It’s impossible to choose your favourite Mae West quote. There’s as rich a bounty as Oscar Wilde left behind. To wit: “It’s not the men in my life, it’s the life in my life” (a regular favourite), her classic “Why don’t you come up and see me some time” and, for the more daring, “An orgasm a day keeps the doctor away,” which sums up the brazen manner with which she pursued life’s pleasures.
Then there are the magnificent stories, like when her friend, boxer William “Gorilla” Jones wasn’t allowed to move into her apartment building because the management didn’t allow African Americans. She bought the place and sold him an apartment. In other versions of the story, she bought it because her neighbours were struggling during the Depression and she wanted to give them a break from their rent. Maybe both are true? Ever the indulgent benefactor, West loved to buy a new Cadillac every two years, and always gave the previous one to a convent because she hated seeing nuns, who she knew were helping poor families and single mothers in the neighbourhood, standing and waiting for a bus. Are these stories true? Like any great star, she was always happier to push the legend more than the truth and made claims about discovering Cary Grant, Randolph Scott, George Raft and Hattie McDaniel (none of which have been proven and it really doesn’t matter). Watching her movies today also reveals contradictions with our modern-day sensibilities, she wasn’t above racial stereotyping and, while she always made sure to write roles for her Black artist friends, it was usually playing her maids (though to be fair, the only other women in Mae West films were her romantic rivals, and no studio would go for that).
Where did this miracle come from? A sharp wit with an even sharper taste for business who wrote her own scripts and loved to rock a glamorous gown, she was an unapologetic voluptuary whose jokey attitude towards enjoying the carnal side of life skillfully cloaked a nuanced understanding of its painful realities. (Her father died during a movie shoot and refused to take days off because she knew that the extras paid their own commute to and from the studio.) She was also a woman who was already a millionaire before even making her first movie and never lived by anyone else’s rules until the day she died at the ripe old age of 88. We have no equivalent for Mae West today. The closest is Dolly Parton, whose superiority is not to be questioned but who plays her persona in a more modest (specifically, more religious) vein.
The short answer is Brooklyn, for that’s the only place that could produce someone like Mary Jane West, who switched to her nickname when pursuing a career in vaudeville and theatre. Her father was a prizefighter who sometimes worked as a private detective (witness all the boxers and cops Mae falls in love with in her films) and her mother a corset model. Mae, who first performed at a church social when she was 5, was doing vaudeville by the age of 14. Singled out by the New York Times in her first Broadway show, she leveraged her popularity to put on her own show in 1926, which she demurely called Sex and which resulted in the theatre being raided and Mae being thrown in jail for ten days for “corrupting the morals of youth”. She served eight of them, the other day shaved off for good behaviour, and dined with the warden every night.
In 1932, she was offered a movie contract by Paramount Pictures, who were anxious to use her dazzle to revive their flagging studio. At 40 years old she was an unlikely new star, and her contractual requirement that she write her own scripts was unheard of for actors of the time, male or female. (For the rest of her career, it was a rule she never bent: she had to either write the script or at least write her own dialogue.) The studio first tested her out in a supporting role in a 1932 George Raft film, Night After Night, and a star was born: sweeping into a scene wearing gorgeous jewelry that prompts a coat-check girl to exclaim “Goodness, what beautiful diamonds!”, West replies with perfect timing, “Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie!” Raft later remarked, “She stole everything but the cameras.”
Her string of hits to follow saved Paramount as hoped, but by mid-decade, the Hays Code came into effect and West became Public Enemy No. 1. Her scripts were slashed so hard by the Breen Office that by the time you get to her final film under her Paramount contract, Every Day’s A Holiday, the story barely makes sense. Uninterested in beating her head against a wall, West only made two more films in Hollywood, My Little Chickadee with W.C. Fields (who she hated and the feeling was mutual) and The Heat’s On, which was a favour to struggling director Gregory Ratoff (and which seems to have completely disappeared). She didn’t return to big screens until her starring role in the disastrous 1970 adaptation of Myra Breckenridge, in the meantime going back to Broadway with Diamond Lil, starring in her own Vegas act surrounded by musclemen (one of them the future Mr. Jayne Mansfield, Mickey Hargitay) and one episodes of Mister Ed as well as numerous variety show and awards show appearances.
