Mae West wrote and stars in I’m No Angel, one of her more absurd and uncompromised outings, released before Hollywood began imposing its Production Code on films. After the Code, West’s sultry and witty charm would be considerably watered down. I’m No Angel would even be banned for fourteen years after its initial release.
But here we have her in full bloom, playing (of all things) a circus lion tamer who takes gifts from lovelorn suitors in exchange for social dates (and maybe more?) She’s looking for a rich man to settle down with, admitting to her maids she’s more in love with money than men. But that all changes after Cary Grant enters the second half of the story. The two fall in love and decide to get married, but when the circus owner (Edward Arnold) learns West is leaving the show, he conspires with her old suitors to drive Grant away and defame her in court.
A big part of West’s appeal is how effortlessly she commands the screen. She doesn’t make big movements when she walks or dances. And she doesn’t have to yell or use too many words when she puts people in their places. Her wields her power like a finely honed, surgical instrument. A little hip-throw here, a sexy little throat noise there, and she’s dynamite. She doesn’t even need the lion tamer element of this picture. When she’s whipping at lions, you can see the seams in the trick photography that create the illusion she’s in harm’s way. She doesn’t need gimmicks — she’s her own special effect.
The highlight of the movie is its climactic, not-so-serious court trial, where the prosecution tries to paint West as an promiscuous money-grabber. West plays her own defender, confidently addressing gendered double-standards with comedic aplomb. By the time the trial is over, Grant is back in love with her and she has dates lined up with the judge and jury — a fete only Mae West could achieve. She was scandalous in the ’30s and today she’d be ‘canceled’ for being politically incorrect. God bless her naughty little heart.