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Mae West, Pioneer of Erotic Comedy - A Biography

by Mike Haberfelner

January 2007

For films starring Mae West on (re)Search my Trash click here !

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"Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just happy to see me" is possibly Mae West's most famous quote - even if it didn't make it into one of her films until Sextette in 1978 -, and considering the quote originated in the mid-1930's, it sounds all the more provocative and downright funny.

Of course, it's also West's most-cited quote, but nobody came even close in delivery to Mae West, who wasn't only known for delivering uniquely racy and provocative oneliners a dime a dozen, she also had the ability to bring them alive and spell them in three capital letters: S I N !

She was the woman who virtually singlehandedly brought racy, adult comedy to the movie screen decades before sexploitation and porn were even heard of, and to this day she is unsurpassed in playing bad-girl-roles - promiscuous, greedy and highly seductive bitches - without ever being the villainess.

Mae West's screen persona was always that of a erotic seducer and a sexually liberated woman alike, she was the woman who would take men home but never take them seriously, and being promiscuous was just her preferred lifestyle and didn't mean she was a slut. Interestingly, to this day her screen persona was virtually never picked up by someone else, and even adult comedies from our time of hardcore pornography would pale and blush at the same time if compared to Mae West's best stuff - which makes her films all the more remarkable.

However, back in her time, she proved to be way too much for self-appointed censors like the MPPDA, which eventually managed to force the spineless film industry down to their knees, and even in today's reactionary American movie-(and TV-) world she would run into troubles with her usually very racy dialogue, sexual allusions and unambiguous gestures.

 

That all said, in her lifetime Mae West, who came from the theatre and did not make her first film till age 39 (!), made no more than 12 movies, and between her 10th and 11th film, 27 years went by ... but more of that later ...

 

Born 1893 in Brooklyn, New York, Mae West hit the stage at the tender age of 5 years, when she started to appear in vaudeville acts, both in solo- and group-performances, and it is said she began to develop her star persona at a very early age, and even in her teens, when her body wasn't yet fully developed, she added sexy dances - which does not mean striptease - to her repertoire, which brought her the nickname the Baby Vamp when she was approximately 14 years of age. It is said that during her early years with the vaudeville, she originated her trademark slinky sexy walk which always spelled seduction in big bright letters.

However, the beginning of the 20th century saw the slow death of the vaudeville, and Mae West was smart enough to realize she had to move on ... and soon enough, she found herself on Broadway as dancer and/or actress in several rather insignificant shows.

West's big breakthrough came in 1926, when she played the lead in Sex, a racy comedy she had written herself under the name Jane Mast. The very blunt title of this play alone made the show a big hit with the audiences (if not the critics) - and was enough to put the censors on the map, which resulted in the play being raided by the police (when it had already played for almost a year or 375 performances) and all of the principal cast and producers - Mae West included - being convicted to ten days in jail (West was reportedly released after six for good behariour).

 

After this incident, the play Sex was dead (and wouldn't be revived until 1999 as an off-Broadway show) - but Mae West's popularity had only increased, and in 1928, she had another of her plays produced (with her in the lead, naturally), Diamond Lil, which ran for 176 performances, followed by Pleasure Man, which was raided by the police and closed down after only two performances in 1928, and The Constant Sinner, which ran for 64 performances in 1931.

 

Eventually, Hollywood - then still trying to come to terms with the sound film medium and thus hugely dependent on stage actors and plays with well-written dialogue - became aware of Mae West, and in 1932, Paramount gave her her first role in the George Raft-starrer Night After Night (1932, directed by Archie Mayo). Actually, the film ws designed to be the launching pad for George Raft's career as a leading man (he had previously mainly done supporting roles), but for the few minutes that West - who was alledgedly brought to Hollywood by Raft - was on, she steals the show and brings the much needed entertainment value - with suggestive dialogue (written by herself) and her own alluring style of acting and moving, that were by now already fully developed thanks to years of stagework - into an otherwise unremarkable drama about a boxer (Raft) falling in love with a society lady (Constance Cummings).

