Review: 'Belle of the Nineties' is Mae West at Her Most Nuanced

by Frank J. Avella

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday June 29, 2021

With the censors circling and the Production Code in full effect, "Belle of the Nineties" featured a more subdued West in a much tamer performance than usual. And yet, I appreciated the less brash, more subtle take. Many were disappointed in what they saw as diluted diva onscreen, but this is West at her most nuanced.

Originally titled "It Ain't No Sin" until those pesky censors balked, "Belle" centers on night club star Ruby Carter (West), who is in love with a boxer (and jewels, imagine...) but talked into walking away from him by his manager so that he has a shot at being a champion. Ruby ends up in New Orleans, where she gets mixed up with a shady club owner.

West wrote the script, which is filled with many of the Westian archetypes and more gullible characters and misinterpreted situations than a whole season of "Three's Company." (Did I just date myself?) But the film does dare to go to some dark places and deals with themes we can all still relate to today, such as the dangers of gossip and how easily a reputation can be destroyed.

"Belle" contains a host of wonderful musical numbers by West, including "St. Louis Woman," "My Old Flame" (which became a standard), and "Troubled Waters," which is stirringly performed in a beguiling sequence that cross cuts and superimposes West and a bizarre spiritual ceremony. Duke Ellington and His Orchestra provide accompaniment for several songs.

West is stunningly shot by cinematographer Karl Struss and costumed by Travis Banton.

The film has yet another abrupt wrap-up ending that feels tacked on (and probably was) to appease some nervous suit.

Directed by the great Leo McCarey, who would go on to win three Oscars for directing "The Awful Truth" and for writing and directing "Going My Way," "Belle" opened in September of 1934. Although it grossed $2 million, a ton for the time, it was still considered a disappointment when compared to her first two starring gigs.

Transfer-wise, some of the images are blurry and faces can appear washed out in certain scenes. I guess that comes with the territory with films this old. There is slight hissing on the soundtrack. But overall, the Kino Blu-ray is first-rate and includes a wonderful Audio Commentary by Film Historian Samm Deighan.

Blu-ray Extras Include:
New Audio Commentary by Film Historian Samm Deighan

"Belle of the Nineties" Blu-ray is available June 29, 2021.

Frank J. Avella is a film and theatre journalist and is thrilled to be writing for EDGE. He also contributes to Awards Daily and is the GALECA East Coast Rep. Frank is a recipient of a 2019 International Writers Retreat Residency at Arte Studio Ginestrelle (Assisi, Italy), a 2018 Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship, a 2016 Helene Wurlitzer Residency Grant and a 2015 NJ State Arts Council Fellowship Award. He is an award-winning screenwriter and playwright (CONSENT, LURED, SCREW THE COW, FIG JAM, VATICAN FALLS) and a proud member of the Dramatists Guild.