Belle of the 90's
Paramount production and release. Stars Mae West. Directed by Leo McCarey from story and scenario by Miss West. Songs, Arthur Johnston and Sam Coslow; Photog. Karl Struss. At Paramount, N.Y., week Sept. 21. Running time, 73 mins.
Mae West's latest opera, "Belle of the Nineties," ain't no sin for the b.o. nor the customers. It's been sufficiently denatured from within and yet not completely emasculated.
It's not up to par, but who cares? The customers won't, if the Par first-nighters are any criterion. They came to laugh at Miss West's robust quips and they did; so much so that the film's shortcomings impress mostly on the improper timing of laughs. The audience guffaws extended into the ensuing dialog, and whether those particular portions of the gab are ad lib will not be known from this particular screening.
Hence, if the reaction is that spontaneous, what matters the rest? True, the story is deficient. It's as ten-twent-thirt as its mauve decade time and locale. The melodramatics are put on a bit thick, including the arch-villain who is an arch-renegade, a would-be murderer, a welcher, an arsonist and everything else in he book of ye good old-time mellers. That Miss West treats villainy with equal cunning (although it's labeled as extraordinary counter-shrewdness) and foils all of the intended dastardliness is mitigated only by the benefit-of-clergy finale, an obvious curtsey to Joe Breen.
Apart form the melodramatics, Miss West's "Belle" is really a vaudeville two-act -- a comedienne with a straight; only it's a succession of straight men feeding her for her quips. The Westian pepigrams are reeled off in orthodox variety manner; somebody, anybody (her maid, an admiring swain, the on-the-make muggs, a casual stooge) asks her a simple question and she never answers in a straight-forward manner. Always a wisecrack. But that's the West technique. She's built a nifty into a marquee name and the customers seem to expect it. Some are out of the trunk, but they jell nicely.
"Belle of the Nineties" is a little of everything. Even "St. Louis Blues" and "Memphis Blues" are in it -- she did "Frankie and Johnny" in "Diamond Lil." The original songs by Coslow and Johnston are "My Old Flame," "American Beauty" and "Troubled Waters." Duke Ellington's nifty jazzique is a natural for the Westian song delivery.
"Waters" introduces a little of the Elder Michaux revival meeting. That's in the offing, but within seeming earshot, and thus she does a semi-spiritual against the heated colored revival meeting background which productionally is rather well worked in.
Just like she makes stooges of almost anybody assigned to bandy talk with her, Miss West dittoes with her principal support, including Roger Pryor, the fave vis-a-vis, John Mack Brown as the good time Charlie, and John Miljan, a villyun of darkest mien. Katherine DeMille as the spurned gambler's sweetheart looks better and suggests better opportunities than the prima facie script accords her.
The publicity, the glamor and the star appeal -- these factors alone "Belle of the Nineties" underwrites itself.
-Abel. Variety, originally published September 25, 1934.