West, Mae (1893-1980)

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West, Mae (1893-1980)

Writer, stage performer, screen actress, and nightclub entertainer Mae West emerged, a ray of light during the Great Depression, as a uniquely independent, outspoken, flamboyant, and humorously erotic woman. She achieved legendary status in American show business folklore and won a wide international following. Rarely has a show business personality left so indelible a mark on American popular culture, influencing the laws of film censorship, and bequeathing a series of outrageous ripostes and innuendoes to the language—most famously, "Come up and see me sometime"—that were still used at the end of the twentieth century. During World War II, allied troops honored her hourglass figure by calling their inflatable life jackets "Mae Wests." Learning of this new meaning to her name, she commented: "I've been in Who's Who, and I know what's what, but it's the first time I've been in a Dictionary."

She began her stage career early, making her debut with Hal Clarendon's theatrical company in her home town of Brooklyn in 1901. There she played such well-known juvenile roles as Little Eva, Little Willie, and even Little Lord Fauntleroy. By 1907, at the age of 14, she was a performer on the national vaudeville circuits with Frank Wallace, and in 1911 appeared as an acrobatic dancer and singer in the Broadway revue A la Broadway and Hello, Paris. She then began writing, producing, directing, and starring in her own plays on Broadway. Her first play, Sex (1926), starred Mae as Margie La Monte, a golden-hearted prostitute who wanders the wharves. The play ran for 37 performances and ended when Mae was jailed for ten days for obscenity and corruption of public morals. The publicity made her a national figure and added to the box-office success of her later plays, Diamond Lil (1928) and The Constant Sinner (1931).

A buxom blonde with a feline purr, imported to Hollywood from Broadway, Mae's film career flourished from 1932 to 1940. She wrote the screenplays for all but the first of her nine films during this period, and delivered her suggestive, sex-parodying lines to a variety of leading men from Cary Grant to W.C. Fields. Paramount offered her the unheard-of sum of $5,000 for a minor role in her debut film, Night After Night (1932), and Mae, with her vampy posturing and sexual innuendo, stole the show. The film's star, George Raft, said later, "In this picture, Mae West stole everything but the camera." Her entrance in this first of her films featured one of her most oft-repeated witticisms: when a hat-check girl, admiring Mae's bejeweled splendor, gushes, "Goodness, what beautiful diamonds!" the star responds with "Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie." The joke was, of course, her own.

Paramount offered her a contract, and she agreed on condition that her next picture was a film version of Diamond Lil. That film, released as She Done Him Wrong (1933) and co-starring Cary Grant, unveiled her trademark line, "Come up and see me sometime." The film broke attendance records all over the world, and producer William Le Baron told exhibitors that " She Done Him Wrong must be credited with having saved Paramount when that studio was considering selling out to MGM, and when Paramount theaters—1700 of them—thought of closing their doors and converting into office buildings." She made I'm No Angel, again with Grant, the same year, by the end of which she was ranked as the eighth biggest box-office draw of 1933. By 1935, her combination of glamour, vulgarity, and self-parody had made Mae West the highest paid woman in the United States.

Her success, however, based as it was on the risqué, brought a strong reaction from the puritanical wing. The Hays Office, charged with keeping movies wholesome in the wake of a succession of Hollywood sex scandals, was forced to bring in their new production code—the Hays Code—in 1934, expressly to deal with the Mae West problem. Her next film had the working title of It Ain't No Sin, but the Hays Office decreed that it be designated less provocatively as Belle of the Nineties (1934). Mae reached the peak of her popularity as a Salvation Army worker in Klondike Annie (1936), co-starring Victor McLaglen. Posters for the movie announced, "She made the Frozen North Red Hot!" Another slogan used to publicize her movies was "Here's Mae West. When she's good, she's very good. When she's bad, she's better."

She co-starred with W.C. Fields in 1940 in the comic Western My Little Chickadee, each of them writing their own lines, but with disappointing results. When she failed to persuade Paramount to let her play Catherine the Great, she took her script about the controversial Russian empress to Broadway in the mid-1940s, where it was staged as a revue called Catherine Was Great. Her success led to a tour of England with her play Diamond Lil in 1947-48, and she took the play on a long tour of the United States for the next four years. With her film career over, she appeared in nightclubs and on television in an act with a group of young muscle men. During the 1960s, one of her few public appearances was in the 1964 TV series Mister Ed, but she made two last, disastrous screen appearances in the 1970s. She made a comeback as a Hollywood agent in the grotesque film version of Gore Vidal's sex-change comedy, Myra Breckinridge (1970), but despite the opprobrium heaped on the film (which starred Raquel Welch), Mae got most of the publicity, $350,000 for ten days' work and her own dialogue, and a tumultuous reception at the premiere from a new generation of fans. Then, aged 86, the indomitable Mae starred in the lascivious and highly embarrassing Sextette (1978), adapted from her own play. Surrounded by a bevy of men, who included old-timers George Raft, Walter Pidgeon, Tony Curtis, George Hamilton, and Ringo Starr, it was an ignominious exit, but the legend lives on.

—Benjamin Griffith

Further Reading:

Curry, Ramona. Too Much of a Good Thing: Mae West as Cultural Icon. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

Hamilton, Marybeth. When I'm Bad I'm Better: Mae West, Sex, and American Entertainment. New York, Harper Collins, 1995.

Leonard, Maurice. Empress of Sex. New York, Birch Lane Press, 1991.