Film Review: Mae West Deep Dive (Part 2)

by Rachel Bellwoar

Mae West’s later films aren’t usually as well-regarded as her pre-code films, but now, thanks to Kino Lorber, there’s room for re-evaluation.

Belle of the Nineties

It’s weird to think of ‘90s as the 1890’s, but that’s exactly when Leo McCarey’s Belle of the Nineties takes place. While there’s no denying West looks incredible, posing in front of staggering backdrops, wearing glittery dresses by Travis Banton, it doesn’t quite seem like an act that would send people flooding into a room. For that matter, Belle of the Nineties doesn’t have much in the way of a driving plot, other than men trying to cajole West, but whereas other West films have dipped into crime before, this one really goes there (and there’s a sequence where West is singing from a window while a prayer meeting’s going on that’s utterly transfixing).

Ruby Carter (West) is a lot like West’s character, Diamond Lil, down to her predilection for diamonds, and after her boxer boyfriend, Tiger Kid (Roger Pryor), breaks up with her (having fallen for a transparent trick by his manager (James Donlan) to get him to focus on training) Ruby moves to St. Louis, where she performs with Duke Ellington and his Orchestra (who never get mentioned by name but do get screen credit). In her commentary, film historian, Samm Deighan, goes over some of the changes that had to be made to West’s script to appease the censors. She also reveals that George Raft (who starred in Night After Night with West) was originally approached for the role of Tiger Kid.

Go West Young Man

None of West’s films are exactly the same, but Henry Hathaway’s Go West Young Man might be the most different. Instead of a stage performer, West plays movie star, Mavis Arden, and instead of seeing her live, the film begins at a movie theater where Arden’s latest picture, The Drifting Lady, is showing. The first time we see West isn’t in person then, but on screen, and what makes it all the more unusual is the way the film keeps switching perspectives, from showing The Drifting Lady as a film to treating it like LIVE coverage.

If that sounds wild, it only gets crazier from there. The character Arden is playing in The Drifting Lady is similar to West’s own screen persona, but Arden is determined to make the public understand that she’s not the roles she plays. While many of West’s films are period pieces, this one isn’t, and while Arden has a few love interests, it’s fun to watch West be the pursuer for a change with Randolph Scott’s Bud, instead of constantly manhandled. The film really celebrates fandom (Elizabeth Patterson and Isabell Jewel do some great celebrity impressions) but it sounds like fans at the time weren’t too taken with the picture (author and film historian, Lee Gambin, touches on these unmet expectations in his commentary track).

Every Day’s a Holiday

A. Edward Sutherland‘s Every Day’s A Holiday was West’s last picture for Paramount and she’s definitely not the center of attention as much in this film. Having been driven out of New York by the law, Peaches O’Day (West) returns on New Year’s Eve, just in time to learn about a show she’d be perfect for. The only way she can star in the show, though, is by becoming Mademoiselle Fifi, a French singer with a black wig.

With a love triangle that sizzles out for an election plot , Every Day’s A Holiday is far from West’s best, yet the film sneaks up on you, especially during a parade when Louis Armstrong makes a cameo and West plays the drums.

Film historian, Kat Ellinger, provides the commentary and digs up some great behind the scenes stories, like how the song “Fifi” inspired West and why the premiere was delayed. West also considers how the film focuses less on romance and more on O’Day’s intelligence, and gives Allen Rivkin the dues he deserves for contributing to the screenplay.

Belle of the Nineties, Go West Young Man and Every Day’s a Holiday are available on Blu-Ray now from Kino Lorber.

Read part one of the ‘Mae West Deep Dive’ here.