Saturday, September 1, 2012

Belle of the Nineties (Paramount, 1934)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I broke open the misnamed Universal Rarities: Films of the 1930’s boxed set from Universal and TCM (the box is misnamed because all four films in it were actually produced by Paramount between 1932 and 1937; they ended up at Universal because in a typical but amazingly short-sighted decision Paramount sold the rights of their pre-1950 output to MCA Television in the mid-1950’s; later MCA absorbed Universal and transferred the rights to these films, including remake rights, to Universal) and watched the first five minutes of the 1937 film Artists and Models and then played our “feature” for the evening, Mae West’s Belle of the Nineties, her fourth film and the first to come under the ukase of strict Production Code enforcement after — largely due to moralistic agitation from Roman Catholic pressure groups and women’s organizations against her previous movies — the relative freedom of the so-called “pre-Code” Hollywood glasnost came to an abrupt end, the Legion of Decency (that name says it all!) was formed and the Production Code Administration got serious to the point of dementia about enforcing the Code. Charles and I had seen Artists and Models before in February 2009 — earlier I’d watched it in the early 1970’s and been stunned by the film’s most famous sequence, the dance number featuring Martha Raye and Louis Armstrong in the song “Public Melody Number One” (the first film work ever for the young Vincente Minnelli, who was actually credited on screen), and had vainly searched for it ever since only to find that every time it was advertised the film turned out to be the so-called “remake” from 1955, which was a vehicle for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis that took nothing from the original movie but its title.

So I practically had an orgasm when I saw it listed in TCM’s offerings for that month — only to find that there was a weird transmission glitch that made it impossible to see the movie’s opening scene, the Yacht Club Boys doing a wild comic number called “The Super-Special Epic of the Year,” though we could hear a distorted version of the song on the soundtrack. Now I got to see it again at long last and it’s a pretty incredible number — and it’s ironic that after watching all those Busby Berkeley Gold Diggers films lately, here we were seeing a number that deliberately satirized them, with one of the Yacht Club Boys impersonating star choreographer/director “Sasha Pasha” and making more and more extravagant demands for big sets, including several built in the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari style, complete with slants and forced perspectives. The Yacht Club Boys (their bland name came from the New York night spot in which they played and had nothing to do with their act, which was a relentless pre-Monty Python assault on the funnybone) were a wild musical-comedy foursome whose material actually holds up quite well; though this isn’t anywhere near as good as “Down With Everything,” their spoof of campus radicalism that along with Judy Garland’s three songs and Patsy Kelly’s voice-of-reason supporting role are virtually the only reasons to watch the 1936 musical Pigskin Parade, “The Super-Special Epic of the Year” is a great number and a worthy opening to a quite underrated film that hopefully won’t be so underrated now that it’s readily available on DVD.

As for Belle of the Nineties, it suffers from the censor-mandated cuts — including one glaringly obvious splice in the middle of Mae West’s song “When a St. Louis Woman Comes Down to New Orleans” (the film, based as usual on a script by West — whose writing credit is three-fourths the size of her acting credit and about the size of Leo McCarey’s credit as director — was originally called It Ain’t No Sin, which probably more than anything else sums up the Mae West mythos! — and then St. Louis Woman, a title Paramount couldn’t use because Screencraft Productions, an independent studio, already owned it) — but it’s still a nice bit of good clean dirty Mae West fun, source of many of her one-liners. The most famous one is when the villain (John Miljan) is sizing her up while attempting to seduce her, paying compliments to her arms, her eyes, her hair — and she snaps back, “What are you doing, making love or taking inventory?” Mae West plays Ruby Carter, a St. Louis woman who does indeed come down (physically and morally) to New Orleans in more ways than one: she’s the star of a music hall in St. Louis and also is having an affair with up-and-coming boxer Tiger Kid (Roger Pryor). Her act in St. Louis, after an opening routine by a “beef trust” line of especially hefty chorus girls (West set virtually all her films in the 1890’s not only because the tight corsets and long, elaborately decorated dresses of the time flattered her figure but because zaftig was in back then; it wasn’t until the flappers of the 1920’s that slender and boyish replaced pleasingly plump and amply curved as the straight male’s epitome of female sexuality, and even then there were throwbacks — like Marilyn Monroe, whom West once named as the only person who could play her in a biopic), is a preposterous series of tableaux set to a song called “My American Beauty” (sung by pop tenor Gene Austin, who’d had the biggest hit record of the 1920’s in “My Blue Heaven” but was already on the downgrade when this film was made) that ends with her appearing as the Statue of Liberty, with American flags billowing behind her. She has to leave St. Louis in a hurry when a stratagem staged by the Tiger Kid’s manager, Kirby (James Donlan), convinces him that she’s seeing other men (well, she’s a Mae West character — what did he expect?), and she accepts the offer of gambler Ace Lamont (John Miljan) to headline at his Sensation Club in New Orleans, where she’s backed by the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

