Mae West (1893-1980) played the sultry, provocative woman in numerous popular films and plays. Her sexuality and off-color comments made her films and plays the frequent target of censors. West also wrote and produced several plays and recorded albums.
Mae West was born Mary Jane West on August 17, 1893, in Brooklyn, New York. Her father, John, held various jobs as a livery stableman, a detective, a salesman, and a prizefighter. Her mother, Matilda, was a model and dressmaker. By the age of seven, West was singing and dancing in amateur performances and winning local talent shows. She soon left behind formal education and joined a professional stock company headed by Hal Clarendon, where she played the character of "Little Nell" in a long-running melodrama.
In her early teens, West joined a vaudeville company, where she met Frank Wallace, who soon became her song-and-dance partner. Unknown to the public for more than 30 years, she and Wallace married in 1911 when West was only 16. Both the relationship and the stage partnership soon ended, but West and Wallace did not divorce until 1942.
Became Vaudeville and Stage Star
While still a teen-ager, West became a star on the vaudeville stage. Her first Broadway appearances were in 1911, in the revues A la Broadway and Hello Paris. The following year she appeared in A Winsome Widow, produced by Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. In 1918, West took a role in the musical comedy Sometime, in which she introduced a dance known as the "Shining Shawabble." She soon became a hit on the New York vaudeville stage, becoming known for her flashy and tight-fitting clothing as well as her provocative comments, delivered in dialects or a throaty voice. Her costumes would typically include an assortment of rhinestones, leopard skins, and huge plumed hats, all worn on her five-foot-tall body. West was unique in being one of the few women who performed solo in vaudeville, and even at her young age, she commanded a salary of several hundred dollars per week.
Plays Caught Censors' Attention
In 1926, West wrote a play that was co-produced on Broadway by Jim Timony, a lawyer who was reportedly also her lover. The aptly named Sex became both a popular success and the target of censorship groups such as the Society for the Suppression of Vice. As described in Becoming Mae West, the play included "prostitutes caught in arousing embraces, guns, knockout drinks, a jewelry heist, cops, an offstage suicide, bribery, and the threat of a shootout." In the 41st week of its run, police arrested the cast and West was found guilty of corrupting the morals of youth. She was sentenced to ten days in a New York City prison but was released two days early for good behavior.
West's second play, The Drag in 1926, sympathetically tackled a subject that was not discussed on stage at the time--homosexuality. After a two-week run in New Jersey, West was persuaded not to bring it to Broadway. Her third play, Adamant Lil in 1928, was a great success. West played the title role of an 1890s saloon singer with underworld connections. In this play, she uttered her famous line to a Salvation Army captain: "Why don't you come up and see me sometime?" Two other plays, Pleasure Man in 1928 and The Constant Sinner in 1931, were also targeted by the censors; Pleasure Man was closed by the police after its first performance and never reopened; The Constant Sinner closed after two performances when the district attorney threatened to bring charges.
Launched Hollywood Film Career
In the early 1930s, after the constant struggles with censorship of her plays, West decided to move to Hollywood and embark on a film career, hoping that she would enjoy more freedom there. Her popularity with the public was already so great that even though the Great Depression had begun, she won a $5,000-per-week contract with Paramount Pictures. In her first film, Night After Night in 1932, West portrayed the girlfriend of a gangster played by George Raft. When a woman comments, "Goodness, what beautiful diamonds," West gives her famous response: "Goodness had nothing to do with it."
West's next film, She Done Him Wrong in 1933, was a film adaptation of her play, Adamant Lil. It was a huge public success, and was also noteworthy for introducing a young actor, Cary Grant, who was found by West and chosen for the male lead. Later that year, Grant also co-starred with West in I'm No Angel, an even bigger box office smash. In this film, West (playing a circus performer) got to act out a lifelong fantasy of being a lion tamer. Refusing a double, she went into the cage herself carrying a whip.
During the mid-1930s West became one of the most popular and highly paid actors in Hollywood. She also became a shrewd real estate investor, once making a profit of almost $5 million on a $16,000 investment. Her film career reached its peak, with two more successes in Go West, Young Man in 1936 and Every Day's a Holiday in 1938, in which she played a character named Peaches O'Day who used her wiles to sell the Brooklyn Bridge to a naive man.
