Every year the Film Forum runs a festival celebrating movies made in 1933 or earlier. Movies like “Babyface,” with Barbara Stanwyck as the heroine, who sleeps her way to the top, and “Bombshell,” starring Jean Harlow as Lola, the actress who keeps family and film crew afloat, are made available on the big screen. Unmarried women had sex. These movies tend to be, what we used to think of as, “bawdy,” perhaps a little naughty. But then along came the Hays Code and its edicts to enshrine chastity and separate the matrimonial bed.
We chose to watch a double feature. First up was “I’m No Angel,” an iconic early flick starring Mae West and Cary Grant. Mae also wrote and directed it, which meant she broke the glass ceiling in Hollywood 80 years ago. The other feature was a Czech movie called, “Ecstasy.” It starred Eva Hedgwick before she came to the U.S. and became Hedy Lamarr.
“I’m No Angel” is built on Mae West’s over the top pungency in dress and persona. She was a zaftik dame with full thighs and hips, and her clothes accented every curve. Frank would have loved her. Her ensembles belong on the Red Carpet of the Academy Awards, and she never used a stylist. She was provocative, but always in complete control.
The plot is about a woman who cops to being “no angel,” but she does so with such lust and joy, that it makes the alternative awfully unappealing.
The movie opens with Mae as Tira, the burlesque draw in a honky tonk road show. She is down and out in her luck, and consults the show’s astrologer to find out how to find the right man. After he reads her charts, she makes no move without consulting his predictions. To get some dough, and become rich and famous, Tira becomes a lion tamer, and sticks her head in the lion’s mouth. She befriends women who are nice and disses snobs. She convinces an engaged man to give her thousands of dollars worth of gifts with nothing but friendship in return. And when millionaire Cary Grant breaks their engagement, she sues him for breach of promise, and nothing else. She has no interest in his money; she wants love. So romance wins out as we fade to Cary and Mae kissing. The End.
The second feature, “Ecstasy,” was about a young woman who marries a prig. Her marriage is never consummated, so she divorces him, and in her sadness and despair, hooks up with the virile brawny construction worker. Her pearls fling off and flowers bloom as she experiences ecstasy. Sex appeal – always in fashion.