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Mae West in I'm No Angel | Wesley Ruggles, USA, 1933
Mae West in I’m No Angel | Wesley Ruggles, USA, 1933 Source: Deutsche Kinemathek, courtesy of Universal Studios Licensing, LLC

For the Retrospective of the 2021 Berlin International Film Festival, the festival will showcase a program of 27 comedies featuring three different American actresses under the title “No Angels – Mae West, Rosalind Russell & Carole Lombard”. The films were chosen with a focus on the strict morality rules of the Motion Picture Production Code, which were increasingly enforced after 1934. Officially adopted in 1930 and dubbed the “Hays Code”, it was a voluntary system by which the Hollywood Studios agreed to uphold moral standards in filmmaking to avoid the censors’ knife. But the Hays Office soon became an even stricter arbiter than the actual censorship office of what could and couldn’t be shown on screen. The code prohibited explicit depictions of sex and promiscuity, as well as the use of profanity. Yet during that period, these three women succeeded in shaping their own film roles, finding their own style, and subtly subverting the Hays Code rules.

All the films in the 2021 Retrospective are American productions made between 1932 and 1943, the heyday of the screwball comedy. They are characterized by their breakneck speed, ingenious plots, and dialogue loaded with wordplay and innuendo. Both film historical and biographical considerations played a role in selecting the movies for the section. Mae West’s debut film Night After Night, directed by Archie Mayo (1932), starts the series. And with Carole Lombard’s premature death in 1942, the era of the screwball comedy was nearing its end. That highly-successful period in the history of Hollywood conceals a certain topicality that is revealed in the Retrospective.

Rainer Rother, artistic director of the Deutsche Kinemathek and head of the Retrospective section, says “Mae West, Rosalind Russell, and Carole Lombard have something to say to today’s audiences about what’s going on right now. They explore timeless issues like reconciling love, career, and partnership, while dealing with their own sexuality. In their films, these three actresses express that wonderfully.”

In 1930s America, Mae West, Rosalind Russell, and Carole Lombard became society’s pioneers onscreen, in particular in the way they flouted and undermined the prevailing sex roles. Mae West took on the issue of (female) sexuality. The women Rosalind Russell played often faced the dilemma of combining career and love, or career and marriage. And Carole Lombard embodied the desire – felt by many today – to flee the back country and find self-fulfillment in the big city. In real life, their sense of self-determination helped them to free themselves from Hollywood’s studio system and develop further. In 1936, Carole Lombard went freelance, Rosalind Russell worked for a variety of studios, and Mae West continued to provoke the Hays Office with her persona, as the massive censorship of her films makes clear. In Raoul Walsh’s Klondike Annie (1936), the film of West’s that suffered most from the censor’s edits, the production was even prohibited from showing a Bible onscreen.

Films in the Retrospective (in chronological order)

Night After Night, USA 1932, by Archie Mayo
with George Raft, Constance Cummings, Wynne Gibson, Mae West

No Man of Her Own, USA 1932, by Wesley Ruggles
with Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Dorothy Mackaill, Grant Mitchell

I’m No Angel, USA 1933, by Wesley Ruggles
with Mae West, Cary Grant, Gregory Ratoff, Edward Arnold

She Done Him Wrong, USA 1933, by Lowell Sherman
with Mae West, Cary Grant, Owen Moore, Gilbert Roland

Belle of the Nineties, USA 1934, by Leo McCarey
with Mae West, Roger Pryor, Johnny Mack Brown, John Miljan

Lady by Choice, USA 1934, by David Burton
with Carole Lombard, May Robson, Roger Pryor, Walter Connolly

Twentieth Century, USA 1934, by Howard Hawks
with John Barrymore, Carole Lombard, Walter Connolly, Roscoe Karns

Goin’ to Town, USA 1935, by Alexander Hall
with Mae West, Paul Cavanagh, Gilbert Emery, Marjorie Gateson

Hands Across the Table, USA 1935, by Mitchell Leisen
with Carole Lombard, Fred MacMurray, Ralph Bellamy, Astrid Allwyn

Go West Young Man, USA 1936, by Henry Hathaway
with Mae West, Warren William, Randolph Scott, Alice Brady

Klondike Annie, USA 1936, by Raoul Walsh
with Mae West, Victor McLaglen, Philip Reed, Helen Jerome Eddy

My Man Godfrey, USA 1936, by Gregory La Cava
with William Powell, Carole Lombard, Alice Brady, Gail Patrick

Nothing Sacred, USA 1937, by William A. Wellmann
with Carole Lombard, Frederic March, Charles Winniger, Walter Connolly

True Confession, USA 1937, by Wesley Ruggles
with Carole Lombard, Fred MacMurray, John Barrymore, Una Merkel

Every Day’s a Holiday, USA 1938, by A. Edward Sutherland
with Mae West, Edmund Lowe, Charles Butterworth, Charles Winninger

Four’s a Crowd, USA 1938, by Michael Curtiz
with Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Rosalind Russell, Patric Knowles

The Women, USA 1939, by George Cukor
with Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Mary Boland

Hired Wife, USA 1940, by William A. Seiter
with Rosalind Russell, Brian Aherne, Virginia Bruce, Robert Benchley

His Girl Friday, USA 1940, by Howard Hawks
with Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Ralph Bellamy, Gene Lockhart

My Little Chickadee, USA 1940, by Edward F. Cline
with Mae West, W. C. Fields, Joseph Calleia, Dick Foran

Design for Scandal, USA 1941, by Norman Taurog
with Rosalind Russell, Walter Pidgeon, Edward Arnold, Lee Bowman

Mr. & Mrs. Smith, USA 1941, by Alfred Hitchcock
with Carole Lombard, Robert Montgomery, Gene Raymond, Jack Carson

This Thing Called Love, USA 1941, by Alexander Hall
with Rosalind Russell, Melvyn Douglas, Binnie Barnes, Allyn Joslyn

My Sister Eileen, USA 1942, by Alexander Hall
with Rosalind Russell, Brian Aherne, Janet Blair, George Tobias

Take a Letter, Darling, USA 1942, by Mitchell Leisen
with Rosalind Russell, Fred MacMurray, Macdonald Carey, Constance Moore

To Be or Not to Be, USA 1942, by Ernst Lubitsch
with Carole Lombard, Jack Benny, Robert Stack, Felix Bressart

What a Woman!, USA 1943, by Irving Cummings
with Rosalind Russell, Brian Aherne, Willard Parker, Alan Dinehart

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