Then came one of her best-known films, My Little Chickadee in 1940, in which West and her co-star, W.C. Fields, gave one of the all-time great film comedy performances; she also wrote the screenplay. West's character, Flower Belle Lee, was a woman of dubious reputation who decided to enter into a sham marriage to become respectable. As her husband, she chose the con man and card shark Cuthbert J. Twillie, played by Fields. Perhaps as a joke on the censors, on their "wedding" night, Fields discovered that West has vanished, and in her place in their bed is a tied-up goat. They agree to go their separate ways, and his parting line to her is, "Come up and see me sometime."
Career Declined in the 1940s
In the 1940s, West's popularity declined. She also finally acknowledged the marriage she had walked away from while a teen-ager. In the mid-1930s, her husband Frank Wallace had begun to tour the country with a nightclub act in which he called himself "Mae West's husband." Then, in 1942, Wallace filed for divorce and sought alimony from West. She eventually settled the case with an undisclosed private financial agreement.
West starred in the 1943 film musical The Heat's On, but reviews were not particularly favorable. She decided to return to the stage where her career had begun, and wrote and starred in Catherine Was Great, a risque play about the Russian empress that played on Broadway in 1944, and then went on a national tour. In 1948, West starred in Ring Twice Tonight (later retitled Come On Up), in which she played the unlikely role of an FBI agent masquerading as a nightclub singer. The play never reached Broadway after initial performances in Los Angeles. This project was followed by a stage revival of Adamant Lil, in which West travelled between New York and London from 1948 to 1951.
An Elderly Siren
In the early 1950s, when West was over 60, she tried to revive her career by creating a nightclub act, "Mae West and Her Adonises," that still portrayed her as a sultry siren. A group of young, handsome bodybuilders dressed in loincloths assisted her in the act. Paul Novak, one of the bodybuilders, became her companion for the last 26 years of her life.
West's autobiography, Goodness Had Nothing To Do With It, was published in 1959, and contains humorous stories about her career and her love life. In the 1960s, she recorded an album of Bob Dylan and Beatles songs, Way Out West, plus a holiday album, Wild Christmas. West's film career was briefly reborn when she appeared in two films that have been ranked among the worst ever made. Myra Breckinridge (1970), based on the Gore Vidal novel, was notable chiefly for being the film in which future stars Farrah Fawcett and Tom Selleck were introduced to the public. In Sextette (1977), made when West was 84, her husband was played by the young Timothy Dalton.
Despite her "loose" professional image, West did not drink or smoke, and made her home in the same modest Los Angeles apartment for half a century. West began to decline in her later years, and was rumored to have slept in makeup in case she had to leave her home in an emergency. She became increasingly interested in paranormal events, and insisted she was in contact with a pet monkey who had died. It has also been reported that West feared being reincarnated. After suffering a stroke, she died on November 22, 1980 in Los Angeles. As she said in her autobiography, West had no regrets about her life: "I freely chose the kind of life I led because I was convinced that a woman has as much right as a man to live the way she does if she does no actual harm to society."
Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia of American Literature, HarperCollins, 1991.
Dictionary of American Biography, Scribner's, 1995.
Leider, Emily Wortis, Becoming Mae West, Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1997.
West, Mae, Goodness Had Nothing To Do With It, Prentice-Hall, 1959.
Interview, May 1997.
"Mae West," Biography Life File,http://mmnewsstand.com/static/products/4002/west.html (February 10, 1999). □
Nationality: American. Born: Brooklyn, New York, 17 August 1892. Education: Attended Brooklyn public schools to age 13. Family: Married the entertainer Frank Wallace, 1911 (divorced 1942). Career: Child entertainer: joined Hal Clarendon's stock company, Brooklyn, at age eight; toured with Frank Wallace; 1911—Broadway debut in the revue A la Broadway and Hello, Paris; then returned to vaudeville tour with star billing; early 1920s—toured in nightclub act with Harry Richman; 1926—on Broadway in her own play Sex (later plays produced include The Drag, 1926, The Wicked Age, 1927, Diamond Lil, 1928 and several revivals, The Pleasure Man, 1928, The Constant Sinner, 1931, and Catherine Was Great, 1944); 1932—film debut in Night After Night: contract with Paramount; then a series of popular films in the 1930s for which she often wrote the screenplay; 1954–56—toured with nightclub act; 1955—first of several albums of her songs, The Fabulous Mae West. Died: In Los Angeles, 22 November 1980.
