Wednesday, April 22, 2009

At the (old) movies: 'I'm No Angel'

Some notes from the local cinephile society’s latest presentation….

Although I’m a movie buff, and especially an old-movie buff, I’m not proud to admit that before the other night I had never sat through an entire Mae West movie, unless you count “My Little Chickadee.” But that's really a Mae West-W.C. Fields movie, and though it has its moments, it's ultimately a draw between two combative stars.

I’ve also seen parts of “She Done Him Wrong,” but it always seemed too slow.

In “I’m No Angel” (Paramount, 1933), which followed “She Done Him Wrong” and seems to move a little faster, West plays a circus performer whose past catches up with her after she gets involved with a well-heeled Cary Grant.

One could argue that the movie is flawed because a) the plot is a mess and b) Ms. West is something of a one-trick pony. But the plots of a couple of the early Marx Brothers movies don’t make much sense either, and if you’ve seen one Chico Marx piano solo, you’ve maybe seen more than enough. And how many times did W.C. Fields recycle that henpecked-husband-who-finally-wins-respect routine? (Never mind that, compared with the plot of Fields' “Never Give a Sucker an Even Break,” the story line of “I’m No Angel” is a model of Aristotelian perfection.)

It’s just that I really like the Marx Brothers (mainly Groucho), and I really like Fields. But although I don’t dislike Mae West, I somehow can't seem to muster the same enthusiasm for her.

But she deserves respect for knowing who she was, being who she was and getting what she wanted. She’s credited with writing the story, screenplay and dialogue for “I’m No Angel.” (Someone named Lowell Brentano is credited with making “suggestions.”) Did any other female performer in 1930s Hollywood have this kind of clout?

And if the plot of “I’m No Angel” is a mess, it does lead to a dilly of a courtroom scene in which West hilariously attacks her accusers’ hypocrisy while scoring points with the judge (played by Walter Walker, who shamefully receives no screen credit even though he shamelessly steals part of the scene).

West was also smart enough to realize the potential of Cary Grant, here billed below the title, but even at this early stage possessing enough star wattage so that you feel sorry for any featured Paramount player who tries to share a scene with him. In one scene with Grant, B-movie perennial Kent Taylor practically disappears from the screen; he’s literally there, but somehow he isn’t. But you can’t blame Grant for this, any more than you can blame the sun for shining.

Before the movie, a short subject: “Never Kick a Woman” (Paramount/Max Fleischer, 1936), in which Popeye takes Olive Oyl to a gym, where a Mae West-like instructor sets her cap for Popeye, sailor cap and all, and beats the crap out of Olive Oyl, who then eats some of Popeye’s spinach and then beats the crap out of her. (Anger management was never these cartoons’ strong suit.)

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