I'm No Angel (1933)
Directed by Wesley Ruggles
Written by Mae West, Harlan Thompson, Lowell Brentano
Starring Mae West, Cary Grant, Gregory Ratoff
Release Date October 6th, 1933
Published December 12th. 2022
I'm in love. Somehow, I had managed to spend my time as a film critic missing out on the career of Mae West. I was always aware of her, I had seen clips from her films, and I'd heard her famous quotes, but I'd never watched one of her movies until now. The latest presentation of The Film Foundation is Mae West's 1933 romantic comedy, I'm No Angel. One of the earliest films in the career of the legendary Cary Grant, I'm No Angel is a breezy, delightful comedy of music, sex, and unending wit.
Mae West stars in I'm No Angel as circus performer Tira. Though her act mainly consists of a sexy song and a boyfriend in the crowd lifting wallets, Tira nevertheless is a star. When her boyfriend gets in trouble with the cops, Tira is implicated and is forced to agree to become a lion tamer. She even goes so far as agreeing to put her beautiful head inside a lion's mouth in exchange for the circus manager, Big Bill Barton (Edward Arnold), paying for her lawyer.
The lion tamer act is a huge hit and takes her to New York City. There she becomes a sensation and earns the attention of several rich and prominent men. One of those men is Jack Clayton (Cary Grant), who becomes so smitten that it appears they are headed down the aisle. The marriage, however, causes Tira to give up the lion tamer act, angering Big Bill. To keep his biggest star, Big Bill instructs Tira's ex, Slick Wiley (Ralf Harold), to ruin the marriage plan. He succeeds in running off Jack, but that's not the end of the story.
Rather than go away quietly, Tira instructs her lawyer, Benny Pinkowitz (Gregory Ratoff), to sue Jack for Breach of Promise. This leads to a court scene that is a wonderfully comic set piece. Here West's Tira takes over the cross examination of witnesses questioning her character and typical of her wit, she bowls them over with her charm. As Tira delights the jury, the movie breezes along toward a wonderfully satisfying conclusion.
I'm no Angel was directed by Wesly Ruggles but much of the movie has been credited to West in the years since. West has a screenwriting credit, alongside two other screenwriters, and it's quite clear that she is in full control of how she's presented. Ruggles may be pointing the camera, but it is West who commands the screen. Her broad accent, her lovely smile, and that unending confidence radiates star power like few actors in movie history. It's clear she's the brains and the beauty behind the whole operation of I'm No Angel.
I'm No Angel is also notable for being a pre-Hayes Code comedy. This means that West is free to be a fully realized sexual being. While much of the movie is about disproving the number of men she has slept with, that doesn't mean she acts with any shame. Tira's past is her past and she doesn't feel bad at all about her past, nor should she. Society, even today, demands shame of women if they choose to be open and honest about sexual desire, West was and is a rarity in film history, a woman in full control of her sexuality, intelligence, persona, and power.
Watching West in I'm No Angel, I found her irresistible. Whether she was singing, strolling confidently through the well-appointed sets, or making one witty comment after another, I was enthralled. Much like the men in the movie, I was putty in her hands. West is the kind of actress you can't pull yourself away from. It-factor is an understatement when talking about Mae West. I'm struggling to think of an actress so unrelentingly confident and in control of every aspect of a movie.
Her work may appear broad today but taken in the context of the time, it's breathtaking to watch. West is the funniest, sexiest, smartest person in every room she's in and that includes rooms with Cary Grant in them. The famously handsome and roguish leading man, in one of his earliest roles, is a terrific audience avatar. Much like us, Grant's Jack can't tear himself away from her. That he is himself at the height of his youth and beauty should tell you just how incredible Mae West must be to leave him in such awe.
I'm No Angel is a revelation for me. It's now among my favorite movies of all time. It's a movie I am eager to watch again and recommend to friends. It's brimming with charm, big laughs and a lead performance by Mae West that is among the most entertaining in film history. I'm No Angel has recently been fully restored by The Film Foundation and will be shown for free on Monday, December 12th, at 7 Pm online at Film-Foundation.org. Sign up there and watch the movie on Monday night at 7 Pm with an introduction by Martin Scorsese.
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Very well written. Keep up the good work!
On-point and relevant
Writing reflected the title & theme