Films as Actress:
Night After Night (Mayo) (as Maudie Triplett)
She Done Him Wrong (Sherman) (as Lady Lou)
The Heat's On (Tropicana) (Ratoff) (as Fay Lawrence)
Myra Breckenridge (Sarne) (as Leticia Van Allen)
Sextette (Ken Hughes) (as Marlo Manners)
Films as Actress and Scriptwriter:
I'm No Angel (Ruggles) (as Tira)
Belle of the Nineties (McCarey) (as Ruby Carter)
Goin' to Town (Alexander Hall) (as Cleo Borden)
Klondike Annie (Walsh) (as the Frisco Doll/Rose Carlton); Go West, Young Man (Hathaway) (as Mavis Arden)
Every Day's a Holiday (A. Edward Sutherland) (as Peaches O'Day/Mademoiselle Fifi)
My Little Chickadee (Cline) (as Flower Belle Lee, co-sc)
By WEST: books—
Babe Gordon (novel), New York, 1930; as The Constant Sinner, New York, 1931.
Diamond Lil (novel), New York, 1932; as She Done Him Wrong, New York, 1932.
Goodness Had Nothing to Do with It, New York, 1959; rev. ed., New York, 1970.
The Wit and Wisdom of Mae West, edited by Joseph Weintraub, New York, 1967.
On Sex, Health, and ESP, New York, 1975.
She Done Him Wrong, New York, 1995.
Three Plays by Mae West: Sex, The Drag, The Pleasure Man, New York, 1997.
By WEST: articles—
"Mae West," interview with W. S. Eyman, in Take One (Montreal), January 1974.
"Mae West: The Queen at Home in Hollywood," interview with A. Huston and P. Lester, in Interview (New York), December 1974.
On WEST: books—
Rosen, Marjorie, Popcorn Venus, New York, 1973.
Tuska, Jon, The Films of Mae West, Secaucus, New Jersey, 1973; rev. ed., as The Complete Films of Mae West, 1992.
Parish, James Robert, and William T. Leonard, The Funsters, New Rochelle, New York, 1979.
Cashin, Fergus, Mae West: A Biography, London, 1981.
Eells, George, and Stanley Musgrove, Mae West, New York, 1982.
Chandler, Charlotte, The Ultimate Seduction, New York, 1984.
Bergman, Carol, Mae West, New York, 1988.
Ward, Carol Marie, Mae West: A Bio-Bibliography, New York, 1989.
Leonard, Maurice, Mae West: Empress of Sex, London, 1991.
Sochen, June, Mae West: She Who Laughs, Lasts, Arlington Heights, Illinois, 1992.
Baxt, George, The Mae West Murder Case (novel), New York, 1993.
Malachosky, Tim, and James Greene, Mae West, California, 1993.
Curry, Ramona, Too Much of a Good Thing: Mae West as Cultural Icon, Minneapolis, 1995.
Hamilton, Marybeth, "When I'm Bad, I'm Better": Mae West, Sex, and American Entertainment, New York, 1995.
Robertson, Pamela, Guilty Pleasures: Feminist Camp from Mae West to Madonna, Durham, North Carolina, 1996.
Yeatts, Tabatha, The Legendary Mae West, Sterling.
On WEST: articles—
Troy, William, "Mae West and the Classic Tradition," in Nation (New York), 8 November 1933.
Arbus, Diane, "Mae West: Emotion in Motion," in Show (Hollywood), January 1965.
Current Biography 1967, New York, 1967.
Christie, George, "Mae West Raps," in Cosmopolitan (New York), May 1970.
Braun, Eric, "Doing What Comes Naturally," and "One for the Boys," in Films and Filming (London), October and November 1970.
Passek, J.-L., "Hommage: Mae West: Sex transit gloria mundi," in Cinéma (Paris), November 1973.
Adair, G., "Go West, Old Mae," in Film Comment (New York), May/June 1980.
Obituary in New York Times, 23 November 1980.
McCourt, James, obituary in Film Comment (New York), January/February 1981.
