I’ve been watching Mae West’s 1933 film ‘I’m no angel’. It’s surprising how good it is. Writing the dialogue only a few years after ‘talkies’ started, she grasped the potential of the spoken word at a time when the art of film-makers like Charlie Chaplin was essentially visual. ‘I’m no angel’ contains many memorable lines, including the oft-quoted ‘come up and see me’ and ‘it’s not the men in your life that matters, it’s the life in your men’.
Mae’s dialogue undoubtedly profited from her many years of legitimate stage experience. Films before this had nearly always depended on visual gags to carry the humour line, as had to be the case with silent movies. Mae was in ‘talking’ pictures and she understood the one-line gag in a way that has never been equalled. Audiences too, from their own acquaintance with vaudeville, the live stage, and, to an extent, early radio, knew how to listen for a double meaning or a catch-phrase. Most of all, Mae knew audiences and how to say her lines for optimal value.
The real surprises, though, are the feminist theme and the positive portrayal of African-American women, in contrast to other films of the era. The hilarious climax of ’I’m no angel’ comes in a court scene in which Mae sends up the hypocrisy of the men who have tried unsuccessfully to sleep with her but then accuse her of being easy and unfaithful. Her two African-American maids are her co-conspirators and characters in their own right.
It’s a hilarious, beautifully-scripted romp that shows why Mae West was such a popular star in the 1930s and deserves to be known better today.