|Klondike Annie (1936)
Run time: Approved | 80 min | Comedy
Director: Raoul Walsh
Writers: Mae West, Marion Morgan
Stars: Mae West, Victor McLaglen, Phillip Reed
Mae passes as a Salvation Army lass and those in need of a hand-out never had it so good. Wait ‘til you hear her sing “I’m an Occidental Woman in an oriental mood for love and spar with her leading man.
1. Eight minutes were deleted from the finished print: the first depicted the killing of the evil Chan Lo and the second showed Rose switching places with Annie, putting makeup on her face. The Legion of Decency refused to allow the film to be released with this second scene uncut, due to Sister Annie’s association with the Salvation Army.
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In 1915 Cecil B. DeMille did a silent film for Paramount called The Cheat. In it, Fannie Ward contracts a Shylock like debt for sexual favors in payment for borrowed money. Trying to kill the oriental who lent the money was deemed justifiable in the end. In that same tradition, Paramount and Mae West did Klondike Annie where she actually kills Harold Huber, the oriental she's involved with and escapes from San Francisco to Nome.
Prejudice against orientals was rampant on our west coast during the Gay Nineties when this story takes place. Mae has two strokes of good luck, first in ship's captain Victor McLaglen who loves her any way and keeps her secret. Secondly she meets missionary Helen Jerome Eddy who is going to the wild north to head a mission in Nome. Eddy sickens and dies aboard ship, but she's the real deal as a missionary and it's the only time Mae West ever trod the straight and narrow. She escapes the police by taking the late Ms. Eddy's identity.
I'm not sure how this one escaped the Code. Not the racial prejudice, mind you, but the fact that Mae and Victor live happily ever after and Mountie Philip Reed who also falls for Mae let's her go. You were not supposed to go unpunished under Code rules.
Mae's as bold and brassy as ever. She's got the right buxom build for these parts as back then feminine ideal beauty was someone like Lillian Russell who had a bit of heft to her figure.
Mae wrote the script as she did in most of her films and she wrote it with an awareness of the times she grew up in. Klondike Annie might not sit well with some audiences today, but it's also the sad truth about those times. Anyway, she's got fabulously sassy lines.
The period of strict enforcement of the production code, beginning in 1934, was to Mae West what the end of prohibition was to bootleggers. West was a star whose self-penned stories made an art of promiscuity, and whose overt sex appeal made even the subtlest of innuendoes as see-through as a chiffon stocking. She is sometimes pinpointed as the main reason the code-enforcing Hayes Office was established, although it wasn't so much that her pictures were the most risqué out there (something like Baby Face is a far more flagrant flaunting of the code than I'm No Angel and She Done Him Wrong). It was the fact that she was also a box office sensation and thus a much more potent influence that made the Legion of Decency moralists take notice.
In this light, Klondike Annie seems to be not so much a watering down of pre-code Mae, but an apology and atonement for her past misdemeanours. While it begins with some of West's familiar man-hopping sass (albeit without so much of her sly wit), half-an-hour or so in the plot is suddenly hijacked by a Christian missionary, from whereon Mae is a reformed woman, as if in direct response to the proclamation of I'm No Angel. This was in a way self-censorship on her part, because as with her earlier pictures West wrote the screenplay, and despite her antics both on and off screen was truly a devout Christian. Luckily this means Ms West still appears in control and enough of her personality has survived intact, even when she's dressed in black and preaching a sermon. It's a testament to her credible acting skills that she manages to pull this off, making Rose Carlton's redemption and unconventional adoption of the moral crusader role a believable one, tweaking her ability to command attention and work a crowd into a slightly new direction.
West also has a very flattering and focused director in Raoul Walsh. Walsh makes his camera placement a slave to Mae, keeping her almost constantly foregrounded, staring hypnotically out at the audience. Take for example the scene where Victor McLaglen prepares breakfast for her, in which we see the table in a fairly standard sideways-on set-up. When Mae comes in Walsh switches to a sharply different angle, purely so that she can enter bearing down upon the camera. Walsh is also blunt in bringing out plot points, making for example Sister Annie's first address to Mae a close-up straight into the camera (a Walsh speciality), to let us know that this is a key moment in the story.
