Thursday, November 24, 2016

CANON OF FILM: "I'M NO ANGEL"

I'M NO ANGEL (1933)

Director: Wesley Ruggles
Screenplay: Mae West, Story & Dialogue by Mae West, Addition Suggestions by Lowell Brantano



It's hard to quantify to a modern audience just how important and ahead of her time and influential Mae West actually is to the world of entertainment in general, not the least of which cinema, and it's bit hard to contextualize her in general, 'cause despite what everybody might think, that era of American cinema between the invention of sound and the adoption of Hays Code in 1934 was actually quite risque for the time. Not just sexually either, there was Warner Brothers making social conscious pictures like "I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang", as well as more outwardly sexual films, and while there was a lot that was still taboo, they certainly insinuated plenty, and downright said it in some situations, like the famous five minutes of "Baby Face" that were edited, that makes it very clear that Barbara Stanwyck's character has basically been forced by her father to be a prostitute since she was a teenager. That said, the most shocking abridge to the social morays of the time, was Mae West. She was already famous in America as a vaudeville performer, who like many at the time were multi-talented, and we see almost all her talents in this film, which, just came out after the code was enforced, but still manages to sneak in quite a few witticisms of hers. Like, when she's giving a phone number operator, "W, as in witch! Witch! W as in Witch! Dame misunderstood me." You gotta realize, at one point in her career, she was arrested for obscenity for performing her act, and she wasn't Lenny Bruce or anything, she never cursed, she was, that suggestive. (The play that she wrote that was raided was titled "Sex", this was back on Broadway in 1926!) Oh, and and one point in her career, she was almost banned from radio, after flirting a little too much with Charlie McCarthy. I'm dead serious, she said that, "Charlie was all wood and a yard long; I remember our last date and I have the splinters to prove it."! That was 1937!

That's the other major thing about her, the part that's really important nowadays, is that she was a writer, and usually wrote most of her movies and material. That might seem amazing, and it is, but you know, keep in mind, how unique she was; she had to write material. When she made her way to Hollywood, she was already well into her career, close to 40, but that didn't stop her. Her first film was "Night After Night", where she has a Supporting Role in an otherwise forgettable George Raft movie, where she rewrote all her lines. Within three years, she would be the second highest-paid person in the country, behind William Randolph Hearst. At the same Congress was filled with calls insisting that the "Mae West Menace" would stop. She way brazen, sassy, sexual, and innuendos in what seems sometimes like every line of dialogue she has. In "I'm No Angel" she confides, "It's not the men in your life that counts, it's the life in your men," and yeah, that was a bit too much for Bill Hays and most of America, where women were expected to settle down and get married and certainly not be so loose-moraled to sleep around, much less brag about it, much less, celebrate it. Much less, insinuate how good sex is. Other than maybe Groucho Marx, there's nobody who's more funny and quotable of that era of film than Mae West.

"I'm No Angel" was the second film collaboration she had with  a beginning-of-his-career Cary Grant as her main love interest, (Or I should probably say "Final Love Interest" in the film) after "She Done Him Wrong", that's one film of hers for some reason I haven't seen yet, but "I'm No Angel" is probably more influential than people realize. Like almost all of her work, she's the fish out of water who's rambling up and confronting the societal norms and morays of the time, and like "She Done Him Wrong" it came in just under the wire when it comes to the code being strictly enforced, so we're getting, mostly pure uncensored Mae West here. In "I'm No Angel", which is technically titled after a song she sings a few times in the film, although it could also probably be, at the time, the most obvious "No shit" statement in history, West plays Tira, a circus performer, who's looking to get out of her racket, but instead begins to get fame by moving from singer/burlesque performer to a lion tamer that's famous for sticking her head inside a lion's mouth. She takes this gig until she's rich enough to give it up, and basically, she's moving from man-to-man, the way she runs from one racket to another, until she gets caught up with a politician Kirk Lawrence (Kent Taylor), who was engaged at the time, but eventually, his cousin Jack Clayton (Grant) puts a stop to that, by falling in love with her, herself. And after promising to get married, she ends up suing over breach of promise, and in the movie's probably most galling scenes for the time, when you think about, she ends questioning witnesses at her trial, and of course, winning over the audience and the juries, one even sends her flowers. (Which is where she utters her most famous, and most misquoted line, "Why don't you come up and see me sometime", in "She Done Him Wrong" she actually says, "Why don't you come up some time, and see me," but she changed it for this film.)

Looking back on "I'm No Angel" the thing that shocked me is just how modern it really is as a story. I've made several notes about how I look at most of the big female actor/writer/director people of today, especially in comedy like Lena Dunham, Margaret Cho, Sarah Silverman, Tina Fey, among others as some of the best and most important artists of the day. Hell, when I finally revealed my Top Ten Films list of 2015 recently, I suspected that the most shocking and polarizing film on my list was Amy Schumer's first starring feature film role, "Trainwreck" which I ranked 5th on the year and I stand by that. I noted that that film took the conventions of the romantic comedy and through just a new perspective like Schumer's made if feel different and better than most of the ones we've seen in the recent past, and she does by the way. And "Recent" is the keyword, 'cause if you really want to observe why I ranked it so high, "I'm No Angel" is probably the best film to watch and compare to it. "Trainwreck"'s definitely more modern, but still, a creative person, who promiscuous, flaunts her constant affairs and sexuality, who often leads men on only for her own selfish and narcissistic gains, sometimes through scheme and deceit even, eventually falls in love with the man who makes her take a second look at her life and recognize that falling in love might not be such a bad thing. Yeah, they're similar, and yeah, I think you can argue that Amy Schumer might be a modern-day version of Mae West, and she's just as controversial today as West was in her time period, and is around the age Mae West was when she broke into movies too. In "I'm No Angel" West has to defend her actions, in a literal court of law, and in "Trainwreck," she has to earn her comeuppance by becoming a trait she admonishes, a cheerleader. Like, I said, it's a modern take, on the kind of rom-com trends and genre trappings that essentially people like Mae West invented and we've been struggling to find somebody who can master them the way she could ever since. Schumer of course, to sensible, evolved people at least, doesn't have to defend any of her actions, and that's because Mae West is the one that took the bullet for her, and all the other great female comic performers of the day, and she took it years earlier than any man ever did.

Mae West was, well, I'll let her say it, "When I'm good, I'm very good; but when I'm bad, I'm better."
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