Salacious Sins in I’M NO ANGEL (1933)

MaeWest_CaryGrant_closeup Mae West was an original. Her personality was bigger than life and her sexuality was a powerful force of nature. In West’s second writing credit on film, Wesley Ruggles’ I’M NO ANGEL stands out as a definitive Pre-Code. Following the success of SHE DONE HIM WRONG released earlier that year, the even greater popularity of I’M NO ANGEL as the top grossing film of 1933 surely made William Harrison Hays sweat and squirm.

Sex and the Art of Seduction:

To wax-erotic if you’ll allow me some creative license, the tone and plot flows as sexually charged as its female lead. Mae West as Tira starts as a sideshow carney seducing men with song and hip undulations in a form-fitting sequined gown. The crowd is hypnotized.

Tira's gown leaves little to the imagination, to the delight of the circus crowd.

Tira’s gown leaves little to the imagination, to the delight of the circus crowd.

The superstitions of her more humble beginnings is reflected as she consults the fortune teller to predict her future. An opportunity* arises for Tira to climb from rags to riches when circus manager Bill Barton forces her to become the new lion tamer. She’s in the big tent as the main attraction and the hottest ticket in town. Now bejeweled in the most luxurious fabrics and bling, her entrance has been elevated atop an elephant in a grand procession to dominate the big cats under the big top. The foreplay continues as Tira utilizes her sexual prowness to tease the affections of as many men as there are signs in the zodiac.

ya know, just a typical glamorous lion tamer

ya know, just a typical glamorous lion tamer

The Men of Tira:

*While meeting one of her admirers, a slimy pickpocket Slick Wiley attempts to rob him by striking his head with a bottle. Assuming he’s killed the man, Slick flees, but he’s soon caught and arrested by the police. To avoid being betrayed by Slick, Tira asks for a loan from Bill Barton to escape. He only offers her the money if she agrees to become the new lion tamer and put her head into the mouth of a lion.

a seduction turns ugly

a seduction turns ugly

Tira lures Jack into her web of seduction

Tira lures Jack into her web of seduction

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As now the most sought after act in New York, one of her suitors visits her backstage, drawn in like a moth to the flame. Wealthy Kirk Lawrence is engaged to another woman but is so transfixed by her feminine wiles, he continues to pursue her and lavishes her with extravagant gifts. When we see his catty and pious fiancee confront Tira, she is no match for the confidence and wits of this lion tamer. We actually root for ‘the other woman’! But when she meets Kirk’s business partner Jack Clayton (Cary Grant), Kirk is yesterday’s news. This is the real deal. They fall in love and decide to get married.

The Climax:

For fear of losing his biggest asset and money-maker, Barton schemes with Slick Wiley (now out of jail) to corrupt the engagement. Slick shows up at Tira’s place just before Clayton arrives, as Slick asserts that he and Tira are old lovers and back together again. The cad! Without explanation, Clayton avoids Tira and coldly breaks off their engagement. But Tira has the upperhand yet again by taking him to court, suing for breach of contract. What follows is a climatic courtroom scene of Mae West at her empowered best.

a grand and glamorous wedding dress awaiting Grant!

a grand and glamorous wedding dress awaiting Grant!

on the set of I'M NO ANGEL for the brilliant court scene

on the set of I’M NO ANGEL for the brilliant court scene

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 The Lady Was a Progressive:

Mae West was a unique sex symbol, even in her day. When flat- chested, wispy thin, young ladies were dominating the silver screen, here sauntered in a 40 year old curvaceous provocateur, dropping double entendres with razor sharp humor. (See examples below.)

Some criticized Mae West for always writing in herself as the character with the best lines and the most on-screen attention. But frankly, who could blame her? Afterall, this woman was born to stand out. Something tells me if she was a man, this criticism would not be an issue.

Besides having the audacity to be a sexually confident female in charge of her career, West introduced another revolutionary first in I’M NO ANGEL. In several scenes, Tira is seen communicating with her maids in a way that is more similar to girlfriends chatting gossip at a sleepover. Granted, yes, these African American actresses are still being shown as domestic servants, as was typically the best on-screen role to be found. But it was actually more common for any speaking roles to be given to white actors in blackface. And even less common to display a nearly peer-like interaction between a wealthy caucasian female and her black maid/s.

the rapport between Tira and her maids was rather progressive for its time

the rapport between Tira and her maids was rather progressive for its time

This was a lady of style, of charismatic persona, of breaking boundaries and social codes (she even spent 10 days in jail for moral indecency for a risque role), of magnetic sexuality, and of highly intelligent humor. I’ll also submit that Mae West was an original take-charge feminist. All of this and the deliciously young Cary Grant too- all of the makings of the pinnacle Pre-Code that rocked the Hays code at its core.

SNAPPY DIALOGUE!

Tira: “Beulah, peel me a grape.”

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Tira: “It’s not the men in your life that counts, its the life in your men.” 

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Fortune Teller: “Keep this where you may consult it frequently.”

Tira: “Alright, I’ll take it to bed with me.”

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Clayton: “You were wonderful tonight.” Tira: “Yeah, I’m always wonderful at night.” Clayton: “Tonight, you were especially good.” Tira: “Well… When I’m good, I’m very good. But, when I’m bad… (winks at him) I’m better.”

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Director: Wesley Ruggles Producer: William LeBaron Screenwriting: Harlan Thompson and Mae West Cinematography: Leo Tover Cast: Mae West (Tira), Cary Grant (Jack Clayton), Gregory Ratoff (Benny Pinkowitz), Edward Arnold (Big Bill Barton), Ralf Harolde (Slick Wiley). B&W-88 mins.

->This post is my contribution to the PRE-CODE BLOGATHON hosted by Danny at Pre-Code(dot)Com and Karen at Shadows & Satin– peruse each of these sites for all the wonderful entries… precodebanner3

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Comments

  1. Hi, Kellee — great choice! I haven’t seen many Mae West films, but I’ve seen this one more than once — love it! I love the dialogue, and I’ve often noted and appreciated Tira’s relationship with her maids. Thanks so much for this contribution to the blogathon! 🙂

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  2. Enjoyed your piece, Kellee, and the great one-liners you pick out here – I haven’t seen this one as yet, but definitely need to. My to-watch list is growing at an alarming rate at the result of this blogathon.

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  3. From beginning to end you can’t help but root for Tira all the way. Who do those men think they are anyway? Who does the Court think it is? That gal runs things and the sooner they accept that, the better off they will be. Definitive pre-code is right on the money. Excellent!

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  4. I’m No Angel is a treasure. Thanks for taking your able hand to it, Kellee!

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  5. Brilliant job, as always Kellee! I must admit, I never saw a Mae West’s film… :/ This one seems to be a great one. And with Cary Grant! Yes please! 😀

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  6. Excellent site you have here but I was wondering if you knew of any forums that
    cover the same topics discussed in this article? I’d really love to be a
    part of community where I can get comments from
    other experienced people that share the same interest.
    If you have any suggestions, please let me know. Cheers!

    Like

    • Thanks!! If you are referring to Pre-Code forum? Or something more specific? I’m not much of a Forums gal myself (I prefer twitter personally) but I know the TCM site (Turner Classic Movies network) has an active forums. I would also recommend starting with my friend Danny over at http://www.Pre-Code.com (on twitter at @PreCodeDotCom) for anything PreCode- he’s got great stuff too!

      Like

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