 


Thanks to her performance, Paramount realized they might have a winner on their hands and so they next adapted her play Diamond Lil into the film She Done Him Wrong (1933, Lowell Sherman) - which might have been a bit of a gamble because of the adult nature of the film (it's about a promiscuous woman facing troubles because she had way too many lovers in her life and she actually becomes involved in two murders, but still emerges victorious in the end), but it was relatively cheaply to produce, and Paramount at this point had to try anything to produce a hit and avoid bancrupcy and/or being taken over by rival MGM.

The gamble paid off, and better than expected too, when the film made 2 million Dollars in just three months (which sounds like a ridiculous sum regarding box office takes nowadays - unfortunately - but back then was enormous), saved the studio single-handedly (!) and became a box office sensation.

Seen as a movie as such, She Done Him Wrong is less than great, the story is as thin as it is overconvoluted and production values are rather low ... but all this is forgotten when Mae West enters the stage in her trademark alluring walk and delivers oneliner after oneliner in her trademark provocative style that turns the otherwise average comedy into a comedic gem - and you couldn't even begin to guess that West was already 40 years old when this came out. West easily overshadows everybody else in the cast, including a young Cary Grant in one of his early - and rather unimpressive - roles.

 

Of course, the success of She Done Him Wrong prompted Paramount to hire West to do another film for them - as writer and lead actress of course - in no time, and only a few months after She Done Him Wrong, I'm No Angel (1933, Wesley Ruggles) was released.

Essentially, West plays her old self from She Done Him Wrong once more in I'm No Angel, only this time more effort was put into the plot (essentially it's promiscuous Mae falling in love with a man - Cary Grant -, then losing him, then fighting to win him back in court - it might still be silly, but hey, this is comedy) and the production values were considerably higher - one of the highlights of this film is a lion-taming scene which Mae, upon her own insistence, performs herself, which is shown in numerous shots showing her with the lions and even touching one of them. Of course, Mae looks great even when facing lions instead of fighting of wolfish men. Plus, West's co-star Cary Grant is given a little more opportunity to shine in West's shadow in this one.

 

The films of Mae West (and similar racy films from the early 1930's) however where a thorn in the eye of the religious right, a powerful narrow-minded and hypocritical minority set on changing the world in their own image - and soon they were looking for ways to keep cinema pure, and it was not long before they found the Production Code (or Hays Code) - a set of guidelines for motion picture production - that was actually concocted in 1930 but never enforced ... and this code among other things clearly forbade not only the showing of nudity and sex but also all-too-obvious sexual references, justification of adultery, passionate kissing, or let sins go unpunished as such - and pretty much all of these points clearly refer to Mae West's films so far.

Of course, it was as easy for the religious right back then as it is now to find a spineless politician who puts his own political career above such human rights as the freedom of speech, and thus, to enforce the code, the MPPDA (Motion Pictures Prodcuers and Distributors Association) was installed by 1934, led by former minister Joseph Breen, and all films released after July 1st 1934 had to obtain a certificate of approval from the MPPDA.

 

With Mae West, the MPPDA (allegedly) even went so far as to send a watchdog to the set of her next film, to be titles It ain't No Sin, but West (allegedly) managed to keep the watchdog off her back by making up a phony death threat story and having herself surrounded by a bunch of bodybuilders posing as her bodyguards. Still, the MPPDA had their say before the movie came out and It ain't No Sin had to be retitled Belle of the Nineties (1934, Leo McCarey).

In Belle of the Nineties, the influence of the MPPDA could already be felt, she was no longer the openly promiscuous woman of her early films but a woman in love with a boxer (Roger Pryor) who is wronged and forcefully split up with her boyfriend - but in the course of the proceedings, she lets all who have wronged her have their just desserts and comes back together with her boxer again ... why this film was refused the title It ain't No Sin is incomprehensible, other than for Mae West's own, sinful appearence - which makes one question the objectivity of the MPPDA (which of course was never even meant to be objective to begin with).

 

Apart from being a bit of a watered down version of herself, West hasn't changed much for her first MPPDA-controlled film, her walk and gestures would still ooze sex, and her dialogue was still suggestive to the hilt, even if her blunter remarks were here substituted by her very own brand of double entendre, in which West soon developed true mastery.

