Kino Lorber Studio Classics Releases the Iconic Comedian’s Full 1930s Output to High Definition
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: JUNE 29, 2021/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
For anyone who’s been waiting for Mt. Rushmore of Comedy icon Mae West’s classic filmography to make the jump to Blu-ray, the moment has arrived.
Even before West arrived in Hollywood, she was already bucking the system- and not merely as the libidinous provocateur of her persona. From an early age, performance was in her blood. As a budding young woman, she learned that sexual provocation was a quick and assured way to notoriety. To say that West took this lesson and ran with it would be a grand understatement in all of film comedy. That said, her films, amid all their dense innuendos and blatant double entendres, have a way of never actually being sexy.
On the New York stage, West challenged sensibilities with her confrontational shows Sex and The Drag. Both written by and starring her, the former netted her ten nights in jail on charges of “producing an immoral show and maintaining a public nuisance.” The latter, a melodrama about homosexuality, was likely even more shocking to general audiences of the 1920s.
West’s arrival to Hollywood may seem absolutely ill-timed, considering how it corresponds with the ramping-up enforcement of the morality-policing Hays Code. In actuality, West’s expert dodging and button-pushing of the Code inflated her notoriety and ensured her fame in that moment. Her persona flourished. Throughout the 1930s and beyond, Mae West, in her dolled-up exaggerated appearance and unmistakable inflection, ranked as one of the most immediately recognizable entertainers in the world.
Far less familiar to contemporary audiences than West was in her heyday, Kino Lorber has opted to reintroduce her 1930s filmography to the world proper. Here, we briefly review each of these new Blu-ray releases. It’s some time indeed to come up and see her.
– Jim Tudor
Night After Night
DIRECTED BY ARCHIE MAYO/1932
It’s the mugs & hoods vs. the Park Avenue set in this rom-com with likable characters and a punchy story. Constance Cummings is Jerry Healy, a formerly wealthy woman who is engaged to Mr. Bolton, portrayed rather flatly by Louis Calhern. Jerry shows up to drink at a speakeasy run by gangster and former fighter Joe Anton, portrayed by George Raft. Anton’s sidekick Leo, portrayed by Roscoe Karns, is a loyal friend who manages some of the more detail-oriented things in Anton’s business. Karns was a prolific actor and modern audiences will likely recognize him from the movies It Happened One Night (1934) as Oscar Shapely and, for silent film fans, he played the role of Lt. Cameron in Wings (1927). Mae West doesn’t have a ton to do in the film but does have an especially delightful scene with Alison Skipworth where there is some, ahem, confusion between the two of them as to the nature of Ms. West’s profession. It’s a delightful bit of pre-Code censor-ducking double entendre which made me laugh out loud. There’s also a scene of George Raft getting into a bathtub in which we see him naked but not full-frontally.
My Blu-ray player is a Sony BDP-S6700 and unfortunately there are periodic drop-outs in sound which make it difficult to watch with the primary audio track. The commentary track recorded by film historians Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Josh Nelson is filled with wonderful information and doesn’t seem to have the same sort of drop-out errors. I opted to watch the film on first pass on my laptop with an external Blu-ray drive in order to not be incredibly distracted. The screen image is pristine across devices and the film is stable but not artificially so. The audio, when played on equipment other than my Blu-ray player, is clear and well-presented.
– David L. Gill
She Done Him Wrong
DIRECTED BY LOWELL SHERMAN/1933
A wonderful 1890s period piece about a successful and fully autonomous female business owner, She Done Him Wrong is a wonderful romp. Director Lowell Sherman, who had previously acted alongside Rudy Valentino in 1924’s Monsieur Beaucaire, leads this film in a capable manner wherein Mae West dominates whenever she’s on-screen. Innuendo and homosexuality are to be found if one looks hard enough. West’s costumes are gorgeous and her delivery impeccable. Story-wise, there are a few twists that one won’t necessarily see coming, so stay tuned. West’s songs are delivered well and are enjoyable additions to her sultry screen presence.
The first time I ever saw She Done Him Wrong was on TCM and I hadn’t paid attention to the opening credits and, as a result, I was quite a ways into the film before I realized that the director of the neighborhood mission was Cary Grant! Two film commentaries are on the disc: one from David Del Valle and another from Kat Ellinger.
The Kino presentation suffers from the same technical difficulties I experienced in Night After Night. The sound doesn’t drop out as often but that it drops out at all on my equipment is unfortunate.