Walking away was easy for Ms. West because Hollywood had more need of her than the other way around. She shrewdly invested her earnings in property and diamonds from day one (cash and stocks were just boring paper, she said) and the 1929 crash caused her no personal worries. A millionaire real estate tycoon while stealing hearts as a film star, she is also one of the few actors to become an actual word in the English dictionary after Allied aircrews named their life-preserver jackets after her. Her response was pleasure at the thought of being so close to men in uniform.
What impresses the most when watching the great lady, though, is that she never seems to have anything to prove. She’s having such a good time defying expectations that it’s no surprise that viewers took to her in such large numbers. Mae West’s bold appetite for sex is thrilling whether you wanted to be her or with her, but the warmth and generosity that emanate off her are just as dazzling as her wardrobe. Ever the girl from the tough streets of Brooklyn, she gives everyone a decent shake until they do her wrong, after which the diamond-encrusted gloves come off.
The Criterion Channel’s collection of “The Best of Mae West” is a great round-up of her work at her height. (Although for context it might have been fun to have Breckenridge and her final film Sextette here too.) None of these films should be missed by anyone who is not yet part of her fan club, but I list them in order of my preference.
Goin’ To Town (Alexander Hall, 1935)
Diamond Lil is now Cleo Borden, a saloon gal and a “good woman for a bad man” who accepts a cattle rustler’s proposal. When he prematurely dies in a gunfight, she finds out that she has inherited his vast property including gushing oil wells. She sets her sights on the handsome Brit overseeing her rigs but he rejects her because she’s not quite refined enough, so she follows him to the horse races in Buenos Aires, trying to Pygmalion herself into a better understanding of the world. Of course, Mae West’s view of the world is always that honesty is better than finery. The tuxedo-clad establishments have the same foolish barfights that her old saloons did. Featuring non-stop witty barbs from its delightful star (“for a long time I was ashamed of the way I lived” “You mean to say you reformed?” “No, I got over being ashamed”), this is Ms. West at her most unapologetically man-hungry. It’s no wonder that Hollywood would soon be taken over by censors who would inspire her to take her good-natured but unapologetic sass elsewhere.
Belle of the Nineties (Leo McCarey, 1934)
Being the toast of St. Louis turns sour when Mae’s romance with a boxer goes south. She therefore does the same, taking a gig headlining at a swanky New Orleans hotel. No sooner has she arrived that she takes on a new beau while fending off the attention of the hotel’s crooked owner, who drags her into his own schemes when he arranges for her pugilist ex to steal her diamonds to pay off his own debts. Naturally, Miss West knows how to hold on to what’s hers,. As always, she manages to get a grasp on her diamonds and her men. (It’s delightful how forgiving she is of any man’s sin against her so long as he is good in bed.) Her Ruby Carter is an alternate shade of Diamond Lil, delivering classic lines such as “His mother should have thrown him out and kept the stork,” and the film features more songs than we’re accustomed to hearing in her films. The best of them is her performance of “Troubled Waters” while the masses pray below her hotel balcony.
I’m No Angel (Wesley Ruggles, 1933)
The settings and plot get grander, although, of course, it’s all about Mae West getting entangled with so many pesky, hunky men. She plays a circus performer who needs money to get her boyfriend out of trouble, which her boss only agrees to if she performs as a lion tamer who, through clever visual effects, puts her head into the lion’s mouth. In doing so, she becomes a major sensation who attracts the attention of wealthy playboy Cary Grant. After they fall in love, her past comes back to haunt her and threatens their relationship. It features many of her most famous lines, including “peel me a grape,” and is one of the strongest testaments to her screen persona, viciously witty, dangerously sexy, and yet somehow generously warm.