After the smash success of her second and third films, She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel — both with the young and largely unknown Cary Grant as her costar — West could do just about anything she wanted at Paramount, and what she wanted for this film is actually to be seen on screen accompanied by a great band whose members happened to be Black. She didn’t hide them behind screens or confine their participation to the recording stage and have white musicians mime to their records on film; she had Ellington and the boys right on the set with her, playing their eerie, slithery sort of jazz on songs like W. C. Handy’s “Memphis Blues” (which West sings superbly, as well or better than any other white woman could have done at the time), and in his memoir Music Is My Mistress Ellington acknowledged West and Maurice Chevalier (who in 1930, told he could have any band in the country back him when he appeared live at the New York Paramount Theatre to promote his Paramount films, demanded Ellington’s — and when the horrified “suits” at Paramount told him he could never get away with having a Black band on stage with him, Chevalier said, “Why not? In France we do it all the time!”) for helping break down the color line and make him successful with white audiences. Anyway, it soon becomes clear both to “Ruby” and the audience that Lamont’s motivation in giving her a job was to get into her ample pants (elaborate dresses and layered petticoats, more accurately), and though he has a girlfriend already, Molly Brant (played by Cecil B. DeMille’s niece Katherine — and quite effectively, too), he doesn’t see why that should stop Ruby from having an affair with him. Only even though she’s a Mae West character, Ruby still has a moral code of her own; she won’t steal a man from another woman “unless she’s done me dirty,” which Molly hasn’t.

Tiger Kid comes to New Orleans as a last-minute substitute for an indisposed fighter in a championship bout — it goes to 28 rounds on screen (45 rounds was the standard length for a championship fight just then, which was something of an improvement over the way prizefights had been staged before the Marquis of Queensbury: they just lasted, no rounds, no breaks, until one of the fighters incapacitated the other) — only he gets tricked into staging a fake holdup against Ace and Ruby so Ace can steal the expensive jewels another one of Ruby’s suitors, Brooks Claybourne (John Mack Brown), has given her. Catching on, Ruby gives Tiger a spiked drink between rounds 27 and 28 of his fight so Ace will lose all the money he bet on Tiger to win and Claybourne will get the value of his jewels back on the money he, at Ruby’s behest, bet on Tiger to lose. Ace, realizing that if he pays off all his gambling losses on the fight he’ll be broke, tells Ruby he’s fleeing to Havana with all his assets and wants her to come with him so she can be his lover and the star of the casino he plans to open there —while he plans to cover for his disappearance by burning down the Sensation Club and making it appear as if he’s been killed in the fire. Meanwhile, he’s knocked out Molly and locked her in the closet so when he torches the club, she’ll be killed and he’ll be rid of her. Only Ruby learns the whole plot by spying on Ace (using binoculars to read the combination of his safe where he’s keeping the jewels Tiger stole for him in the fake holdup) and she and Tiger arrive in time to rescue Molly and call the fire department, and Ruby and Carter end up getting married after Tiger is acquitted of the charge of setting the fire and killing Ace (who died when, after a struggle for the gun Ace was holding on him — Maurine Watkins, your plagiarism attorney thanks you for the down payment on his third house — Tiger pushed him to the floor).