– David L. Gill
I’m No Angel
DIRECTED BY WESLEY RUGGLES/1933
Ruggles, West, and Grant are a wonderful team in this story about a circus performer who seeks wealth and moving on from the boss and potential ex-boyfriend who have exploited her. Tira, played by West, is a belly-dancer and all-around circus performer who becomes a lion tamer to make money to pay back her lawyer after he gets her out of a scrape with the law. Kent Taylor plays a rich, already-engaged playboy named Kirk Lawrence who spends lavishly on her…and whose business partner is Jack Clayton, played by Cary Grant. Grant is the charming leading man one expects him to be, and Kent Taylor is drop-dead gorgeous…and no, I will not be taking questions at this time.
The final act contains a wonderful period court-room scene in which West questions witnesses on the stand and is delightful if unconventional. Grant and West have chemistry on-screen even if Grant is a little stiff in the love scenes.
Kino’s release is well-enough done. Commentary by Samm Deighan is informative and covers much of the context of the Hays Code for the viewer. The picture is crisp and easy on the eyes. Audio problems with the discs are the same as the other discs I reviewed.
– David L. Gill
Belle of the Nineties
DIRECTED BY LEO MCCAREY/1934
For Mae West, It Ain’t No Sin… though the newly heavily enforced Production Code begged to differ. Hence, the title of the innuendo-happy star’s third feature shifted from It Ain’t No Sin to the absolutely innocuous Belle of the Nineties. Per that title, the story unfolds in 1890s New Orleans once West’s bedazzled and mesmerizing songstress Ruby Carter relocates from St. Louis. In no time at all, she finds herself caught up with a no-good gentleman operator and his jealous lover. Her penchant for jewelry may’ve gotten her into this fix, but before long, Ruby’s got the goods on the guy.
That the movie is competently directed by comedy ace Leo McCarey (Duck Soup, The Awful Truth) unfortunately does not result in many laughs. As a comedy, Belle of the Nineties is in fact a merely okay pot-boiling drama. West, though, once again writing her own material, does come through with plenty of requisite suggestive zingers. (“Better to be looked over than overlooked.”) But more-so than her previous two films, she does deliver more musical numbers. Among the satisfying songs is the debut of the jazz tune “My Old Flame”, in which West is backed by Duke Ellington and his orchestra.
Film Historian Samm Deighan provides a thorough audio commentary for Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray edition of Belle of the Nineties. Deighan explains that this being 1934, as the Hays Code was just seriously flaring up, this is West’s first film to really be majorly compromised by it. The nullified results are not helped along by the lack of any stand-out co-stars. (Rather than Cary Grant, we have wooden Roger Pryor and Johnny Mack Brown). From the film’s modest stage numbers to its boxing subplot to its enchanting outdoor Black gospel revival sequence, this fair-to-middling Mae West title does look awfully good in high definition. And that makes it worth looking over.
– Jim Tudor
Goin’ To Town
DIRECTED BY ALEXANDER HALL/1935
Mae West stars as a saloon girl-turned debutante in this western-turned-socialite comedy. West is, as always, the in-control woman who sees herself as navigating and meeting challenge after challenge. Her gowns are impressive and her individualism moreso. After losing her fiancé to a bullet, she inherits his fortune and decides to become “a lady.” Travelling to Buenos Aires to race a fast horse from her new-found property and attempts to attract the attention of a British gentleman who worked on the oil well on her property.
The Kino edition has a wonderful commentary from film historian Kat Ellinger who, as a sex-positive feminist, has informative and beautiful takes on what West is up to in her films and plots. I highly recommend getting this disc just for this commentary track, never mind the wonderful performance from West. The print is either several generations in or is from 16mm source material as it is rather soft in presentation. The audio is clear and there’s good differentiation between the background music in the opening scenes and the dialogue. Cutting out the noise from the music had to be a challenge and the Kino/Universal techs which worked on the project no doubt had their work cut out for them. But as far as the disc authoring goes, it was roughly 6:45 in before the audio dropped out on my aforementioned Sony Blu-ray equipment.
– David L. Gill
Go West Young Man
DIRECTED BY HENRY HATHAWAY/1936
The beginning of the film is a film within a film and is a wonderful device. West is wonderful in that scene, the climax and end of a film in which she is pursued by several suitors in a South American country. It was heightened drama and wonderfully over-the-top. When we return to the “real” world, we discover a star who wants a personal life, a man who has political ambitions and wants to be part of that star’s personal life, and a manager who is trying to sabotage her personal life. The car breaks down on the way to the next public appearance and Ms. West is thrust into the neighborhood of one Randolph Scott. The ensuing fireworks and eye candy do not disappoint. Throw in a kidnapping subplot and some moonlight and music and you have the recipe for this fun movie. I won’t spoil the ending but astute readers will know my feelings about the end!
The picture quality of Kino’s release is sharp and smooth. The picture is reasonably steady and, though it has a bit of weave in the gate, it is not distracting at all.The audio dips out on my equipment at certain intervals. There is a bit of fuzziness in quieter parts as a result of the source material and it is well-mastered. The closed captions are not terribly helpful as they do not differentiate between speakers. They were also out of synch with the dialogue for a while on this disc. Kino could certainly do a better job for those who require them for enjoyment of films.