She Done Him Wrong (Lowell Sherman, 1933)
Night After Night introduced Mae West to film audiences and she was a sensation, quickly finding herself with a vehicle of her own. Based on her play Diamond Lil, she plays a saloon gal who finds herself, conveniently, in the crosshairs of various handsome, morally dubious men. Somehow her script manages to pack diamond smuggling, the “white slave trade,” the Salvation Army, and a host of songs into 65 zippy minutes without it feeling messy or rushed. She enjoys terrific chemistry with Cary Grant, and looks a dream the entire time.
My Little Chickadee (Edward F. Cline, 1940)
Two of the funniest performers of Hollywood’s Golden Age are paired as both stars and co-writers of this delightful comedy set in a West not nearly Wild enough for our Mae. She plays the amorous Flower Belle Lee who is driven out of town for spending her evenings with the notorious masked bandit who has been robbing stagecoaches. By the time she reaches her next destination, she has set up a sham marriage with loveable sot W.C. Fields, who through hilarious circumstances is made sheriff of their new town not long after stepping off the train. She gets herself back in trouble with the bandit and he almost gets himself hanged in town square. We just get to sit back and enjoy the laughs. The two stars were reportedly in a perpetual battle of one-upping each other’s contributions to the script, but even if you notice that they’re only in a handful of scenes together and holding court in their own sequences the rest of the time, you’d never know that they actually couldn’t stand each other. (So much so that Fields left the project early and many of his scenes were shot with a stand-in.) West would make one more film before leaving Hollywood for good, not returning to the big screen until Myra Breckenridge in 1970.
Go West Young Man (Henry Hathaway, 1936)
West’s performances usually consisted of her placing her established persona in various situations as set-ups for her to deliver her rapid-fire one-liners. Anything that required her to really emote usually pushed her to fall back on her hip-swinging mannerisms. Here she adapts Lawrence Riley’s play Personal Appearance and gives us a rare chance to see layers, covering her usually welcoming humour with a role as a spoiled movie star who is stranded in a rural Pennsylvania boarding house when her car breaks down on a publicity tour. Her press agent is working overtime to keep her out of scandal’s way, but she spots hunky Randolph Scott fixing cars in the garage and licks her lips like a cat who sees a mouse. You can tell that the Hayes Office had a field day chopping her script up to ribbons. Had the great star not been so annoyed by all this interference and made only two more films, it’s possible that we would have seen acting talents develop further than her usual (but wonderful) schtick.
Klondike Annie (Raoul Walsh, 1936)
West’s play Frisco Kate is adapted to a severely compromised film that, even with eight minutes of footage cut out by demand of the Legion of Decency, was “filthy” enough to be criticized by none other than William Randolph Hearst. West plays a saloon gal on the Barbary Coast who escapes from her controlling impresario (Harold Huber in yellowface) and heads to Alaska, switching places with a dying missionary and arriving in Nome as “Sister Annie.” She finds herself inspired by what she pretends to preach. In a precursor to Sister Act, she gains a following by bringing the entertainment style of the local saloon into her little gathering place. (Mae West only had tolerance for religion as something that inspired people to be decent to others and focused her ire on hypocrisy, and not on any kind of institutional criticism.) As always, she ends up being forced to choose between two men. However, with censors shredding her work to ribbons, this one only has the star’s sincerity and warmth and suffers for the lack of her biting humour.
Every Day’s A Holiday (A. Edward Sutherland, 1937)
Mae West finished off her contract with Paramount with one of her silliest comedies. Dressed in gorgeous gowns by Elsa Schiaparelli (who reportedly didn’t believe that the star was that small when she was sent her size specifications), she plays Peaches O’Day, a charming con artist who thinks nothing of selling one man the Brooklyn Bridge and getting another to rob a fancy dress store for her. A sympathetic cop sends her off to Boston to avoid prison, but she comes back in disguise as “Mademoiselle Fifi,” the star of a spectacular Broadway show. (The joke being that anyone wouldn’t recognize Mae West just because she’s in a brown wig). When she gets caught between the adoration of Edmund Lowe and his crooked inspector Lloyd Nolan, she becomes Lowe’s campaign manager in his bid for city mayor. This isn’t West at her most dangerous but she’s having a good time camping it up with her silly accent and mannerisms.