Mae West was already over 40 years old when her massive hit I'm No Angel was released in October 1933. Depression era audiences were mad about the bawdy and bodacious Mae and her innuendo, double entendre laden films of the mid 1930's. Though a late bloomer to stardom, her star shown blazingly bright in her heyday and by 1935, she was the highest paid female entertainer in the United States. Besides the obvious hilarity of her naughty one liners, part of her success comes with the supreme confidence she brings to the screen. Exaggerated in every way from her figure to her flamboyant get-ups to her voice and sauntering swagger, she took complete control of the screen and the situations which were projected on it. She was neither beautiful of face nor elegant of style, but she had full charge of her sexuality on screen, though the audience would be hard pressed to believe the handsome leading men she surrounded herself with would take her seriously as a conquest in the real world.
I'm No Angel was Mae's third film. In her first she had a shining supporting role in the George Raft flick Night After Night (1932). Her second, She Done Him Wrong (1933), was an instant smash. In it she recreated the Diamond Lil character of the Gay '90's, which had made her a hit on Broadway. She D0ne Him Wrong and I'm No Angel are closely tied. Both feature Cary Grant as Mae's leading man, the success of the two films together supposedly saved Paramount Studios from bankruptcy and the raciness of both were instrumental in the strict enforcement of Hollywood's morality production code in 1934. It is part of Hollywood lore that West claimed to have "discovered" Cary Grant, but the actor had been leading man to Marlene Dietrich in Paramount's Blonde Venus the year before either of West's films were produced. Nonetheless, Mae did request the handsome newcomer for her first two starring vehicles, which assuredly gave a boost to Grant's fledgling career, though neither film would showcase an inkling of the comic sophistication the actor would display in his later movies. He was merely West's good looking leading man and when it came down to the comedy, it was Mae all the way.
As for the story behind I'm No Angel, it's practically non-existent if not for West's presence. She is the film and that's OK. She plays Tira, an exotic dancer of sorts in a carnival sideshow, where she sings songs like "They Call Me Sister Honky Tonk", while she shimmies around a stage surrounded by leering, lascivious men. While entertaining one of these horny toads in her hotel room later that night, her slimy ex-beau breaks in on the couple and bops the would-be Romeo over the head getting both himself and Tira in a legal jam. To pay her lawyer the fees required to extricate her from the mess, Tira agrees to the dangerous stunt of putting her head in a lion's mouth as part of the carnival/circus act. The act pays off big and she and the show become a huge success taking her to the big time in New York City. While in New York, the show stopping star meets dandy-in-a-top hat, Kirk (Kent Taylor), who adorns Tira with baubles of the most expensive sort. Kirk is however engaged and when his cousin Jack (Grant) meets with the man eating female to request her emotional release of Kirk, physical fireworks explode between them.
The real fun of I'm No Angel is found in the ribald one liners thrown around like rice at a wedding by West. An avid follower of astrology, Tira goes to the side show's resident fortune teller, Rajah, for her horoscope.
Rajah: "You have a wonderful future. I see a man in your life."
Tira: "What, only one?"
While entertaining the sap in her hotel room, she inquires about his livelihood.
Tira: "What do you do for a living?"
Mr. Brown: "Oh, uh, sort of politician."
Tira: "I don't like work either."
And later he tells her, "I've been places and seen things" to which she replies "Well I've been things and seen places." The film also spawned the famous West quote "Beulah, peel me a grape" which the star, who wrote alot of her own material, used after she noticed her pet monkey, who loved grapes, would always peel them before eating them.
I'm No Angel is Mae West at her devilish best. The dialogue, the wardrobe, the attitude are Mae through and through. Made just before the Hollywoood production code hit with full force, it allowed its star to sashay around the screen as Paramount's risque queen bee and also allowed her to saunter and coo all the way to the proverbial bank.