Belle of the Nineties (1934): Mae West’s first Post-Code Comedy

Leo McCarey, one of the best Hollywood directors, helmed this Mae West Western comedy at the height of her popularity, and just before the Production Code would have a damaging effect on her career.

Grade: B

Belle of the Nineties
Belle of the Nineties.jpg

It was initially titled It Ain’t No Sin, until the censors interfered, then St. Louis Woman and Belle of New Orleans, until complaints were registered from those two places.

West plays a cabaret entertainer, Ruby Carter, plying her trade along the Mississippi. Having no trouble surviving on her own terms in a man’s world, Ruby fends off the unwarranted attentions of a stream of men, but reserves her affections for the muscular boxer, The Tiger Kid (Roger Pryor).

Several black entertainers and athletes appear in this humorous tale, including Duke Ellington and His Orchestra.

The musical highlights include West’s unforgettable rendition of “My Old Flame.”

The ending, in which West settles down by marrying the hero, is too conventional and too tame for West’s otherwise edgy screen persona.

The male lead was supposed to be played by George Raft, but he refused. His part was taken by Roger Pryor, a stage actor.

Censorship:

Shooting commenced on March 19, 1934, and concluded in June. The film was released on September 21, 1934. As usual with West’s films, some scenes were removed for versions to be shown in different states. To be shown in New York, one of the biggest markets, they had to completely re-shoot the final scene.

Mae West’s character and the Tiger Kid were originally set to complete their nuptials without marriage, but the ceremony had to be included.

The film is noted in the jazz world for including the song “My Old Flame,” composed by Arthur Johnston with lyrics by Sam Coslow. Sung by Mae West in the film, it was backed by the Duke Ellington Orchestra and went on to become a jazz standard.

Johnston and Coslow also wrote the songs “My American Beauty,” “When a St. Louis Woman Comes Down to New Orleans,” and “Troubled Waters” for the film, which also features “The Memphis Blues” and “At Sundown.”

Commercial Appeal

Like other West films, the narrative consists of gags for every taste, some outrageously funny.  Although Belle of the Nineties turned a profit, it was less successful than West’s 1933 films She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel.

Cast
Mae West as Ruby Carter
Roger Pryor as Tiger Kid
Johnny Mack Brown as Brooks Claybourne (as John Mack Brown)
Katherine DeMille as Molly Brant
John Miljan as Ace Lamont (owner, Sensation House)
Duke Ellington as Piano player (Sensation House)
James Donlan as Kirby
Stuart Holmes as Dirk
Harry Woods as Slade
Edward Gargan as Stogie
Libby Taylor as Jasmine
Warren Hymer as St. Louis Fighter
Benny Baker as Blackie
Morrie Cohan as Butch
Tyler Brooke as Comedian
Tom Herbert as Gilbert
Eddie Borden as Comedian
Fuzzy Knight as Comedian
Gene Austin as St. Louis Crooner
Blue Washington as Doorman (uncredited)

Credits:

Directed by Leo McCarey
Written by Mae West
Produced by William LeBaron
Cinematography Karl Struss
Edited by LeRoy Stone
Music by Arthur Johnston

Production and distribution: Paramount Pictures

Release date: September 21, 1934

Running time: 75 minutes

Budget $800,000 (estimated)