In Which We Rank the Films of Mae West

Continuing with our series of posts honoring Mae West in celebration of her birthday, herewith is my entirely subjective ranking of her films. As with the Marx Brothers, her output was far too small, so one is constantly in the position of wanting more (such as these unrealized gems). On the other hand, it makes it easy to compile a list like this. Here then, from best to worst: the films of Mae West (note: I’m leaving out her two movies from the 1970s, Myra Breckenridge and Sextette – – they don’t really count):

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She Done Him Wrong  (1933)

I think most people agree that She Done Him Wrong, West’s first starring vehicle, is also her best film. It was based on her Broadway stage hit Diamond Lil (the reputation of which was so controversial Paramount changed its title even BEFORE the new Production Code.) As can be expected there’s a lot of pre-marital or just plain UN-marital sex hinted at, and some of it out and out talked about.  It’s set in a Bowery saloon during the 1890s. One of my favorite parts of the film is Mae’s two songs: a hot rendition of the old traditional song “Frankie and Johnny” and an equally sizzling version of the Shelton Brooks song “I Wonder Where My Easy Rider’s Gone”, first popularized by Sophie Tucker.

It features Cary Grant in one of his first big roles as a Salvation Army mission worker (who turns out to have some deeper layers). Also in the cast are former silent star Owen Moore (Mary Pickford’s first husband), Gilbert Roland, Noah Beery Jr, and David Landau (a familiar face in 30s movies. Sharp viewers will recognize him from Horse Feathers). 

I'm No Angel (1933)

 I’m No Angel (1933)

I’m No Angel was the follow up to  She Done Him Wrong, and I’d put both of them on the short list of her best pictures, though nothing is as good as the latter one, in my book.

In I’m No Angel, Mae starts out as a cooch dancer in a circus sideshow run by Edward Arnold. She has a man in her life (Ralf Harolde) but she’s tired of him and keeps an apartment in town where she sees other men. While she is dancing with one, her boyfriend “Slick” enters in a jealous rage  and clonks him. They think he is dead and  flee. (It turns out he is just unconscious.)  The boyfriend is sent up the river and Mae is obliged to cut a deal with the circus boss so he’ll pay for her lawyer.  At his insistence she becomes a lady lion tamer (!) and the act proves a success; she becomes a big star. From here she becomes the kept woman of a society guy (Kent Taylor) and then she dumps him when she falls in love with the man’s cousin, played by Cary Grant. Then Slick shows up and pretends he’s back in her life. Cary breaks off the marriage and she sues him for breach of promise. There’s a big trial scene where she conducts her own defense and Cary learns that she truly loves him and they reunite.

As in most of her films (she wrote them all) the plot is episodic, picaresque. Grant isn’t even in the movie until the last third or so. West shoe-horns a zillion of her quips into the script, many of them just gratuitously in there. They’re funny but don’t help move the plot. The only thing that holds it together really is Mae at the center, but that is plenty, believe you me. The film was directed by silent comedy vet Wesley Ruggles.

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Klondike Annie (1936)

Partially penned by West herself (based on her 1921 stage play Frisco Kate), the comedy essentially follows the same template as Charlie Chaplin’s The Pilgrim. A wanted criminal (West as the “Frisco Doll”) travels far from the scene of her crime and goes in disguise as a Bible thumper (“Sister Annie Alden”.) The turn of the century Alaskan setting conjured yet another Chaplin film: The Gold Rush. And this time out Mae had a serious hard-core quality director behind the lens: Raoul Walsh. The film suffered from heavy censorship — it’s best ten minutes are presumably destroyed forever. Still it marks her last really happy experience as a film auteur and the beginning of the end at Paramount. There were two more films to follow on her original contract, Go West, Young Man (1936) and Every Day’s a Holiday (1937), and then the studio let her go (this after her box office success had essentially save the studio five years earlier). But there’s a kind of Hollywood magic to Klondike Annie I’ve always relished; formally it’s kind of perfect, and it’s always been one of my favorite Mae West pictures.