It’s not exactly the most exciting story ever, and it suffers from the lack of a male lead who could compete with Mae West in the charisma department (it would have been a much better film with Cary Grant in Roger Pryor’s role — in the early years Grant was sufficiently well built he would have looked at least as much like a boxer than the pasty-faced and ill-toned Pryor, and as far as sexiness and star quality was concerned they were practically in different universes); it was originally intended to co-star George Raft (though given his image my guess would have been he was up for the John Miljan role), but he quit the film because he thought the part was too small. (George Raft, excellent saboteur of his own career — the man who would later turn down High Sierra, The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity.) Then West got an extortion threat from gangsters that led her to demand that Paramount close the set so no one could see her work — though she relented when President Roosevelt’s son Elliott asked the studio to be admitted to watch her rehearse. Then the censors came down hard on the film, demanding that Paramount jettison the original title, It Ain’t No Sin (a problem because Paramount had trained about 300 talking parrots to speak the words “It Ain’t No Sin” — the idea was to station one in each theatre that was about to play the film and thereby promote it — exactly what they did with the birds after they were forced to change the title, I have no idea); the substitute titles St. Louis Woman and Belle of New Orleans proved to have been taken; and Belle of the Nineties got its own share of bad publicity when some theatre owners advertised the film as “Belle of the Nighties”! Joseph Breen, head of the Production Code Administration, rejected outright the first script because of vulgarity, obscenity, glorification of crime and criminals, glorification of prostitution and a general theme that was “definitely on the side of evil and against goodness, decency and law.”

Among the potentially great gags West and Paramount had to jettison because of Breen’s edicts was one in which the final catastrophe wasn’t going to be a mere music-hall fire but a Mississippi flood, and the gag was going to be Ruby and Tiger together in her room, unable to leave for five days as the floodwaters advanced on New Orleans, with the gimmick being that as the physical passion between the lovers rose, so would the floodwaters. (“It was one of the funniest scenes I ever read, but of course I had to cut it,” Breen said later.) The censors and the studio executives went back and forth for several months and finally Breen’s boss, Will Hays (for whom the Production Code Administration was still nicknamed “the Hays office” long after he ceased to have any active role with it), got involved and dictated five changes Paramount must make in the film before it could be approved: eliminate any hint that Ruby was a burlesque queen and a prostitute, eliminate any reference to Tiger being an ex-con, eliminate the “sex suggestiveness” and “violent and lustful kissing” between them, eliminate the scene of Ruby stealing from Ace (actually it was rewritten so Ruby rifled Ace’s safe but only to retrieve property that was rightfully hers), and clean up the relationship of Ruby and Brooks, the second male lead (which barely seems to exist at all in the finished film — we see him lavish jewels on her but we have no idea what, if anything, he’s getting in return). Breen also demanded that Ruby and Tiger get married at the end, and insisted on a montage of newspaper headlines that made clear he had been acquitted of the charge of murdering Ace.

 Belle of the Nineties got a Production Code seal but was further chopped by the New York state censor board — and that seems to be the only extant version now; as it stands it’s an engaging movie, coming alive especially when Mae West sings and dances (notably the marvelous scene in which she witnesses a Black revival meeting from the window of her apartment and sings the song “Troubled Waters,” reflecting a world-weariness and a longing for salvation far at variance from what we expect from Mae West and indicating she was potentially a rangier actress than one would think from her usual character; Ellington provides an unseen accompaniment for West and also recorded the song with his usual singer, the haunting-voiced Ivie Anderson; later Gil Evans revived the song for the album he did with singer Helen Merrill, and Cat Power sang it on her first covers album), and though one suspects it would seem even stronger if the pre-censorship cut ever surfaced, it’s a handsomely produced movie, atmospherically photographed by Karl Struss and ably directed by McCarey, though West was so totally in control of her own screen appearance her directors, whoever they were, actually has awfully little to do. Mae West’s whole act seems awfully tame in today’s world, in which the envelopes she pushed have long since been shredded to ribbons, but one can still admire the way this forty-something (when she made her movies) woman can say more about sex with an arched glance, a luring grin or a vocal inflection than the actresses of today can by shedding their entire wardrobes on-camera and letting their co-stars pound away at them on screen.