Kobal, John, "Mae West," in Films and Filming (London), September 1983.
Curry, Ramona, "Mae West as Censored Commodity: The Case of Klondike Annie," in Cinema Journal (Austin), Fall 1991.
Clayton, Justin, "Mae West: The Biggest Blonde of Them All," in Classic Images (Muscatine), March 1993.
Haskell, M., "Mae West's Bawdy Spirit Spans the Gay 90s," in New York Times, Section 2, 15 August 1993.
Alexander, R., "Peel Her a Grape," in New York Times, Section 9, 22 August 1993.
Robertson, Pamela, "'The Kinda Comedy That Imitates Me': Mae West's Identification with the Feminist Camp," in Cinema Journal (Austin), Winter 1993.
Frank, Michael, "Mae West at the Ravenswood: Diamond Lil's Glittery Los Angeles Apartment," in Architectural Digest (Los Angeles), April 1994.
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The strongest breakthrough for sophisticated sexual comedy was made by Mae West. The unabashed woman who takes pleasure in her sexuality and ability to control men with her physical charms was delectably burlesqued in her 1933 work She Done Him Wrong and I'm No Angel. In these movies she played the gaudy kept woman who enjoyed her position in society. Derived from the stage play Diamond Lil, which West wrote for herself in 1928, She Done Him Wrong was the weaker of the two films. Nevertheless, the movie had much to offer. West's dialogue was sprinkled with double entendres, usually linked with sex. When asked if she had ever found a man who could make her happy, she replied with her famous drawl, a clenched jaw, and a smile: "Sure. Lots of times." And there were the now well-known maxims, such as, "When women go wrong, men go right after them." As in some of her later films, the total work did not have a strong comic design. An old-fashioned, serious love triangle held every story together. Sprinkled into the melodramas, two songs, "I Wonder Where My Easy Rider's Gone" and "I Like a Man Who Takes His Time," gave West the chance to make further sexual comments and display her talents with the torch song and the blues.
I'm No Angel not only displayed a definite improvement over the Diamond Lil adaptation, but also was West's most distinguished contribution to the sophisticated comedy film. Her link with the underworld in I'm No Angel was rather melodramatic, but her bedhopping in high society created a comic framework for the total work. Her characterization of Tira, a carnival dancer, shows a woman who is engaged in the put-down with the relish, if not the zip, of a Groucho Marx. When her boss, played by the daddy of all big deals, Edward Arnold, made a conciliatory gesture by stating, "Tira, I've changed my mind," West cracked, "Does it work any better?" With an aggressiveness seldom exhibited in a woman at that time, she took over her own defense in a trial. I'm No Angel was also a showcase for still more of the famous West lines. To her servant she drawled: "Beulah, peel me a grape." To a man, fluttering her eyelashes, she observed, "When I'm good, I'm very good, but when I'm bad [very long pause] I'm better." As a gilded, tainted sage she uttered, "It's not the men in your life that count—it's the life in your men." Most remembered and most often repeated (with variations) was the line: "And don't forget—come up and see me sometime."
In her early 1930s movies, however, West's humor was not merely verbal. It consisted of a provocative walk, a toss of the head or hip, or a glint in the eye. She was a personality comedienne with a particular style of her own. Actually, she never possessed strong acting skills: her delivery was, in fact, monotonous. Yet her slender talent and ample body made her a legend in her time and the height of camp in the 1960s.
Since West's sexual wit was nearly eliminated by the Hays Office in 1934, her subsequent films remain a pale shadow of those early works—especially in the wealth of innuendo. Nevertheless, she still portrayed the shady lady in the 1936 Klondike Annie, escaping the law by assuming the role of a religious leader in a booming, bawdy frontier community. Her high-handed tactics to "win souls" remain fresh today because they lampoon a type of religious leader who still exists. Ironically, West would not be able to use her sexual humor again until she appeared in Myra Breckinridge. At 78, West was still the femme fatale, uttering bawdier lines than she had been allowed to deliver in the 1930s.
Mae West ★★½ 1984
Details West's life from her humble beginnings to her racy film stardom. Jillian does a good job bringing the buxom legend back to life. 97m/C VHS . Ann Jillian, James Brolin, Piper Laurie, Roddy McDowall; D: Lee Philips; M: Brad Fiedel. TV