– David L. Gill
DIRECTED BY RAOUL WALSH/1936
By 1936, Mae West was not merely toning down her act, she was finding religion. At least that was the case on screen in that year’s Klondike Annie, directed by the great Raoul Walsh.
Klondike Annie bears considerably less resemblance to other Mae West films, which tend to bear a strong resemblance to one another. Here, West is slightly more of a damsel (if only in theory), a formerly kept woman on the run from her murderous past. While she remains as worldly and as self-assured as ever, this film finds a true conscious lurking beneath the thick persona… a conscience that gives way to a genuine West-ified morality. Not unlike Robert Duvall in The Apostle, finding her footing as a streetwise woman of faith does not preclude her from eventually having to face justice for what she’s done. (Though in her case, it’s all in self-defense).
Walsh directs Klondike Annie with a richer and more dynamic visual sense that we’ve come to expect in Mae West films. It’s no epic, but it is plenty competent. Gruff Victor McLaglen stars as the ship’s captain who falls head over heels for West’s wanted character Rose Carlton, eventually facilitating her swapping of identities with the deceased passenger, the tenderhearted Sister Annie Alden (Helen Jerome Eddy). Once they arrive to Nome, Alaska, she decides to honor Alden by taking up her intended work of leading a local mission. “Annie’s” preaching and singing prove popular, as her street smarts pay off in tempering local trouble. Though suppressed at this point, her sexual persona is not lost on the local sheriff, who also falls for her.
Though ultimately its own kind of spiritual “born again” story, Klondike Annie was heavily censored prior to its release. A significant and sizable eight minutes are said to be cut out, including the vital scene in which Rose murders the oppressive man who kept her holed up in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Without this, the reveal that she is not only on the run but on the run for murder lands as an unintentionally off-kilter revelation. This, and much more is explained in dense fashion on the new audio commentary by film historians Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Josh Nelson.
– Jim Tudor
Every Day’s a Holiday
DIRECTED BY A. EDWARD SUTHERLAND/1937
Mae West knew that when she’s bad, she’s better. But what could a girl do? By 1937, not even a decade into her tremendous and supposedly studio-saving run at Paramount, the bawdy actress/writer’s star was quickly in decline. With her schtick having settled into repetition and the strict enforcement of the Hays Code the unwavering new normal, that year’s Every Day’s a Holiday proved to be her final film at the top-line comedy studio. The times and the movie business were changing, but she was locked into her persona.
Even still, West found new ways to contort within her limited zone. With her trademark double entendres and even her subsequent musical numbers swapped out for broader comedic nonsense like sight gags and manic supporting performances, Every Day’s a noticeably different mutation. However ancient-of-days the cliché scam where someone has the Brooklyn Bridge for sale, it’s rendered slightly fresher when West’s Peaches O’Day perpetrates it. And therein lies the new spin- rather than re-engage her tried and true and quite ingrained sexual persona, this time she’s a conwoman. Along the way, she gets caught up in a tight and heated mayoral race. The whole thing unfolds on and around New Year’s Eve, 1899. Did the icon realize that it would be with the new, out with Mae West?
Every Day’s a Holiday is yet another terrific edition in Kino Lorber Studio Classics’ deluge of Mae West stand-alone Blu-rays. This time, the commentary is by Kat Ellinger, focusing on West’s twilight period on the silver screen. A few years later, Universal would pair her with W.C. Fields for the satisfying My Little Chickadee. Her next comeback would not be until the 1970s, with the notorious Myra Breckinridge and Sextette. By comparison, this film is indeed a holiday.
– Jim Tudor
My Little Chickadee
DIRECTED BY EDWARD F. CLINE/1940
Mae West returns with famous comedian W. C. Fields for this fun western romp. Fields is a… travelling salesman, we’ll say, who likes to drink and gamble. He meets West on a train after she’s been thrown out of her previous community for having a relationship with a fugitive and having been snitched on by none other than Margaret Hamilton. West spends much of the movie ducking Fields’ advances and all’s well that ends well.
West has good timing, even with the physical gags she’s given on the train. The overdubbing, however, makes her sound unnaturally close to the mic so some of the lines, while clear, don’t really land as they ought. Her costumes are impeccable as always and her rolling eyes and tilt of head gags are well-placed, though sometimes it feels as if she’s lampooning herself since the Code likely made subtlety harder in some ways. Fields is delightful as always. Hamilton is a scream as the sort of busybody who is extremely moral and yet a little horny. The commentary track is recorded by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Josh Nelson.
– David L. Gill