 

Belle of the Nineties was followed by Goin' to Town (1935, Alexander Hall), a sort-of modern-day Western, in which West plays a dance hall queen who has come to riches and who falls for an English gentleman, so she tries to become a lady - which for some reason involves opera singing and horse racing - to ultimately find out he's an Earl.

Besides the (slightly) different story, Goin' to Town is more of the same, a showcase for Mae West's amazing, provocative comic talents paired with her very sensual appearance - in other words, quite a blast ...

 

In 1936, Mae West made what probably sounds like her most interesting film, directed by none other than proficient veteran Hollywood director Raoul Walsh, (arguably) the best director she has ever worked with:

Klondike Annie.

Unfortunately, what sounds nothing short of thrilling in writing totally loses its punch on screen: In Klondike Annie, West plays a sinful woman who is converted to mere goodness before the main plot even begins, she plays a dance hall girl on the run from the law and evil Chinamen alike who takes up the work of a missionary who died on her in Alaska and - using her dance hall routines - makes the mission she runs a smashing success. And before the film is over, she even decides to give herself up to the law ... Now this isn't the Mae West one has come to expect, and despite of all its polish and all of Raoul Walsh's skills, the film is nothing more than a cheesy melodrama. Sure, West's oneliners are still spot-on, but the rest of the film is rather a disappointment, a piece of kitsch that wouldn't really have needed Mae West as a star (though in all fairness, she herself wrote the play The Frisco Kate the film was based on).

Still, my personal views aside, Klondike Annie was a commercial success, as bad girls gone good stories like this where even by 1936 Hollywood staple and almost surefire hits ...

 

1936 though also saw the beginning of Mae West's downfall in Hollywood's society of turncoats and yes-men, when she carelessly made a crack about Marion Davies' acting abilities. It was not that Davies herself was especially bothered by this ... but she was in a relationship with media tycoon William Randolph Hearst, and Hearst was never known to be receptive to any criticism ... but he was known to repeatedly abuse his media empire to try and get even with people he felt wronged him (the most famous example is probably Orson Welles, who Hearst felt mocked him in Citizen Kane).

Hearst was so brought up by West's remark that he had his newspapers make up stories about the moral decline of American motion pictures, and he made of all films Klondike Annie - very probably West's most decent film and the one with a righteous message - the prime target of his campaign.

Soon he went so far as to make up blacklists of Hollywood stars who were supposed to be box office poison, and wouldn't you know it, Mae West was on one such list, even though Klondike Annie and her subsequent films - Go West Young Man (1936, Henry Hathaway), in which she plays a glamourous moviestar who hides away in the country and which co-stars Randolph Scott, and Every Day's a Holiday (1937, Edward Sutherland), which has West in 1890's New York messing things up royally and which has Louis Armstrong in a small supporting role - were still making Paramount a nice bundle of money. 

 

In 1938 though, Paramount gave in to the pressure and sent Mae West packing, showing precious little gratitude to the woman who no five years ago saved the studio from extinction single-handedly ... but then, Hollywood always was a town of spineless turncoats, uncultured backstabbers and greedy moneymen - and apparently it hasn't changed one bit since the 1930's.

 


Mae West did not make another film until 1940, when Universal put its trust into her and teamed her up with legendary comic and alcoholic genius W.C. Fields [W.C. Fields bio - click here] to write a film and star in it together. The outcome, My Little Chickadee (1940, Edward F.Cline), is not quite as great as it would look on paper: Actually, Mae West's style of comedy needed W.C. Fields as much as his style of comedy needed her: not at all. As a result the film never seems to really fall together and seems to be little more than a succession of comedy skits featuring either West or Fields (and very rarely both). The story on the other hand - a Western about a masked bandit in love with Mae West, who in turn has married Fields in a phony wedding - holds little interest, repeatedly seems to lead to nowhere and lacks a proper conclusion.