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Night After Night (1932)

This was Mae’s Hollywood debut and ss you can see from the poster, she’s fourth billed in the picture, her presence there at all the result of her pal George Raft’s lobbying the studio (Paramount) on her behalf. Mae’s performance in the film is an object lesson for all of us: baby, when you get your big chance, do NOT blow it. West knew this was her one opportunity, and she picked up the ball and ran with it. She blazes across the screen as Raft’s ex-girlfriend Maudie, owner of a string of beauty parlors who gradually becomes fast friends with the gangster’s teacher, played by Allison Skipworth. The main plot is about Raft’s romance with a confused, depressed society girl played by Constance Cummings. Mae turns her minor role into a star turn, full of piss and vinegar.  She’s determined to make her mark and she does. She re-wrote her lines to suit her character, and they’re hilarious. She’s only in a few scenes, but she made such a huge impression that she immediately got signed to a contract. Her first starring vehicle was She Done Him Wrong, which rapidly made Mae Paramount’s biggest earner. Overnight she became one of the highest paid women in the country. But it all started with Night After Night.

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My Little Chickadee (1940)

Critics and fans alike have always tended to give this one a bad rap, but I’ve always loved it. I think the film does have a kind of chemistry and a kind of magic that somehow others aren’t seeing. It’s Me’s nor W.C. Fields’s best — but they’re BOTH in it, and they’re both great.  To me that’s like a Christmas gift

While now thought of as a comedy classic starring two Hollywood legends, the reality at the time of its production and release was a cole slaw of complications. In 1939, Universal was looking for a follow-up to the successful Jimmy Stewart/ Marlene Dietrich comedy western team-up Destry Rides Again. Fields and West were in very different positions at the time. Fields was under contract at Universal, experiencing a kind of Indian summer of his career, in the midst of what has come to be regarded as his creative peak as a comedy star. West, on the other hand, hadn’t made a movie in nearly three years. Like Fields, she had parted ways with Paramount acrimoniously. Unlike, Fields, she really had nowhere to go. Her screen character been based in part on sexual desirability and she was now in her late forties. And she was refusing to re-invent herself. (Indeed, she would refuse to do so until her dying day, which is why the world can now enjoy the tin-foil gilded freak show known as Sextette, made nearly 40 years after My Little Chickadee).

The screenplay is credited to both Fields and West, and there were contributions from various studio scribes. Fields definitely wrote several early treatments. The idea of a marriage of convenience seems to have been his. Certainly all of his characteristically flowery lines and his bits of physical business are his. And Mae’s plot seems to be mostly her handiwork. Mae’s comedies, just like most westerns of the time, have one foot planted squarely in the old “Mellers”, so she takes to this genre well. Criminality is a theme throughout her work. It’s a simple matter to transplant the lawlessness of the Bowery to the frontier. Most of the co-stars’ scenes are separate; the two comedians didn’t get along very well. West always hated the film, and Fields downplayed his own involvement in the screenplay.

In this film, Mae plays a Chicago saloon singer named Flower Belle who comes westward on the lam, all on account of her romantic involvement with a masked bandit. On the train she meets con man Cuthbert J. Twillie (Fields) whom she mistakes (thanks to his bag of counterfeit bills) for a moneybags. She “marries” him and they settle into Greasewood City. If Fields hopes to consummate the marriage (and he does) he is sorely disappointed. A goat shares his bed, while Flower Belle sees the Masked Bandit on the sly. (It’s okay. It turns out Fields and West aren’t married, after all. They guy who married them, played by the ubiquitous Donald Meekmerely LOOKS like a minister). Fields get busted when he is caught sneaking into Flower Belle’s room disguised as the Masked Bandit in order to get some action from his wife, even if he has to trick her. He is about to be hanged when Mae saves the day.

Mae’s double entendres are pretty toothless in the film; the censors had begun taking the bite out of her character years before. Latter day fans have cherished this film since at least the 1960s — from a distance. But in 1940, the comedians’ playful self-parody looked to a lot of critics like more of the same, just a rehash, and exhaustion. This didn’t stop the film from being popular with audiences though. Still, it couldn’t help poor Mae. Her next film was the exceedingly weak The Heat’s On three years later, and that was the end of her original Hollywood career.

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Belle of the Nineties (1934)

This was Mae’s third starring feature, directed be Leo McCarey. The film is kind of a “might have been”, one that one wishes could be restored to Mae’s original vision. It was originally to have been called It Ain’t No Sin, a perfect title to follow up I’m No Angel and She Done Him Wrong. That’s a way better title.

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But by now the censors were in full swing; 1934 was when the Production Code began to be more strictly enforced, and Mae’s first two featured had been largely responsible. Paramount changed that title and chopped out most of the best parts of the film. It’s directed by Leo McCarey so we know that the movie had to have been better than it is now. By all reports it had lots more racy stuff, but undoubtedly it was also funnier and made more sense.