Another odd side-effect here is that without all the usual sexual politics and bed-hopping Klondike Annie actually has a far clearer and more substantial plot than the earliest Mae West pictures, even transitional ones like Belle of the Nineties, which took out the sex but left in the battle-of-the-sexes. But to what purpose this clarity? Klondike Annie may be technically one of the better Mae West pictures, but without her free-spiritedness and playful man-conquering exploits the very heart of the Mae West formula has gone. While the picture served to keep her in work for a few years, it has little of value for those of us in the audience. The production code had not only put a cramp West's style, it had wiped out her box-office appeal in the process.
KLONDIKE ANNIE (Paramount, 1936), directed by Raoul Walsh, starring Mae West, who's also credited with story and dialog, is a different kind of Mae West production without taking away from the traditional Mae West persona. The movie title is as memorable and most associated with Mae West than the story itself, however, this is one of her most interesting, if not entirely successful projects.
Set in San Francisco's Chinatown in the 1890s, Rose Carlton (Mae West), better known as "The San Francisco Doll," (but billed in the closing credits simply as "The Frisco Doll") works an entertainer at the House of Chan Lo. Aside from earning her living as a singer , her other position is acting as mistress to her employer Chan Lo (Harold Huber), who rewards her with luxury but not happiness. After more than a year under his constant guided protection, she becomes bitter, feeling more like a prisoner and annoyed with his abusive behavior and possessive jealously. She now yearns for a man of her "own race" and decides to make leave with Vance Palme r(Conway Talmer), a middle-aged millionaire. After one of her servants, Ah Toy, is put to the torture test, Chan Lo learns of the Doll's attempt to board passage on the next steamer for Alaska. Rose and her Chinese maid, Fah Wong (Soo Yong), leave the casino, and arrive on board the Java Maid where they become only passengers, in fact the only females, sharing the steamer with Captain "Bull" Brackett (Victor McLaglen) and his crew. Rose soon catches the attention of the captain who makes her his special passenger. As a promise to her maid, Rose arranges for Bull to stop in Seattle where Fah Wong reunites herself with the man she loves. While on port, Bull obtains information about Rose, alias "The San Francisco Doll," wanted for murder. Blinded by her beauty, he decides to help her. After the steamer docks at Vancouver, Sister Annie Alden (Helen Jerome-Eddy) of the Salvation Army, comes on board to pursue her mission to save fallen souls at the Settlement House in Nome. During the voyage, Sister Annie suddenly becomes ill and dies. Arriving in the Klondike, authorities come on board to arrest Rose. Rose switches identities with Annie, with Rose Carlton's name listed in the log book as passenger who died on board. While in Nome, Rose's impersonation of Sister Annie gradually changes her heart and soul. Out of respect for the dead woman, she uses her methods to inspire dance hall girls, gamblers and prostitutes to attend the prayer meetings. It's not long before her special brand of preaching earns her a special place in the congregation. In spite of being on an errand of mercy, Rose, who has encountered Jack Forrest (Philip Reed), of the Mounted Police, who, like Brackett, knowing her identity, plans to resign his post and go away with her. Rose is soon placed in a position as to which man she would have as well as the tough decision whether or not return to San Francisco and face up to the murder charge that awaits her.
While a theme about a troubled or bitter woman finding religion could have produced a fine and inspirational film, instead, is something with great potential, but little else. KLONDIKE ANNIE (which could have been titled I'M NO ANGEL had it not been used already), was reportedly faced with censorship problems leading to severe editing process. A notable scene early in the story was one involving a struggling match between Rose (West) and Chan Lo (Harold Huber), ending with the villain accidentally getting stabbed by one of his own daggers. This ranks one of the more regrettable cuts, making that abrupt blackout from casino to steamer a bit puzzling. Learning what had taken place through the "wanted for murder" posters does help to comprehend the continuity of the rest of the story.
Aside from deletion of other scenes leading to its final print of 77 minutes, KLONDIKE ANNIE, being the most dramatic of all Mae West films, not only takes time for some lighter moments in comedy but takes time for song numbers with West taking the spotlight, with music and lyrics credited to Gene Austin, who also appears as vocalist and organ player during the church service. The opening number, "I'm an Occidental Woman in the Oriental Mood for Love," as sung by West, is quite effective especially with the accompaniment of Oriental musical instruments. This is followed by "Mr. Deep Blue Sea" as West sings this one to McLaglen in his cabin. Subsequent songs sung by others include: "There'll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight," "Little Bar Butterfly," "Cheer Up, Little Sister," "It's Better to Give Than to Receive" (sung by Gene Austin and parishioners during the collection; and the traditional New Year's Eve theme song of "Old Acquaintance."