Despite its shortcomings, My Little Chickadee still became quite a success, and Universal wanted to sign up West for two more films co-starring W.C. Fields, which she turned down though as she and Fields - each one wanting to outdo the other on set - did not get along too well ...

 

It took three more years for West to make another film, The Heat's On (1943, Gregory Ratoff), this time produced by Columbia, and even though The Heat's On is one of the very few films West did withuot being involved in the writing, it is closer to her actual career than all her previous films put together. Here West plays a musical star whose show is shut down by an over-zealous censor (Victor Moore) who soon turns potty in the hands of whoever wants to (ab-)use him. The parallels to real life events were of course totally intended.

Despite all this, The Heat's On is not West's film, despite her top-billing she only plays a supporting role and leaves most of the on-screen goings-on to Victor Moore and William Gaxton playing West's producer. In all, one can't help but like The Heat's On for making fun of all the self-appointed censors who were around back then as they are now, but on the other hand, the comedy is a bit too nice to be an actual blast and features too little Mae West ...

 

After The Heat's On, West decided to retire from the film business (at age 50), especially because censorship got ever stricter and more unbearable, and she went back to the theatre where she found more freedom to express herself and further develop her provocative stage persona.

Over the years, West remained a smashing success on stage, both in her plays and her revues, and when she in 1964 starred in an episode of Mister Ed, the popular sitcom about a talking horse, her episode drew a larger audience than usual for the series - proving her star power hasn't vanished over the years.

 


In the late 1960's, censorship in Hollywood finally relaxed and the sexual revolution - something West had spearheaded literally decades earlier - was finally taking place. So by 1970, Hollywood saw the time right to get Mae West back into the limelight after 27 years, even if by then she was 77 years of age - and looked not a day older than 50.

The film that marked her return was Myra Breckinridge (1970, Michael Sarne), and even if West only played a supporting role with a mere 10 minutes of screentime (and her role wasn't even important for the plot of the movie as such), she received top-billing, even over the film's star Raquel Welch, who possibly never looked prettier than in this film.

Basically, Myra Breckinridge - a story about a man turned into a woman (Raquel Welch) out to teach manhood a lesson based on a book by Gore Vidal - was a failure, an all-out comedy that ever so often completely lost direction, but being a failure, it was one of the most charming failures there was, an entertaining view/parody of late 1960's/early 70's lifestyle. And then there's of course West, whose comedy was - despite the lady's age - still spot-on, whose delivery was infallible and whose oneliners were - despite the sexual revolution - still as razorsharp and provocative as ever. And even when she sings a contemporary soul tune, she is everything but embarassing ... wow.

 


Another 8 years went by before Mae West made her last film, Sextette (1978, Ken Hughes), based on one of her own plays. West was now 85 (!) years old, but she still plays her own stage- and screen-persona, that of a promiscuous maneater who knows a clever oneliner to almost every situation. In this film, she tries to consummate her marriage with her sixth husband (Timothy Dalton), but almost all of her ex-hubbies show up and try to win her back on her wedding night, and somehow an espionage plot is weaved into the proceedings as well.

It's interesting to see that West in many scenes pulls it off, even though her character would demand an actress about half her age (now this isn't an ageist remark, you always have to remember she was 85 and is supposed to play a woman various men including a young Timothy Dalton long for), but in all the film is rather a failure. For some reason the direction is completely flat and uninspired and ever so often sacrifices poignant dialogue for flat comedy, plus the director seems to have not even the slightest idea of how to use Mae West properly ... which simply put is a shame !

... and a comedienne of Mae West's caliber would have deserved a better swansong, she died two years later in 1980 in Hollywood from various complications caused by a series of strokes ...

 

Interestingly enough, while being a very extroverted actress on screen, surprisingly little is known about her private life. She stayed by and large away from Hollywood parties, would hardly ever mingle with the Hollywood crowd, and while it was known that she had at times relationships with various boxers and bodybuilders (never anyone from the movie business), what happened behind closed curtains tended to remain behind closed curtains ... and it was actually better that way, because like this we can remember Mae West as one of the funniest, most provocative and most sexually charged comediennes of American cinema - and this is what really counts ...

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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