Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Belle of the Nineties (Leo McCarey, 1934

Mae West's fourth spectacular movie. So far nearly all of her films I’ve seen are metashows—that is, their plots mostly involve West as a performer, surrounded by a romantic plot that allows her to be cynical and romantic at the same time. West wrote her own screenplays just as she did her own reviews, and why not play up what works best? This story's no different—she’s Ruby Carter, a St. Louis music hall queen with a boxer-boyfriend, the Tiger Kid (Roger Pryor). Antagonistic rivals plot to make him think Ruby’s two-timing him and he dumps her, so she goes off to New Orleans to work at the Sensation House, a club run by slick Ace LaMont (John Miljan). The best thing about this gig is the pit band—it’s Duke Ellington and co. The music Ruby sings consists mostly of blues and jazz standards, usually with updated lyrics, no doubt by West herself.

Ruby discovers another plot against her—Ace has conned Tiger into stealing her jewels (he doesn’t know it was Ruby he was robbing), so she sets out to punish them both by fixing the boxing match that Tiger would have won had she not slipped him a mickey finn. Ace is ruined, and then when Tiger figures the whole con out he socks Ace and he falls over, hits his head, and dies. Tiger doesn't run--he stays to argue his innocence in court, succeeds, and the movie ends with a marriage.

The movie features a lot of great costumes for West, and dozens of men also costumed in 90s styles and hairdos. They all flock around her, of course. There are a few great vaudeville routines, too. Only a few of the great Mae West zingers, but she manages to raise her eyebrows, roll her eyes, slink, flounce, and sidle into rooms as only she can. The New Orleans setting means there’s an obligatory massed-choir contrapuntal black camp meeting outside her window, and she sings a lonely song atop it. Anyway, it’s still fun.

No comments: