Forty years after her death, people still imitate Mae West’s voice: that slinky contralto drawl that hit each Brooklyn-inflected vowel like a cab driver leaning on his horn. The voice would be memorable even if she had by some wild mischance wound up playing dowagers and spinster aunts. Thank goodness this plush-figured goddess of stage and screen is instead in the pantheon of great American one-line comedians.
“She always played herself” is wielded as a put-down for the stars of classic Hollywood, to say sure, they were memorable, but they weren’t real actors. It’s usually a bogus charge—but I come in praise of Mae West, and for her, it was true, and it was the whole glorious point. Do you complain that a sonnet always has fourteen lines? In the cinema of Mae West, she was lushly garbed, she was a good egg, she was surrounded by slavering men (“suckers,” as she pithily describes them in I’m No Angel), and she was always, but always ready with a quip, just as much as contemporaries Anita Loos or Dorothy Parker. “Motion picture actresses had always sold sex,” writes historian Thomas Doherty in Pre-Code Hollywood. “Mae West was the first motion picture actress to sell sex talk.”
Invoke her name, and even youngsters can often come up with a quip or two: “Why don’t you come up sometime and see me”; “When I’m bad, I’m better”; “I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.” Or the one she in fact never said in a pre-1960 play or movie, “Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?” And my favorite, uttered after West’s character in I’m No Angel has bum-rushed a snotty heiress out of her apartment: “Beulah, peel me a grape.”
Surely West, who said if she asked for a cup of coffee people would look for the double meaning, would be delighted at her wit’s afterlife, even if a few wisecracks have lost their snap from overuse. But go back to the films that are playing on the Criterion Channel this month, and you find a multitude of lesser-known delights. “There was a time when I didn’t know where my next husband was comin’ from,” she reminisces in She Done Him Wrong. Eyeing a tiresome ex in I’m No Angel, West asks drily, “Whadja do? Get a haircut, or move your ears down?” “I can always tell a lady,” says Victor McLaglen’s character in Klondike Annie, whereupon Annie (West, of course) comes back with “Yeah, what d’ya tell ’em?”
In her films you discover a presence so strong that, whether steered by Wesley Ruggles or Raoul Walsh, Mae West becomes the auteur just by showing up. It was more than that, of course. Going back to her days of vaudeville stardom, West had a forceful, insistent hand in creating her characters and plots and writing her own material, and she saw to it that her name figured high in the credits for every contribution—all of which went double when she hit the shark-infested waters of Hollywood, at almost age forty. She knew how the music should swing, how her Travis Banton costumes should fit, how much of the West anatomy should be in or out of the frame. By the time she made her movie debut in 1932’s Night After Night, Mae West had built a persona, sequin by sequin, that was fit to last through twelve movies and all the years before, after, and in between.
“I created myself,” she said in an interview not long before she died, “and I never put up with sloppy work.”
She was born in Brooklyn on August 17, 1893, a date she never tried to obscure, and christened Mary Jane West, a name she never went by. She was May, then Mayme, and eventually Mae; as Emily Leider explains in Becoming Mae West, she didn’t like to see the “y” “drooping below the line: ‘I don’t like anything downbeat.’ ” Her father was a rowdy Irish-American prizefighter, later a detective, and his wide acquaintance with every walk of Gay Nineties New York life exerted one kind of influence on his daughter. Mae’s mother, a Bavarian immigrant with what Leider calls a “European and relaxed” attitude toward sex, exerted another. The marriage wasn’t a happy one, which no doubt contributed to Mae’s lifelong distrust of monogamy and the domestication that went with it. Mae was the oldest of three, but her mother’s acknowledged favorite, and Matilda West provided singing and dancing lessons almost as soon as Mae could walk and carry a tune.
Seven-year-old Mae first began singing and tap-dancing at Elks Club shows in Brooklyn. By her early teens she was taking the juvenile roles in such Victorian warhorses as East Lynne for a Brooklyn stock company. At some point the pretense of Mae attending school was dropped, and she went into vaudeville full time.
She was eighteen when she made her Broadway debut in a short-lived revue that garnered a prescient notice from the New York Times for “a girl named Mae West, hitherto unknown” and her “snappy way of singing and dancing.” In 1911, she briefly acquired a husband, Frank Wallace. (While the real marriage didn’t last long, the headaches he gave her did; they took years to officially divorce, and he turned up in 1935 after a long absence to bill himself in an act as “Mae West’s Husband.”)
West’s pay rose steadily as she polished her act and even wrote her own material when the need arose. The breakthrough occurred in 1918, in a Broadway revue called Sometime, when Mae stopped the show with a dance called “The Shimmy”—borrowed from African-American club dancers, as West was always proud to relate. West also absorbed the influence of the great Black vaudeville performer Bert Williams, and her throaty, growling singing on stage and later in Hollywood films—as well as her undulating movements—showed her familiarity with blues. When she sings with Duke Ellington’s band in Belle of the Nineties, she seems to vibrate right along with those gifted musicians.
Key parts of her manner were well established by the early 1920s, as one critic complained she was still “the rough hand-on-hip character” she had played in vaudeville, evoking the way Mae still walked, or rather strolled through films years later. She spent the next few years successfully moving into the nightclub circuit with the soon-to-be-famous Harry Richman as her pianist.
West still loved the stage, but she didn’t love the parts being offered. Her mother, Mae said years later, “had watched me changing around my vaudeville routines, putting in punch lines, rewriting my parts in shows, and she told me you can write your own play.” And that was how Mae West’s Sex came to open on April 26, 1926, at Daly’s Theatre in Manhattan, with Mae playing Margy LaMont, a sex worker who wants a better gig but is otherwise not terribly repentant. According to Leider, Sex’s extensive tour of New York sleaze included burglary, drinks spiked with drugs, cops as clients, bribery and an offstage suicide. City newspapers refused to run ads, but as Brooklyn-born West knew, New Yorkers adore anything exclusive and immoral. Sex sold, night after night, for more than three hundred performances, even after the day that a group called “the Society for the Suppression of Vice” finally prevailed upon the police to arrest the playwright-star on a charge of corrupting the morals of youth.
The trial, the publicity, the quotable interviews, and the ten-day jail sentence were the making of Mae West. She emerged after eight days served, claimed she’d worn silk underwear the whole time, and thumbed her nose at the authorities by writing more plays, including The Drag, which explored the world of queer characters and “drag balls” in New York City decades before Paris Is Burning. That one closed out of town; a subsequent stab at a similar topic, Pleasure Man, was shut down by the cops after one Broadway performance and Mae was arrested once again. But this time, when the case came to trial, the jury deadlocked and she walked out of court a free woman—and one hopes she had one hand on her hip.
It was Mae West’s fourth play, however, that gave her a character for the rest of her life. Diamond Lil, the tale of a Gay Nineties Bowery hostess, opened in her native Brooklyn in 1928, and was a triumph. By then, West had an extensive real-life diamond collection, and Leider says she pawned it all to launch her play: “I had never before seen a human being place a 100% bet on himself,” said one acquaintance, thus summing up Mae West’s entire career. The play ran and ran in Brooklyn, transferred to Broadway, went on national tour.
West had turned down prior offers, but by then, she was ready for Hollywood, and in those halcyon days before stringent enforcement of the Production Code, Hollywood was ready for her. The Depression had hit, Paramount Pictures was drowning in debt and barely afloat, but they still offered her the staggering weekly salary of $5,000 for ten weeks of work on four scenes in 1932’s Night After Night. Like Mae’s diamond bet, the studio’s gamble paid off big. “She stole everything but the cameras,” as the movie’s ostensible star George Raft put it.
Paramount pounced, buying Diamond Lil for West’s first starring role, although in an early glimpse of the concessions to prudes that would dog her stay in Tinseltown, they had to change the title to She Done Him Wrong due to the play’s notoriety. Such was the suits’ eagerness to please that West was allowed to choose her own leading man, and she picked Cary Grant—as what woman would not. Like all her best films, it’s brief (at sixty-six minutes, it’s still the shortest film ever nominated for the best-picture Oscar), pungent, and relentlessly Mae-focused.
Lou eyes Serge, the dreamboat grifter played by Gilbert Roland, in exactly the way male stars had sized up beautiful women since the dawn of cinema. Even the most sensual actresses usually lured men into chasing them; West’s open invitation scorned such pretense. But She Done Him Wrong also established her essential likability with fellow women. Lou is kind and sisterly to the beautiful young woman (Rochelle Hudson) who washes up in her saloon after a seduction, advising her, “Listen, when women go wrong, men go right after them.” Lou has a rapport with her Black maid, Pearl (played by the wonderful Louise Beavers), that often seems more like that between roommates than boss and employee—though Lou still uses a casual racist slur. Pearl says, “I wouldn’t want no policeman to catch me without no petticoat.” Lou teases back, “No policeman? How about a nice fireman?”
Capping the film is West’s version of Black composer Shelton Brooks’s “I Wonder Where My Easy Rider’s Gone,” one of the bawdiest things in all of pre-1960 American film. Throughout her career, West sang Black songs and blues and performed dances that originated in Black clubs and vaudeville, as did other white performers of the time. But historian Jill Watts says, “The difference between [West] and them is that she consistently credited African-American performance as the roots of her performance.” There are other depictions of unusually warm relationships between West’s and Black characters in subsequent films, like I’m No Angel and Belle of the Nineties, until, according to Emily Leider, head Production Code enforcer Joseph Breen demanded that her character’s maid and chauffeur in Go West, Young Man (1936) “not be colored.” In that post-Code film, the sole Black performer, Nicodemus, is entirely stereotypical and has no scenes with West.
She Done Him Wrong was one of 1933’s biggest hits; producer William LeBaron later credited Mae West with saving Paramount, which had been considering selling out to MGM. Her next film, I’m No Angel, also 1933, saw West fulfilling a lifelong fantasy of being a lion tamer; needless to say, she also tames a lot of men, Cary Grant among them once more. The picture ended with West’s character on trial, in a cheeky poke at the censors in her life. She closed out the year as the eighth-biggest box-office draw, according to an exhibitors’ poll.
The Production Code Administration, or PCA, was closing in, though, due in no small measure to West. By mid-1934, the Code had moved to a far more stringent enforcement under lead bluenose Breen, and Paramount was changing the name of its next West vehicle, It Ain’t No Sin, to Belle of the Nineties, a title that would just as easily work for a Jeanette MacDonald operetta. It was heavily scissored, but what remains are some gorgeous Mae close-ups via director Leo McCarey, the numbers with Ellington, and a “tableau” sequence of the stupefying West anatomy, wrapped tight in a lamé gown and posed in front of butterfly wings, spider legs, and in the end the Statue of Liberty. “A triumph of Mae over matter,” was Photoplay’s verdict. Paramount signed her to a top-tier contract that made her the highest-paid woman in the U.S. for 1935.
Their reward was the enjoyable Goin’ to Town, directed by Alexander Hall, a rather underrated comedy with a script full of memorable Mae-isms despite the watchful eye of Breen. Explaining to an importunate suitor why they won’t suit, she drawls, “We're intellectual opposites . . . I’m intellectual and you’re opposite.” “For a long time I was ashamed of the way I lived,” she muses to a bright young fellow. “You mean to say you’ve reformed?” he asks. “No,” West responds, “I got over being ashamed.”
Klondike Annie had the great Raoul Walsh as director, but even more censor problems. The racist ersatz Chinese trappings, including Harold Huber in yellowface as maniacally jealous lover Chan Lo, don’t mesh well with West, as her opening number, “I’m an Occidental Woman in an Oriental Mood for Love,” demonstrates. It’s no substitute for “Easy Rider” or “I’m No Angel.” The PCA cuts were even more unkind than before, with about eight minutes now missing and presumed lost, including a scene where West’s character stabs Chan Lo. (The worst sin in a Mae West movie is being a possessive jerk.)
Whatever was happening with Breen (or William Randolph Hearst, whose newspapers were screeching, “Is it not time that Congress do something about Mae West?”, as though she were infrastructure or a cabinet appointment), West still brooked no interference with the process of becoming Mae for the cameras. During Klondike Annie’s filming, then–Paramount production chief Ernst Lubitsch made the mistake of visiting the set and complaining to West that she was always a half-hour late to set. According to Walsh, Mae “started after him with a hand mirror . . . He turned and fled, with Mae after him, swearing like a Portuguese sailor and swinging the mirror like a club.”
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