How do you explain the joy of Mae West after a long hiatus? I’ve saved Goin’ to Town for a rough day, and it had the hoped-for effect. I may not get everything in my life right, but I have an instinct for good medicine: Mae had me grinning within seconds.
Cleo (West) first appears in an embrace with a guy we know isn’t the boyfriend obsessed with her. She’s, of course, some kind of dance hall singer. We see the boyfriend asking for her, and then the film cuts to the guy she’s kissing:
Lover: “Now I’d like to take you away from all this.”
Cleo: “All this? Oh, I get you. Yeah, for a long time I was ashamed of the way I live.”
Lover: “You mean to say you reformed?”
Cleo: “No, I got over bein’ ashamed.”
(Spoilers) West wasn’t exactly a fan of realistic plots, but this one is a doozy: Cleo’s boyfriend has promised her an oil ranch after they marry, and seemingly within minutes is dead, and the ranch hers. (“Well, that’ll help pay for my feelings.”) She falls for a British high-class type who runs her oil fields, and shoots off his hat and lassoes him to express her attraction (her definition of “coaxing”). He doesn’t think she’s classy enough, so she heads to Buenos Aires to buy her way into society and impress this snob.
Entrée into society, in West’s world, includes winning a horse race and performing as an unlikely soprano in a Samson and Delilah opera. Her outfit in the latter, with sequins highlighting breasts and hips, is hilariously provocative, seeming to confirm her scandalous background rather than winning respect from the elite.
The elite, of course, are so worthless in this film—including her boring object of desire, Edward Carrington (Paul Cavanagh)—that Cleo’s fight for status, even going so far as a marriage of convenience to well-born Fletcher Colton (Monroe Owsley), makes little sense. Of course, even in this conventional, post-Code desire to set aside a colorful past, West subverts the screenplay formula: Cleo’s utterly unashamed of hers:
Socialite: “Speaking of relatives, Mrs. Colton, have your ancestors ever been traced?
Cleo: “Well, yes, but they were too smart, they couldn’t catch ’em.”
Critics, both West’s contemporaries and ours, attack the film’s silliness, her toned-down innuendos, the reduced number of her beaus. It’s not West at her peak, they say. Low on the list of West films, they report. Something’s lost, they carp. You know what? Get over it. The film’s fun, and her victorious final song a riot. While West’s magic in She Done Him Wrong might be enough to fuel a steam engine, I’ll take enough to fuel a car. It’s still West. It’s still entertaining. The plot moves at a crazy clip, so just when you fear a sad/dramatic plot twist is going to overtake the action, poof! It’s gone. And in the meantime, you get enough of her slow stroll, enough hilarious comments, and enough silliness to break through a day’s doldrums, and make you smile again.