Mae West in Belle of the Nineties (1934)


(director: Leo McCarey; screenwriter: adapted from a story by Mae West; cinematographer: Karl Struss; editor: LeRoy Stone; music: Arthur Johnston/Sam Coslow; cast: Mae West (Ruby Carter), Roger Pryor (Tiger Kid ), Katherine de Mille (Molly Brant), Johnny Mack Brown (Brooks Claybourne), John Miljan (Ace Lamont), James Donlan (Manager, Kirby), Edward Gargan(Stogie), Libby Taylor (Jasmine , Mae’s maid), Sam McDaniel (Brother Eben); Runtime: 75; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: William Le Baron; Paramount; 1934)

Disappointing Mae West vehicle that lacks wit and a good story.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Disappointing Mae West vehicle that lacks wit and a good story. The pic follows the 41-year-old actress’ back-to-back hits She Done Him Wrong (1933) and I’m No Angel (1933). Mae is not particularly funny in her fourth film, as most of her double entendre one-liners lay an egg. The 19th-century comedy is based on a story written by the star and entitled It Ain’t No Sin, until the humorless censors made her change the title and the Hays Office went through the screenplay with a red pencil and took out all the bawdy things they could. The result is still a Mae West production promoting her onscreen sexual appetites, how sexy she looks in a gown and giving her audience a fair quota of cheap sexual thrills, but is tied up in a story that is too sanitized to have much of a bite or create much excitement. It’s one of Mae’s weaker efforts. Director Leo McCarey(“Duck Soup”/”Ruggles of Red Gap”/”Going My Way”) offers no help in his passionless direction.

Mae West plays Ruby Carter, a St. Louis vaudeville torch singer in 1894 romancing up-and-coming prizefighter Tiger Kid (Roger Pryor), who is crazy about her and possessive. When Tiger’s sleazy manager Kirby (James Donlan) can’t keep his man away from the seductive singer and in his eyes threatens his boxing career, he schemes to make his jealous boxer think that she’s two-timing him with a phone prank of another suitor calling and the sap falls for it and dumps her. Kirby now gets his fighter to concentrate on fighting for the championship instead of being sidetracked with matters of love. After Tiger writes Ruby a Dear John letter, she accepts an offer from the vile New Orleans “Sensation House” saloon owner Ace LaMont (John Miljan) and sets up shop on Bourbon Street. Ruby rejects Ace’s come-on, as he tells her he’s wild about her and she retorts that “the wildest men make the best pets.” Meanwhile Ace’s squeeze is his club singer Molly (Katherine de Mille), who is jealous of Ruby and not bashful of telling her to lay off my man. Instead Ruby lures the wealthy playboy Brooks Claybourne (Johnny Mack Brown), who courts her with diamonds. Meanwhile the crooked Ace hires Tiger to fight for the championship in a fixed fight he promotes and through trickery gets the dim-witted boxer to steal Ruby’s diamonds while she’s riding in a darkened coach. When Ruby gets wind of what Ace is up to, she drugs Tiger’s water bottle and he loses the championship fight that Ace bet everything he had on Tiger, including Ruby’s diamonds he stole from her while keeping them in her safe. The story goes off the track with all sorts of mayhem before it concludes with a contrived and unmerited happy ending, forced on it by the censors.

What’s good about the film is that Mae, accompanied onscreen and sometimes off screen by Duke Ellington and Orchestra, delivers with flare such honky-tonk blues treats as “When A St. Louis Woman Goes Down To New Orleans,” “Maple Leaf Rag,” “Troubled Waters,” “Memphis Blues,” and “My Old Flame.”

Of interest to me, Libby Taylor plays Mae’s black maid, who in real-life is also her maid.