‘I’m No Angel’ (1933) is a movie so outrageous I’m amazed we’re legally allowed to watch it today without being arrested so god knows how they must’ve reacted to it ninety years ago!
Mae West plays Tira, a singer for Big Bill Barton’s Wonder Show, who distracts the audience with her act whilst her boyfriend, “Slick”, picks their pockets. Yet after “Slick” goes on the lam for thinking he’s killed a man Tira realises it’s time for her to move onto a better life, something Big Bill can offer to her if Tira will perform one particular act guaranteed to be a smash with the crowds — put her head in a lion’s mouth.
Newly liberated, still with her head and now living the high-life in New York Tira soon finds herself confronting different dangers, namely the society snobs who look down on her despite being completely smitten by her. Sure, Tira’s got a past (and a present!) but it’s not as if being a sexually active woman is going to end up landing her in court, right?
‘I’m No Angel’ might be West’s most sexually explicit film. Why? Simple — she fucks everybody. And when I say “everybody” I mean “EVERYBODY”!
At one point Mae’s Tira visits her astrologer who informs Tira that in the future there’ll be a man in her life to which she replies “What, only one?”
Or how about the moment during the court scene when, without a word of dialogue (West wrote the film’s story and script) being uttered, we realise Tira has just given the elderly judge a hard-on. How the hell did they get away with this back then?!
The film consists of three acts with the first purely revolving around the Big Bill’s Wonder Show. Indeed, it does so to such an extent that it’s not until roughly 45 minutes in that, after the location shifts to Manhattan, Cary Grant pops up and radically alters the entire tone of the movie as it morphs into a romantic comedy.
Except it kinda doesn’t because we never take Mae and Grant seriously as a couple in love for a second, but this is something the film is deliberately aware of with Grant making puppy-dog eyes at her not out of lust for her beauty but out of artistic admiration. “Isn’t she just great?” those swooning eyes of Grant’s are saying to the rest of us because he’s as much her audience as we are.
The only thing more outrageous than the dialogue are West’s costumes which are so comedically exaggerated they boggle the mind. There’s an absolutely delightful moment when the film cuts to Tira in her boudoir only director Wesley Ruggles does so with an extreme close-up on West and it’s hilarious. Why? Because we know, and Ruggles knows we know, that he’s then going to cut to a full body shot revealing whatever insane creation West is wearing. It’s a fantastic example of where the anticipation of the joke is as enjoyable as the pay-off and is a great example of nicely done comedy directing.
By the time the film gets to the climactic court room scene the movie almost seems to deconstruct itself (or fall apart depending on your point of view) with West defending herself against all these scurrilous, yet completely true, accusations. It’s incredibly funny and when I discovered just how West’s Tira wriggles her way free (I won’t spoil anything but it might involve fucking everybody) I was in hysterical shock at just how sexually spectacular it all was. I don’t think I’ve seen anything else quite like it and it left me wondering just what the hell they were all up to in the 1930’s.
‘I’m No Angel’ is really something else and that something else is Mae West herself because make no mistake, this is her show. She IS the show and, personally speaking, it’s one I could watch all day. I’ll just need to make sure that, like the rest of the audience is having to do, my trilby is discreetly placed on my lap for the sake of socially acceptable propriety… if you know what I mean. God, it’s hot in here.