I have always avoided Mae West because in the snippets I have seen of her films, I have found the sexpot to be highly unattractive and unappealing. I regret to say that in my first experience with a West film, my suspicions were confirmed. I’m No Angel gives story, screenplay and dialogue credit to West, which leads me to believe the star wrote the film around the sort of character she always played –the strong, foul-mouthed temptress.
West as Tira is a small-time circus performer at the start of I’m No Angel. Her act merely involves her wearing a nearly see-through gown with beading in all the necessary places while singing some song in that husky jazz voice of her’s. She gets by well in her world by taking lavish gifts from male “friends.” After one incident with a wealthy circus-goer results in Tira’s boyfriend being arrested for assault and theft, the star of the circus agrees to do a lion-taming act in exchange for the dough to cover Slick’s trial. The lion-act takes the show to the big time and Tira is now rolling in money and gems from her new salary and even higher-class fans. This is where she meets Kirk (Kent Taylor), who is engaged, yet considers switching fiancées in the midst of showering Tira with expensive gifts. To prevent a scandal, Kirk’s cousin Jack, played by Cary Grant, approaches Tira about calling it quits but finds himself enamoured of the woman. Now the two are engaged, but some meddling by Slick and Tira’s boss result in a break up of that relationship and Tira suing Jack for breach of promise.
West has the misfortune of a figure that is more husky than sultry and a face that leaves much to be desired. That did not stop the woman from becoming the symbol of sex during her reign in Hollywood. Her deep voice peddling all kinds of euphemistic banter and suggestive sighs were enough to attract the men on screen, and I image, off. Besides being highly unfeminine even with her hips that seem to sway in persistent motion, West’s character is severely low-class. No respectable woman would say or do the things Tira does and still get away with a sophisticated husband. The relationship between West and Grant felt all wrong. I do not think I have ever seen Grant paired with a woman that did not match him in level of refinement.
While watching West, I could not help but wonder what she was like off-screen. Did she really speak in that low tone and rattle off such offensively suggestive one-liners? West maintained the same emotional level throughout the entire movie. She was never not cool, confident and seductive, even when she should have shown heartbreak or affection. The persona West created was highly unique, but it seemed to override any sort of performance, at least in I’m No Angel. I hope my next experience with her is better, if I can bring myself to dive back in.
- I’m No Angel is set for 11:15 p.m. ET March 30 on TCM.