Cast & Crew
John Mack Brown
Katherine De Mille
In St. Louis in 1892, singer Ruby Carter appears in the stage show My American Beauty , then goes home with prizefighter Tiger Kid, who forces her to swear fidelity to him. Tiger's manager, Kirby, schemes to keep Tiger from Ruby, and when one of the men at the gym calls Ruby pretending to be her lover, a heartbroken Tiger writes Ruby a good-bye letter. Ace Lamont, who runs the "Sensation House" saloon in New Orleans, then offers Ruby a contract and she accepts. In New Orleans, Ruby becomes the object of Ace's girlfriend Molly Brant's jealousy, while becoming a big success with the men of New Orleans. Among them is the wealthy Brooks Claybourne, who gives Ruby diamonds. Ace, meanwhile, hires Tiger to enter into a fixed fight against Battling Bruce, and Tiger arrives in New Orleans, unaware of Ruby's proximity to him. When Ace asks Tiger to steal the jewels he gave a woman so he has the money to sponsor Tiger's fight, Tiger unsuspectingly robs Ruby while she rides in a coach with Ace. Later, Ruby sees Ace hiding her jewels in a wall safe. Tiger then visits Ruby and swears his love, and the man from the gym confesses to his phone prank. That night, Ruby joins a Black revival meeting and vows to return the diamonds to Brooks. On the night of the fight, Ruby gives her remaining diamonds to Ace for "safe-keeping" and watches him as he opens the safe. Knowing Ace has bet heavily on Tiger, Ruby puts a sedative in Tiger's water bottle and he loses. Terribly in debt to his patrons who bet on Tiger, Ace schemes to set fire to the Sensation House and flee to Havana with the diamonds and Ruby, who pretends to love him, then steals the diamonds for herself. Ace then tricks Molly into believing he still loves her and locks her in a closet before dousing the room with lamp oil. In Ruby's adjacent room, Tiger threatens Ruby for tipping off Brooks to Bruce's victory, and she swears Ace drugged the water and is clearing out of town. Tiger punches Ace, who has a gun, and Ace hits his head and dies instantly. Ruby accuses Tiger of being a thief and a murderer, then discards her cigarette, inadvertently starting a fire. Molly wakes up in the closet and screams and Tiger rescues her while Ruby calls the fire department. Tiger goes to trial for Ace's murder, but eventually he is exhonerated and he and Ruby marry.
John Mack Brown
Katherine De Mille
Duke Ellington's Orchestra
R. H. Douglas
J. P. Mcevoy
Belle of the Nineties -
Mae West's ally on the inside was Emanuel Cohen, a Paramount executive who knew audiences wanted "showmanship" (read: cheap thrills) and knew West was a great purveyor of it. Rather than wait for the censor's attack, the duo went on the offensive. The first script for It Ain't No Sin (the original title) was packed full of licentious decoy material never truly intended for the big screen, in the hopes that, after the steam stopped coming out of the Hays Office's ears, the content they wanted to keep would be tame by comparison. Songs like "Creole Man", an ode to marijuana and interracial sex, as well as other songs with lyrics like "Cuddle up and love me like no one can/I'll make you forget you're a married man" did the trick. Hays Office head Joseph Breen, also fed up with surreptitious wrangling on Cohen's part to not inform Paramount's New York office about the West Coast struggle over the script's content, sent off a sputtering memo warning that this "vulgar and highly offensive yarn" will be condemned "in toto if, and when, the picture is presented for our approval."
By and large, the subterfuge worked and West's intended plot stayed intact: The glamorous Ruby Carter (West) would have stayed in Gay '90s St. Louis had her boxer lover Tiger Kid (Roger Pryor) not jilted her. Unbeknownst to Ruby, he only dumped her because his manager (James Donlan) resented her distraction, but Ruby knows there's men everywhere. So when Ace Lamont of New Orleans' "Sensation House" offers her work, she accepts, traveling to the Big Easy to the delight of many -- and the chagrin of Ace's green-eyed girlfriend Molly (Katherine DeMille). When the gift of a diamond necklace to Ruby becomes a sticking point for Ace and Tiger, they conspire to steal it from her in a daring highwayman raid, only to learn too late that you don't mess with Ruby's diamonds. And throughout it all, the Hays Office keeps its hands off bon mots like "Are you in town for good?" "I expect to be here, but not for good."
