Of I'm No Angel (1933), which screened Sunday at the Pacific Film Archive, film critics like to write that if star Mae West had spoken only one line in her career--"Beulah, peel me a grape"--she would still have been one of her era's brightest screen stars. That's always seemed hyperbolic, but the film itself makes a pretty convincing case. West (at right), more imposing than coquettish as Tira the Lion Tamer, wields physical presence like a boxer and sexuality like a gunslinger throughout the film. From her opening scene, where she's introduced to a carnival crowd as "the girl who discovered you don't need feet to be a dancer," until the end, when she gets her man (Cary Grant, 29 years old and looking about 14, as upstanding society fellow Jack Clayton), Tira owns the screen.
It's not hard to imagine either why I'm No Angel, often considered the last film of pre-code Hollywood, was the breaking straw for the Hays Office, or why Depression-era audiences loved it so much. Tira violates conventions of race, class, and (of course) sex, and she goes entirely unpunished by the plot of the film. Instead, West, who took sole credit for the story, screenplay and dialogue, is careful to give herself the last laugh--the real currency of a film like this one--in every scene. In the climactic trial, she cross-examines much of her romantic history to prove, to a judge and jury with whom she flirts hilariously, that she's "no angel" but that she is, indisputably, a heroine. Here at SFist, we are hard pressed to think of a recent studio film in which a hypersexual female lead gets away with so much.