Mae West Brought to Heel
Belle of The Nineties was the Mae West I encountered often after school on 4:00 Channel 8 movies. They were winding down a pre-48 Paramount group bought earlier in the sixties that I'd committed to memory over multiple broadcasts. Each weekday saw black-and-white filler bridging hours between soap operas and evening news. At Channel 8, they Dialed For Dollars to give us reason for tolerating films too oft-repeated. If hostess Jo Nelson called and you answered, there might be $100 or free groceries for the taking. Jo sometimes got busy signals but kept trying (often for interminable minutes) while viewers waited for identified-by-name recipients to get off their phones (yes, she recited numbers and where they lived): Mr. Brown doesn't seem to be at his residence on 134 Kensington Drive, but maybe we'll try again tomorrow. But what was left of Mr. Brown's valuables once he arrived back? Such concerns vital now mattered less during that vid-age of innocence. My own greater worry was footage excised from Belle of the Nineties and similarly imperiled oldies as Jo dialed after viewer truants (never me ... too far outside Channel 8's triad market). Hadn't enough of Mae West's offering been cut when newly empowered 1934 scissors were applied?
My posting motor started upon discovery of a pressbook for It Ain't No Sin (at Cinevent ... one more reason not to miss those). So what was this lavish manual selling? Not a lost Mae West as it turns out ... well, maybe it was ... a sacrificed one might better describe leavings of censor mischief that emerged finally as Belle Of the Nineties. I'd seen posters bearing the discarded title. Paramount had its sales force well afield before reining in It Ain't No Sin. Was that title a gauntlet thrown before Breen and compatriots (which included an enraged Legion Of Decency)? I wonder if the same ID with Sylvia Sidney or Nancy Carroll would have caused such rancor. Mae West was surely chief lightning rod for repression's new authority, being offered up as reason we needed a Code. There are many books about censor wars in Hollywood. I get depressed reading such, especially ones explaining cuts made and shorn footage discarded (for all time in most cases). Not much fun mulling over something we can't go back and fix. Folks who've written of how Mae West saved Paramount from ruin, including at least one Paramount executive of the day, are on target, I suspect. She was one star that really did come to the rescue of an ailing employer. I can't measure anticipation for It Ain't No Sin in 1934, but on heels of She Done Him Wrong and I'm No Angel, it must have been immense. Those last two had been respective friskiest movies in (every) town, and this humdinger promised to be capper to both.
I think what shot Belle Of The Nineties was word getting out that the picture had been denuded. Everyone knew what they saw wasn't what Mae West and company intended. Here was a pale pomegranate being sold as worthy successor to hot tamales of seasons past, not to be repeated thanks to PCA crackdown. Thirties fans talked non-stop about movies and read constantly of Hollywood insiding. They followed Paramount's struggle and resented the cheat that was Belle Of The Nineties. Some theatres tried fooling customers as here when the Chicago claimed to be running Paramount's picture presented exactly as it was produced, everyone wise to reality of Belle Of The Nineties re-filmed and recut per censor mandates. Variety seemed on defensive reporting delighted crowds and satisfied exits. Were they helping prop up a lame duck? Accounts of the day and since claim Belle was a hit. Much was spent making it, to wit $877,764.04, more than twice what prior Wests cost. Did Belle get it back plus enough to record black ink? That I don't have for certain, but reason suggests this was Mae's biggest sock-cess to date. She'd built up a monster following, and would have needed more than one blow to put her on canvass. Those came later sure enough, but for now there was residual good will to pull Belle Of The Nineties across.
Depending on expectation, Belle Of The Nineties plays or it won't. Those seeking unfettered precode West will be disappointed as audiences were in 1934. Interest in the actress has diminished in any case since plateaus reached during late 60's/early 70's. I don't think there'll ever be a renewal of the Mae West cult. You can tell just watching Belle Of The Nineties that it's been tampered with. Scenes tail off unexpectedly and others look pasted in. Mae reminds a character early on to Remember, I'm a lady, almost a declaration that there's only so much fun we'll be permitted to have. Belle was evidently in and out of production for months while Paramount quarreled with Breen. Seals granted were undone by state and local board objections. Mae West was off/on rewriting, shooting yet again ... performing everything but flips to get it releasable. I'm amazed Belle Of The Nineties runs so smoothly as it does. The fact Leo McCarey directed matters little. His is a well faded signature here. I'd have thought Paramount would be ideal roost for McCarey, what with his expertise at comedy and so many fun makers on Para payrolls, but he seems not to have jibed with any of them, a condition reflecting less on McCarey than personalities no director could harness (Fields and the Marx Bros. in addition to West). A vow he took not to work with MW again after Belle Of The Nineties would be observed. Maybe had she listened closer to McCarey, a post-Code decline might have been averted (or at least postponed), but West was mistress of her own destiny and took direction from nobody. The whole Belle Of The Nineties production mess has been covered in gratifying detail by Jon Tuska in The Films Of Mae West (one of the best Citadel offerings) and Mark Vieira's Sin In Soft Focus, finest by far of what's been written on the precode era.