West pulled much from her previous work and life for this plot. The diamond robbery, she later told a biographer, was inspired by a similar real-life incident. Much of Tiger Kid's plot line is gleaned from West's play The Constant Sinner. Her real-life affinity for boxer boyfriends may have been inspired by her father, boxer "Battling Jack" West. And her on-screen maid Jasmine was played by her real-life maid Libby Taylor, who reprised the role she held in I'm No Angel (1933). And while she and Cohen calculated a surrender strategy when it came to the original script, West knew how to pick her battles, putting her foot down when it came to hiring Duke Ellington and his whole band, not just the crowd of cheaper day rate African-American extras Paramount wanted to pantomime playing their instruments.
While the end result was not the runaway success of She Done Him Wrong or I'm No Angel, Belle of the Nineties did very respectably at the box office, with critics like Andre Sennwald of the New York Times praising its "smart and funny script" and declaring it one of "the best screen comedies of the year." (The review makes note also of how the censorship battles didn't end once the film was in the can: While approved by national censorship board, New York insisted on a bowdlerized ending that makes Ruby's "respectability" more explicit.) By the end of 1934, Mae West was the highest paid performer in Hollywood, outranking stars like Marlene Dietrich, Charlie Chaplin, and Cary Grant. All that scrutiny by bluenoses was worth it. As Ruby herself puts it, "It is better to be looked over than to be overlooked."
-- Violet LeVoit
Louvish, Simon. Mae West: It Ain't No Sin. Thomas Dunne Books, 2006
Chandler, Charlotte. She Always Knew How: Mae West, A Personal Biography. Simon & Schuster, 2009.
Sennwald, Andre. "Mae West and Her Gaudy Retinue in "Belle of the Nineties" -- "Chu Chin Chow" at the Roxy." New York Times, Sept 22nd, 1934
Belle of the Nineties -
You certainly know the way to a man's heart.- Wardrobe lady to Ruby Carter
Ah, funny too, 'cause I can't cook.- Ruby Carter
Great town, St. Louis. You were born here?- Ace Lamont
Yes.- Ruby Carter
What part?- Ace Lamont
Why, all of me.- Ruby Carter
According to 'Niven, David' , this film was to have been called "It Ain't No Sin" and, as a publicity stunt, 40 parrots were trained to repeat "it ain't no sin." Then the Hays office made them change the title!
This film was originally titled It Ain't No Sin. According to a news item in Daily Variety on June 28, 1934, the title was changed to St. Louis Woman because the studio and its releasing organization figured the new title would not "be offensive to any of the censor groups or religious organizations in the country." The rights to this title, however, belonged to Screencraft Productions, which used the title for a 1934 independent film. The next tentative title, Belle of New Orleans, could not be cleared because it was already the name of a stage play. On July 24, 1934, Daily Variety reported that the film had been referred to for the first time as Belle of the Nineties. Some ads refer to the film as It Ain't No Sin, under which title it was reviewed in Motion Picture Daily and appears in music copyright records. Film Daily remarked that many exhibitors chose to advertise it as "Belle of the Nighties." The film was reviewed in Variety as Belle of the 90s.
According to a news item in Daily Variety, George Raft was originally set to co-star, but walked out on the picture on March 8, 1934 because his part was too small. Daily Variety reported on March 7, 1934 that Mae West had been receiving threatening letters from gangsters, and that executive producer Emanuel Cohen had agreed to seal the stage where the cast was rehearsing and employ policemen to stand guard in order to get West to attend rehearsals. News items do not reveal why gangsters were threatening West, however. On 21 Mar, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's son, Elliott, was allowed past the "no visitors" sign on the set to observe West at work, and was reportedly the first outsider to do so.
