I'm No Angel

I truly think that of all of the Mae West starring features that I've seen, "I'm No Angel" is my favorite. Of course, a few others hold special places in my heart but for pure enjoyment, cinematic excellence, and the "incomparable" Mae West style, this is the one to watch.

Miss West plays "Tira," a circus performer who goes from the seductive side show dancer in the opening scene (singing "They Call Me Sister Honky Tonk") to a lion tamer in "The Big Show." I've read that she loved the character of Tira because she would have loved to be a lion tamer rather than just playing one. But anyway...

As mentioned, she begins by dancing in a side show where a man, or rather, a large diamond ring catches her eye (not terribly unusual). She arranges to meet with him later, but is followed by her overprotective (and therefore useless) beau, Slick, the circus pickpocket. The two men get into an argument and as Slick's rival figures out he's better off going, Slick knocks him over the head with a bottle. Even though the bottle doesn't break, Slick decides that he's dead, and threatens Tira that if he goes down for the crime, she'll go right down with him.

Slick takes the body out of Tira's room, and against her advisement, swipes the diamond ring off of the man's finger . They leave the body in the hall and return to the circus. But the man isn't dead, just knocked senseless. As the police and hotel patrons revive him, he realizes that his ring was stolen and confirms that he can positively identify the culprit.

Back at the circus, Tira is packing up her bags when she hears commotion outside. Through a darkened window, she witnesses the apprehension of Slick and remembers his threat. In an effort to save her own skin (and Slick's, if it works out that way) she phones a friend who may be able to help her. But it will come at a price, so she asks the circus boss for the money. Half joking, she says she'd even stick her head in the lions mouth for it, a feat that would be well-reimbursed by "the Big Show." He ends up taking her up on it, which leaves her in a quandary: either she risks her beautiful blonde curls on a daily basis in a traveling, well paid position or she stews in her own juices in the small time circus that will keep her in one place waiting for Slick to name her in the crime. She chooses the former.

After the show one evening, a group of high-society admirers come to her dressing room to meet the famed lion tamer, including Mr. Kirk Lawrence, who proceeds to shower her with expensive gifts, diamonds included, of course.

I should mention at this point that a number of the subsequent scenes are almost exclusively between Tira and her maids. The reason I find this important is because although the African American women are treated rather stereotypically, they are still in the picture. For 1933, to have African American characters played by African American actors in a major studio release, was downright unheard of. The characters that Miss West wrote for them were essentially to feed her lines and further the image of how many men Tira had wrapped around her luxurious finger. But at least they were there.

It's within this cluster of scenes that we find the famous line, "Beulah, peel me a grape." It is also established that Kirk is engaged to a rather rude young lady who tries to bribe her to leave him alone.

In an effort to establish her intentions, Cary Grant, as Jack Clayton, comes to visit. Of course, she takes a liking to him. They become engaged. As a result, she decides to quit the circus. This causes a crimp for her boss so he sets up to have the recently returned Slick give Jack the idea that Tira will no longer be seeing him. Jack gets the hint and calls off the wedding, without a sufficient explanation as to why.

Jack Clayton is, as Tira says, "the first guy I really loved." So she goes back to her friend, Benny Pinkowitz, to sue Jack for "Breach of Promise." This gives Miss West the opportunity to relive on celluloid her infamous experience with the courts in 1927. In the film version, the defendants try to win the case on the basis of Tira's many amorous acquaintances. Of course she counters by cross-examining the witnesses herself, something I'm sure Miss West had wished to do at her own trial. These include both Slick and Tira's maid, Beulah. Her cross-examination is something to be seen. Finally, in the middle of the questioning of Slick, Jack decides to call off his contest to the suit, so Tira is triumphant. Later, Jack comes to see Tira in her apartment, where their reconciliation leads into the first verse of the title track, "I'm No Angel."

By Kim Stahl Cotton

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Last updated: June 30, 2004