Belle of the Nineties was Mae’s biggest budget picture to date. Since the first two were hits she got the go ahead to spend on lavish sets and costumes. There is music by Duke Ellington and lots and lots of songs, probably more than any other Mae West pictures. The picture opens with a TERRIFIC scene at a St. Louis burlesque theatre with chorus girls and comedians. Mae comes out posing in several costumes as a series of “living pictures” tableaux.

Then we get into the plot. She has a romance with a boxer, the Tiger Kid (Roger Pryor). His manager (Johnny Mack Brown) doesn’t like it, thinks it’s a distraction. So he fixes it so the boxer thinks she is playing around. She flees to New Orleans and begins working at a night club. The night club owner Ace Lamont (John Miljan)  takes a shine to her, making his girl friend jealous. Mae rejects the guy, sees another rich admirer who gives her jewels. The nightclub owner hires her old boyfriend the boxer both to fight for him and to steal the jewels. (The boxer doesn’t know they’re on Mae; he robs them in a carriage in the dark). Then there’s a big boxing match scene (which Mae fixes – she fixes ‘em all good). The boxer accidentally kills the nightclub owner as Mae retrieves her jewels. He tells the truth to Mae and she believes him and they burn the nightclub down to hide the murder! And somehow there’s a happy ending of them getting married and getting away with it!

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Every Day’s a Holiday (1937)

From a certain perspective this is the last proper Mae West starring vehicle from the classic studio era, My Little Chickadee and The Heat’s On each containing disqualifying elements.

After the uncharacteristic Go West, Young Man (1936) this one represents a return to Mae’s familiar gay 90s/ New York territory of her early films, but is a bit broader and cleaner (with the Hays Code now in full flower). It’s kind of a nice way for her to round out her initial run as a solo star although it’s sad it ended so early.

Director Eddie Sutherland‘s touch isn’t perfect. I don’t like the supporting cast playing their parts so broadly comical (there had been no need for that in She Done Him Wrong). But at least she didn’t end her solo career on the discordant note set by Go West, Young Man, which would have been unfortunate. In Every Day’s a Holiday she plays Peaches O’Day, wanted by police for repeatedly selling the Brooklyn Bridge to suckers. It opens on New Years Eve, 1900 — the dawn of a new century. Crooked police commissioner and mayoral aspirant Honest John (Lloyd Nolan) was spurned in the past so now he wants Peaches arrested for good. So now she is on the lam. The good looking detective assigned to arrest her tends to be kind-hearted so she keeps slipping away from the authorities. He exiles her to Boston, but not before she has ridden in a cab driven by Chester Conklin, where encounters an automobile driven by Charles Butterworth and his silly millionaire boss (Charles Winninger). Hustler/producer Walter Catlett gets her to return in disguise in her new show, Ooh La La. She pretends to ba French diva named Mademoiselle Fifi. The police chief falls in love with her. When she won’t date him he closed down the theatre so she does date him and when his back is turned she steals her rap sheet and burns it. she then runs the detective for mayor. He is kidnapped for awhile but emerges just in time to win the election. There is a huge parade and celebration featuring Louis Armstrong. Mae rides away with her triumphant boyfriend.

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Goin’ to Town (1935)

Goin’ to Town was Mae’s first post-code feature, and it’s kind of a mess. As always, it’s a showcase for her fabulousness, her beautiful outfits and so forth, although this time it’s set partially in a contemporary milieu (I say partially because the opening section is a western so it feels like a throwback). Most of her previous films had been set against the Diamond Lil backdrop of the 1890s (although Night After Night had certainly been contemporary).

Goin’ to Town is enjoyable and does have its racy parts but does seem to limp into the station on a little less gas.  It would have leaped the tracks into awesome if the main guy had been Cary Grant, whom Mae originally wrote the part for. The whole movie actually only makes sense from that perspective. The plot: Saloon singer Mae inherits an enormous ranch from her husband (murdered by rustlers on their wedding day) that turns out to have oil on it. She falls for the geological engineer in charge of the drilling (how’s THAT for a missed double entendre, Mae?) But he is an English snob and rejects her. (This of course would have been Grant’s part. Here it is played by some poor scraecow named Paul Cavanaugh). She follows him down to the casinos and racetracks of Argentina (because Mae is a show-woman nonpareil, there is a horse racing sequence). Here she throws her money around, but gets the idea into her head that she must have breeding to win her man, who continues to reject her. She marries a broke guy from a good family. Next we go to their mansion in Southampton, where Mae sings in the opera Samson and Delilah for a charity function. Her husband is killed in a plot to frame her, but the truth rapidly comes out and she gets her man. Or “men”. Along the way she’d also had her eye on a good looking Russian dude who is a pawn in the plot against her, and she also has a couple of guys on payroll to do her bidding, a business manager, and an American Indian from the ranch who does her dirty work and more heroic deeds.