As recorded in detail in memorandum in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, from March to August 1934, Paramount underwent a lengthy dialogue with the Hays Office in order to get this film passed. On March 7, 1934, Hays Office director Joseph I. Breen wrote to Paramount producer A. M. Botsford and rejected "in toto" the first white script, titled It Ain't No Sin, because of: A) vulgarity and obscenity, B) glorification of crime and criminals, C) glorification of a prostitute, and D) the general theme of the story which was "definitely on the side of evil and crime and [was] against goodness, decency and law." It was Breen's opinion that the treatment of the story was certain to "throw the sympathy of the audience with sin, crime, wrong-doing and evil." In an inter-office memo also dated 7 Mar, Breen reported on a meeting he had with Botsford and Paramount executive John Hammell in which they tried to persuade Breen that he was unnecessarily alarmed; that Paramount planned to "play the whole story in a light, humorous vein [which] would result in an inoffensive picture of high entertainment quality." Botsford and Hammell still planned to shoot the film along the lines suggested in the script, but agreed to remove several details to which Breen objected. On 26 Apr, the Office listed the objectionable scenes in a memo. They included: the burlesque show (a "vulgarly suggestive gag") in which the queen appears in a bedroom, where she slowly raises her dress, removes her garter, and throws it toward the lieutenant, and later when he staggers out of her bedroom after having spent the night with her; Tiger Kid's line to the effect that he will have to remain with Ruby until the rain stops, and the several shots showing five days of intensive rain with the final fade-out on Ruby's room; Tiger Kid's former occupation as a thief; the action of Ruby dropping the poison into the bottle at ring side; and Ruby setting fire to the room with her cigarette, standing idly by as it burns; and Ace punching Molly, knocking her down and locking her in the closet.
Paramount's Hollywood office asked the Hays Office to refrain from sending Emanuel Cohen a letter stating the Office's decision on this film in an effort to keep Paramount executives in New York from becoming involved in the controversy. On June 2, 1934, Breen wrote to Hays Office director, Will H. Hays, stating that Hollywood producers were conspiring, in a "sort of off-the-record understanding," to keep censorship decisions from their studio heads in New York, who received carbon copies of Hays Office correspondence. According to Breen, a few days previous to Paramount's request, Louis B. Mayer had also requested that the Office stop writing him letters. Breen wrote, "It is our thought that in cases where our letters indicate serious danger, the heads of the companies in New York promptly get busy with the studio executives, most probably." Breen tells Hays that they will accede to Paramount's request, but will keep accurate records as evidence "in the case of troublesome pictures, that we warned the studio of the danger." "There is much "under cover" work going on," Breen continues, "that smacks to me of a desire on the part of the studios definitely to outsmart and outwit the machinery of the Code, and to fly a lone kite in the matter of production, without any counsel, guidance, or reference to New York offices....The general attitude we have found here [in Hollywood] with regard to the public criticism which has become so widespread [is for Hollywood filmmakers to] belittle it all, to sneer at [their] critics and to continue to make pictures to suit [themselves.] I am deeply concerned about it all." On the same day as the above memo, Breen discovered that his earlier statement about not writing to Cohen was in violation of Section III of the Code, which imposed responsibility of Hays Office agents to notify the studio involved in writing of the censorship decision. Breen, therefore, sent Cohen a letter stating that the film screened on June 1, 1934 was "definitely in violation" of the Production Code. Reasons for the violation were again delineated in a memo from Breen to Paramount President Adolph Zukor on 4 Jun: 1) general low [moral] tone, 2) immoral criminal theme of story, and 3) lack of sufficient compensating moral values. Objections to the theme were further outlined: 1) the life of a notorious woman, 2) her activities in a crooked gambling establishment, 3) her doping of the prizefighter, 4) her acts as an accessory to crimes of homicide and arson, and 5) her illicit love affair with an acknowledged ex-convict, thief, and killer.
