‘Goin’ to Town’ or — Naughty by Design?

Mae West’s previous movie, ‘The Belle of the Nineties’ (1934), saw West’s spark struggling a little to fully burst off the screen and this could be down to a couple of reasons.

Firstly, West was now having to conform to the strict Hays Code so anything directly sexually explicit was out. Secondly, despite being one of the greatest Hollywood directors of the 21st Century (and one of my personal favourites), as well as a perfect match for West on paper, I’m not sure the great Leo McCarey was the right director to handle Mae. McCarey was an expert at comedy and could do zany, slapstick, screwball and romance better than anyone else but I’m not too sure he was completely at ease with filth and when you’re dealing with West you need to be able to deal with filth.

Fortunately ‘Goin’ to Town’s (1935) director, Alexander Hall, is fully aware of this so never once attempts to rein West in or ‘sophisticise’ her. In fact, you can sense the two of them mischievously colluding to get away with as much as possible.

West herself also seems to have fully grasped how to work round the Code’s rules (in the previous film she looks a little stymied by the constraint of it all) and you can palpably feel the delight she’s having at slipping in constant innuendos (what we’re witnessing is the thrill of someone realising they now know how to game the system).

There’s a wonderful example causally tossed-off near the start when, after encountering oil prospector Edward Carrington (Paul Cavanagh) who is working her land, West mentions that she doesn’t mind him “drilling holes in her property”… if you know what I mean. But it’s delivered so strait-laced that it’s incredibly easy to miss, even though the audience back then would’ve cottoned on immediately.

There’s another glorious moment when Cavanagh visits West’s mansion (she’s a wealthy cattle rancher) to show her his blueprint for his new large, protruding, spurting oil derrick which he lays out on her desk. Her response is to turn her back to the camera to allow us a full on shot of her placing her bottom on her desk and, in the process, sitting fully on-top of his protruding, spurting… look, you get the idea, okay?

West also knows that she might be restricted in what she can say but less so in what she can wear because, good grief, ‘Goin’ to Town’ has some of the most sexually provocative costume design I’ve ever seen… and all done without showing ANY flesh!

Her outfits, to please the censors, cover her entire figure to the extent that only her head and hands are properly exposed. These dresses also have a somewhat minimalistic design consisting mostly of swathes of blank fabric. How innocent!

Yet these dresses are ornamented by lines, chevrons and highlights that are as sexually explicit as can possibly be. We’ll see lines that flow over the contours of her hips, curve round to the back and coalesce at the centre of her bottom meaning our eyes are drawn directly to her bum and absolutely nowhere else.

The most outrageous costume is near the end when West performs an opera (“Oh yes, I forgot I’m putting on an opera tonight” she casually mentions to everyone before sashaying off screen) and when she makes her big entrance she walks out as — and can I politely ask the prudish of you out there to avert their eyes? — a disembodied vagina with a waterfall of diamonds cascading out of it topped off by a set of hovering, glittering boobs. It’s so arresting it would’ve be LESS obscene if she was actually fully naked instead. Take that, censors!

‘Goin’ to Town’ isn’t quite West’s best film as it feels clunkily constructed of three radically different genres — western, horse racing down in Buenos Aires, opera recital — all smashed together but this also does provide a huge load of fun and variation so the film never gets bogged down or becomes stale.

But it’s that feeling of confidence exuding from West that’s so satisfying to consume along with that delightful twinkle in her eye of someone who has finally got a handle on the limitations being imposed on her and knows exactly how to exploit them. It’s worth it for that alone. That and those disembodied, glittering boobs.

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Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.

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Colin Edwards

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.