I noted many continuity errors in shooting and editing, ones that are internal, i.e., weren’t caused by censor’s cuts, which is why I called it “a mess”.

But look! Mae sings opera!

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Go West, Young Man (1936)

Unthinkably this movie is not a western, the title is literally just a pun on the star’s name. Sadly, this is one of Mae’s worst films, not as bad as The Heat’s On, but it certainly takes second place as far as I’m concerned. Interestingly (and not surprisingly), while Mae was the foremost reason for the strict enforcement of the Hayes Code starting in 1934, she was also its most obvious victim. What could Mae do…if she couldn’t do what she did?!

GWYM was an attempt to make the star more mainstream, to take her out of her two usual settings: the criminal 1890s and the criminal present. Here, she plays something not too far from herself: a movie star diva. The tone is screwball comedy (the genre was then at its peak), and the director is Henry Hathaway. The property was based on a stage play adapted by West. On the face of it, it sounds great. Unfortunately, Mae is working so hard to convince the audience that she is not REALLY this awful character that she gives the worst performance of her career.

The first eight minutes are a film-within-the-film, as we screen the end of one of her character’s films. Then she comes out and gives a very long expository speech. You could cut out the first ten minutes of the movie without spilling a drop. Then we get the set up. Warren William (miscast) plays her studio p.r. man, whose job is to keep her out of trouble with men. (William, one of my favorite actors, is miscast here — too old, and too unselfish. He’s at his best as a con man or an ambulance chaser). Mae has a romance going with a young ambitious Chicago politician (Lyle Talbot), which William tries to discourage. While they are driving across rural Pennsylvania to meet him, their car breaks down and they have to stay at an inn run by a family of women. While there, she falls for local inventor Randolph Scott, who’s fixing their car…but apparently she is just toying with him and wants a piece of his invention. Then the authorities and public get the idea that she is kidnapped. Talbot and cops come rushing to the rescue. In the end she rejects both guys and goes with Warren William. The moral being that this corrupt, immoral movie star belongs with a corrupt, immoral press flack, instead of the normal, healthy, all-American tinkerer. It smacks of a message no one involved with this movie believes, least of all its star. It kind of seems like an exercise in building up Randolph Scott as a studio property at Mae’s expense. But she wasn’t through yet – – she had a couple of perfectly great pictures still to come.

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The Heat’s On (1943)

I’d long heard of this film as one of the classic bad/ sad comedy swan songs, up there with the Marx Brothers’ Love Happy and Laurel and HardyUtopia or Atoll K.  The good news is that it is not as bad as those other two movies, and no worse particularly than most of the other disposable crap Hollywood was squirting out during World War Two. If you are a Mae West fan it is disappointing; she’s only in about a quarter of the movie. This was a terrible era for comedy. In the 40s everyone’s needs came ahead of the comedians: singers, soldiers, studio accountants, the flag, jazz lovers, boring ass stuffed shirt romantics, the janitor… In fact the crummy plot of this movie is notably similar to the crummy plot of Love Happy: a bunch of people scheme and strive to put on a Broadway show. In a normal Mae West movie Mae is the only important person, she is onscreen almost every minute, and she gets all the funny lines. In this one she is horribly upstaged by Victor Moore, William Gaxton and Xavier Cugat and a million musicians and singers. Ironically, West was the one whose name director/producer Gregory Ratoff relied upon to raise the financing to make the film. It plays with Mae’s image some, but has nothing like the normal ratio of Westian witticisms. Instead of Mae, you get stuff like this Hazel Scott turn, which, ya know, a vaudeville guy like me can’t hate, which is why I have to say this one is a little better than Atoll K. 

For more on comedy film history don’t miss my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

 

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2 comments

  1. William K. Everson insisted that movies like THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE, BABY FACE, and the uncut SIGN OF THE CROSS were responsible for the code crackdown.

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