Finally, on 6 Jun, Breen compromised on the letter issue by agreeing to give the censorship decision verbally to Cohen so that he might change the film to suit the Office without being on record as having made a picture that was in violation of the Code. Cohen requested that the Office withdraw the letter of 2 June that stated it had rejected the picture. Cohen agreed that "thematically" the picture was in violation of the Code, and agreed to make five major changes. In a memo dated 6 Jun, these effected changes are listed as follows (in paraphrase): A) All the action and dialogue suggesting that the character of Ruby Carter was "a lady with a past"-"a notorious woman"-and, by inference at least, a prostitute, were removed. B) The character of Tiger Kid was cleaned up so that there was no suggestion that he was an ex-convict; he was now shown only as an ambitious prize-fighter. C) Much of the offensive "sex suggestiveness" was removed; specifically, the inference that Ruby and the Tiger Kid have an affair in Ruby's apartment, which lasts for five days. Also removed were a number of shots of "violent and lustful kissing," which were "spread pretty generally throughout the picture." D) The action of Ruby stealing money from Ace, her employer, was removed. E) Ruby's relations with Brooks, the young man, were cleaned up. Specifically, the scene of lustful kissing in Ruby's room, on the fire seat, in which not only does Brooks fondle her body, but she, likewise fondles his. Following the second preview, which included the above changes, the Hays Office finally approved the film on June 6, 1934. Complications continued, however, before the film was released. On 9 Jul, Daily Variety reported that Paramount was "making an honest woman of Mae West" by inserting a wedding sequence, shot in re-takes. After the title had been changed to Belle of the Nineties, Hays himself viewed the partially-remade film and, in an inter-office memo dated July 13, 1934, stated that he had advised Paramount to "further show that West was a "burlesque queen" and not a prostitute and that she really was good at heart"; to "show affirmatively that she was boisterous, robust, tough, indeed, but not a prostitute..." According to Daily Variety, the film was given the purity seal on August 6, 1934. Correspondence from Hammell to Breen dated 7 August lists detailed alterations, which correspond to the five major changes above: 1) the entire sequence in Ruby's boudoir in which she states that, although she has lost her jewels, she has the pleasure of remembering how she got them, 2) the shot of Ruby holding the phial of dope after she used it to drug the water bottle; all that remained was a shot of her taking something out of her bag, and a shot of her hand covering the water bottle with a fur piece, 3) following the fire scene, three newspaper headlines were inserted-"PROVE ACE LAMONT WAS KILLED BY BLOW ON HEAD," "TIGER KID SURRENDERS IN LAMONT DEATH CASE" (with a sub-heading emphasizing that he killed Ace in self-defense), and "COURT EXONERATES TIGER KID." In the original story, Tiger's punches had resulted in Ace's death.
Daily Variety reported on September 4, 1934 that the Catholic Legion of Decency, which had condemned the film when it was known at It Ain't No Sin, had officially approved the film for adult audiences. Censors in some Eastern states rejected the picture. The Daily Variety preview review on August 18, 1934 states that the film underwent a "scissoring operation" following the New York regents' "frown on the picture" in its original form. Finally, on August 31, 1934, Belle of the Nineties was passed by New York censors without further eliminations. Reviewers did not fail to miss Ruby's action of doping the water bottle, or the fact that Molly is beaten up and put in a closet; and Variety remarked, "That Miss West treats villainy with equal cunning...and foils all of the intended dastardliness is mitigated only by the benefit-of-clergy finale, an obvious curtsey to Joe Breen." Although West typically stretched Hays Code boundaries, an Motion Picture Herald review of this film states, "No matter how supercritically straightlaced one's clientele, no exhibitor has occasion to worry about this Mae West," and Variety remarked, "Mae West's latest opera...ain't no sin for the b.o. nor the customers...it's been sufficently denatured from within." The New York Times acknowledged the film's extensive censorship problems, which, it states, were solved when the marriage ceremony was added at the end. One priest, Reverend J. A. Smith of St. Lawrence's Catholic Church at Sayville, Long Island, picketed this picture to keep the children of his parishioners from seeing it. Motion Picture Daily remarked that "nothing offends the sensibilities in La West's cleanest film....Her wisecracks ripple along in laughing cadence with her curvacious walk." The film was rejected in Norway as "tainted fiction," and in Italy "on account of its atmosphere and [on] moral grounds." Many territories eliminated the line, "Well, a man in the house is worth two in the street." A modern source states that West was "at least two generations before her time in her attitudes toward feminine sexuality." The source also opines that West's film She Done Him Wrong (see below) saved Paramount from complete bankruptcy in 1932. Following the success of She Done Him Wrong, West renegotiated her contract with Paramount; for Belle of the Nineties, she received an increase in salary from five-thousand dollars a week to a reported three-hundred thousand dollars a picture, plus one-hundred thousand dollars for the story. Mack Gordon and Harry Revel wrote three songs for this film when it was still in pre-production that were submitted for approval by the Hays Office, but do not appear in the film: "You Don't Know What You're Doin' to Me," "Creole Man," and "How Can I Resist You?" "Memphis Blues" was performed by Mae West and Duke Ellington and his orchestra. According to a news item in Hollywood Reporter on August 28, 1933, Alexander Hall and George Somnes were originally set to co-direct this film, but were later replaced.
Shown at FILMEX: Los Angeles International Film Exposition (The Mighty Musical Movie Marathon) March 9-27, 1977.