Out of circulation from the commercial and public television markets for quite some time now, KLONDIKE ANNIE eventually moved to the cable channel of American Movie Classics where it played several times from September 1991 to March of 1992. In fact, KLONDIKE ANNIE was the only Mae West feature from her Paramount years (1932-1938) to be presented on AMC. KLONDIKE ANNIE along with the other West/ Paramount titles, were distributed on video cassette from MCA/ Universal in 1992, and later to DVD a decade or so later. Aside from a story with a Jack London (author to "The Call of the Wild") Yukon setting, Mae West, with her attempt to be relatively different, keeps the traditional formula and style sizzling, yet goodness did have something to do with it. (**1/2)
The inimitable Mae West struts her stuff yet again in this breezy, passable, but lesser Paramount Studio vehicle. Based on her play ("Frisco Kate") and co-credited for the writing here, she is the whole show naturally.
The story, if you care, has Mae playing Rose ("the Frisco Doll") Carlton, an 1890s entertainer who has to take it on the lam after bringing down one of her paramours – not with sly one-liners, but with a knife in the back. She’s forced to slum it on a ship headed for the Klondike. With the police breathing down her bodice, she winds up impersonating a Salvation Army missionary (Helen Jerome Eddy), who conveniently dies of a `bad heart attack’ while on board. In a change of heart, the sultry Mae, now dressed down in drab, basic black, vows to fulfill the woman’s mission and ventures on to reform an Alaskan town full of drunks, prosties and other sinner types with her own revamped style of Bible-thumping. Somehow you feel these unfortunates will never be ENTIRELY saved, but that’s never the point anyway. Interspersed throughout are a few typical West songs, notably `I’m an Occidental Woman in an Oriental Mood for Love’ decked out in full Oriental regalia, including headgear, which really has to be seen to be believed.
It’s always grand entertainment to see the most virile of men falling all over themselves over La West — reduced to simpering, whimpering fools once they zero in on our gal. This time one of filmdom’s most rugged and respected character stars, Victor McLaglan, becomes her prime, buffoonish play toy. McLaglan (who had won an Oscar a year or two before) plays Bull Brackett, a brusque, salty ol’ sea captain here, who barks out orders in his best Wallace Beery imitation and roughs up nearly every guy within throwing distance. But watch the big brute turn to pure mush at the first sight of Mae — sulking, grousing, bumbling, even running into poles, for God’s sake. And McLaglan’s not the only one. Dashing, doe-eyed Philip Terry’s Mountie, McLaglan’s chief rival, risks all respect, not to mention his career, in his play for her, while obsessive-compulsive `Oriental’ Harold Huber loses much more than that over his fascination with " the pearl of lotus flower.’ Ah, yes, in a distinct case of reverse gender discrimination, every man is weak, inept, servile, and just plain putty around dear ol’ Mae. Improbable fun…but fun.
And speaking of support roles, nobody has ever been given the chance to steal a Mae West movie, so to mention anyone else in the cast would be a waste of time. By the way, you won’t see any pretty dames supporting West either. She wouldn’t stand for it. So every other female — bar girls, suffragettes, society ladies, you name it – are at least 50-70 in age here, and either much heavier than the quite zaftig West or downright ugly. Smart girl that Mae!
Suffice it to say there’s never much action in a Mae West movie because the old girl (she was 44 at the time this movie was released) simply can’t move in those tight, breath-taking (literally!) outfits she wears. She simply sashays from place to place, plants herself, and lets out a few double entendres. The dramatic action is usually compromised by a series of set poses – lighting a cigarette, filing her nails, primping her platinum-blonde locks, laying carefully on a settee, or shoving some pawing, lovesick puppy away from her camera light. Actually, what you’re waiting for anyway are Mae’s delicious quips, but, sadly, there are way too few of them in "Klondike Annie", none of those classic lines we all enjoy and remember so well. Methinks those dastardly censors cut out her best lines this time, because there’s not a lot of zing in the ones she delivers here. Rumor has it William Randolph Hearst and his newspaper establishment took offense at Mae portraying any kind of religious figure and insisted on immediate congressional action. Whatever.
Raoul Walsh directed this but there is really little directing going on. The narcissistic Mae could never have been considered a director’s star. And as for her acting? Well, if Mae were alive today, I’d love to ask her, "What the hell DO you see looking up at the ceiling all the time?" Whatever it is, I’m sure it’s better than some of the silliness we’re seeing down here.
But Mae is Mae, so what you see is what you get.