughty society snob who looks down on Tira and gets her just desserts.
3D Rating: NA
The film’s 1.37:1 theatrical aspect ratio is faithfully offered in 1080p resolution using the AVC codec. The picture is marvelous with deliciously deep black levels, crisp whites, and wonderfully modulated grayscale throughout. The sharpness of the image makes it easy to see the traveling mattes and other trick photography used during Tira’s lion taming act. There are no noticeable scratches, dust, or dirt to mar the viewing experience. The movie has been divided into 8 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound mix is very typical of its era. If the orchestral accompaniment sometimes sounds a bit tinny and light, it’s typical of that early era of sound recording. Dialogue has been excellently recorded, and it has been mixed with the music and sound effects in a most professional manner. There are no problems with hiss, crackle, pops, or flutter.
Special Features: 2/5
Audio Commentary: writer and critic Samm Deighan offers a reasonably fluid commentary on the film taking a more historical approach rather than jumping around from topic to topic with no organization (though one wonders how someone who admires the film as much as she does doesn’t pronounce the main character’s name correctly once during the entire commentary).
Theatrical Trailer (1:58, SD)
Kino Trailers: Night After Night, Belle of the Nineties, Goin’ to Town, Every Day’s a Holiday, My Little Chickadee, The Eagle and the Hawk.
With both She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel grossing ten times what they each cost, Mae West not only saved Paramount from bankruptcy in the throes of the Depression, but she established herself as an inarguable box-office star (ranking eighth in the box-office top ten for the year). I’m No Angel is quintessential Mae West with more songs, more banter, and more unbridled innuendo than any other West film, the last time she’d be able to have things her own way without the interference of the Production Code. Recommended!
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