I’m No Angel (1933) directed by Wesley Ruggles perfectly captures the ideas of sex farce before the Hays and Productions codes. Sex farce is a sub-genre of romantic comedies, mostly seen in 1928-1934, that plays with the concept of sexual tension and views seduction and adultery as funny. We began to see sex farce in America in Vaudeville, Broadway, musical reviews, and low comedy. Mae West was a well-renowned writer and actress who flourished in this sub-genre. She wrote the play Sex which she later starred in and had a ten-month run on Broadway.
When the Hays code entered the enforcement period (the Production code) in 1934, writers had to find new ways to get their point across. To succeed in mocking marriage and showing extramarital sex without making open jokes and putting women in lingerie on the screen, you had to be extremely witty. This was a struggle for many playwrights till the ’50s-’60s when sex farce returned; Marilyn Monroe was the new Mae West.
Mae West was known for her scandalous roles and double entendres. In I’m No Angel, her character, Tira, was portrayed as a Prostitute. She would wear revealing clothing on stage, dance/sing, and eye all the men. If a man showed a feature proving he’s rich, a diamond ring, for example, she would pull them aside after the show and make a move. Tira was married yet still hit on other gentlemen. This was something that wasn’t seen in other films before the sex farce became popular.
Tira drew men in, had them buying her all these nice things, then she’d move on to the next guy. This pattern continues ti30sll the end of the film when she finds true love and gets married. Mae West has been in other films like this such as She Done Him Wrong, Goin’ to Town, and My Little Chickadee.
I’m No Angel has many scenes that treat some aspect of what makes this film a Romantic Comedy. One outstanding scene is at the beginning where Tira is performing on stage. Her performance is made out to be very burlesque to tease the men as she comes out in an almost transparent dress. She begins to sing and move her lips, positioning herself to be the object of the male gaze. During this scene, director Wesley Ruggles uses a reverse shot. The camera shows Tira’s point of view; her on top, looking down. This was a power move and showed how she controlled the male gaze. She knew she would need to play into the desires of men and be extremely seductive when on stage. Her outfit choice was her main variable. The dress she wore was tight and revealed her bare armpits, which in the 30s was very scandalous. Doing so was almost a code for sex. Revealing things such as bare armpits or ankles suggested “the vaginal space.” Tira did all of this while another man was out claiming to be her husband. This leads to the idea of extramarital sex and adultery. Even with the intimate moments, Tira’s actions were so exaggerated that the movie felt like a comedy. However, near the end of the film, Tira meets Jack Clayton and falls in love. She was willing to give up all the gifts, all the men, the performing, just to be with him. The real romance appears near the end when they get married.
Apart from this beginning scene, there are lots of symbolism and amazing shots throughout the film. When Tira first met Jack, she lit his cigarette, foreshadowing something intimate to happen between the two. Jack also wasn’t extremely fond of Tira at first, making her have to work harder. Before he leaves she gives him a picture of herself so he can continue looking at her when they’re apart, thus creating desire. Later in the film, Tira wears a long gown with a black widow on the side. This is a visual pun. It’s meant to tell the audience she’s in control. She draws men in and traps them in her web. Many of her outfits were meant to be visual puns; showing her personality to the audience.
A Romantic Comedy usually ends in marriage but to arrive there, the characters deal with lots of miscommunication and misunderstandings in attempts to overcome insane obstacles. I’m No Angel hits all these points from Tira being a so-called prostitute, to her thinking she found love, a miscommunication causing a breakup, and sending her to court, to finally being married. Mae West did an incredible job writing this script and portraying the main character. I would highly suggest this film to anyone interested in Romantic Comedies or even the sub-genre of sex farce itself.