Film Review: Mae West Deep Dive (Part 1)

by Rachel Bellwoar

This year, Paramount launched its own streaming service – Paramount+ – but none of that would be possible if it weren’t for Mae West. Thanks to West’s films during the Great Depression, Paramount was saved from bankruptcy and now the studio still exists to this day.

Considering the impact she had on Hollywood history, West’s film output was relatively small. According to IMDb she only appeared in twelve pictures and an episode of Mr. Ed. That doesn’t account for her stage career, but it does make it so Kino releasing nine of those films on Blu-Ray is a major coup.

In Archie Mayo’s Night After Night, West makes her film debut as one of George Raft’s ex-girlfriends. According to film historians, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Josh Nelson, in their commentary track, Raft was the one who suggested West for the part, but it’s also apparent, from watching the trailer, that Raft was expected to be the box office draw.

In the film Raft plays a gangster who owns a speakeasy and falls in love with one of his customers (Constance Cummings). The ending gets female psychology all wrong, but West shares a lot of scenes with Alison Skipworth, who’s trying to teach Raft’s character proper English, like Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady. They’re hysterical together, and because Night After Night is a pre-code film, too (which means it was released before the production code and censorship were enforced), they even get to share a scene in bed together.

Heller-Nicholas and Nelson’s commentary is full of insights on the changes that were made between the film and Louis Bromfield’s short story, which Vincent Lawrence’s screenplay is based on. I especially enjoyed what they had to say about the mansion where Joe (Raft) runs his business, and it sounds like the short story was more female focused (it’s a shame Lawrence felt the need to add gangster content).

Cummings doesn’t get an entrance like West’s (as Heller-Nicholas puts it, she basically enters from behind a “curtain of men”), but her character does have a frankness that’s appealing, especially in scenes with her fiancé (Louis Calhern).

Today you hear actors and actresses talk about writing their own material because Hollywood wasn’t writing parts for them but that’s what West was doing in the 30’s. She rewrote her dialogue in Night After Night. In terms of pay parity, West was the one with the larger salary. She made sure she was paid what she was worth.

In Lowell Sherman’s She Done Him Wrong, West gets to play the lead this time in a film based on one of her plays, Diamond Lil. Basically, the film follows Lady Lou’s love life and the many close calls she has as a result. Cary Grant plays one of the men who catches her eye, and West was a big proponent for his casting.

Kino Lorber’s release comes with an intro by TCM host, Robert Osborne, a Pooch the Pup cartoon called ‘She Done Him Right,’ and two commentaries. In the first, film historian, David del Valle, talks about meeting West when she was filming Sextette and compares her career to Marlene Dietrich’s. In the second, film historian, Kat Ellinger, talks about West’s costumes (which weren’t designed for sitting) and some of the specific ways the Hays code effected the production.

Wesley Ruggles’ I’m No Angel is the most fun of the three films as it offers a chance to see West appear in different settings, like a courtroom and the circus. Once again, her character, Tira, is in love with Grant’s Jack, but he seems much more assured of himself in this role, compared to his performance in She Done Him Wrong.

There are also some great visual gags, and while West has sung on stage before in films, I’m No Angel gives her a chance to break into song as a way of expressing emotion, like an integrated musical. Film historian, Samm Deighan, provides the commentary track and along with discussing the film’s racial politics, Deighan looks at the genre turns that are taken by West’s screenplay.

Night After NightI’m No Angel, and She Done Him Wrong are available on Blu-Ray starting June 29th from Kino Lorber.

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