Directed by: Leo McCarey
Starring: Mae West, Roger Pryor, John Miljan, John Mack Brown, Katherine DeMille, Duke Ellington's Orchestra
Just in time for Mae West’s 118th birthday is her fourth film Belle of the Nineties (1934). It went into production under the name It Ain’t No Sin, but by the time it was finished, the Catholic Legion of Decency production code had gone into effect and that title was considered unacceptable. (This must have thrilled the boys in advertising who’d had a flock of parrots trained to say, “It ain’t no sin,” on cue.) Surprisingly, the rest of film’s content made it through. It would be the last time a Mae West film didn’t get trimmed by the censors, which is particularly fortunate because she was at the height of her popularity (her salary was the highest in the world that year) and Paramount put some extra polish on this one. It is far and away the most stylishly made of all her films. They brought in rising director Leo McCarey (the only great filmmaker West ever worked with), loaded the picture with great songs and imported Duke Ellington and His Orchestra to play them. The one area where they skimped was in leading men—Roger Pryor and John Mack Brown were not Cary Grant (of course, Grant was not a star when he was cast in her previous two movies), though they’re fine for the film’s purposes. It’s fast, fun and funny—and the best-looking movie she ever made, having the shimmery luster you only saw in Paramount movies. Cinematically and musically, the presentation of Mae singing “Troubled Water” intercut with a black revival meeting is the high point. It’s the sort of thing—atmospheric shadows, slow dissolves with two images playing at once—one expects from Rouben Mamoulian or Josef von Sternberg (whose work likely influenced it). Then again, the image of Mae West as the Statue of Liberty is not easily forgotten.
The Asheville Film Society will screen Belle of the Nineties Tuesday, August 16, at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther. Hanke is the artistic director of the A.F.S.