Mae West

On this Day:

On April 19, 1927 Actress Mae West was found guilty of “obscenity and corrupting the morals of youth” in a New York stage play entitled “Sex”. She was sentenced to 10 days in prison and fined $500, the resulting publicity launched her Hollywood career.

Mae West (born Mary Jane West; August 17, 1893 – November 22, 1980) was an American stage and film actress, playwright, screenwriter, singer, and sex symbol whose entertainment career spanned over seven decades. She was known for her breezy sexual independence, and her lighthearted bawdy double entendres, often delivered in a husky contralto voice. She was active in vaudeville and on stage in New York City before moving to Los Angeles to pursue a career in the film industry.

West was one of the most controversial movie stars of her day; she encountered problems especially with censorship. She once quipped, “I believe in censorship. I made a fortune out of it.” She bucked the system by making comedy out of conventional mores, and the Depression-era audience admired her for it. When her film career ended, she wrote books and plays, and continued to perform in Las Vegas and the United Kingdom, on radio and television, and recorded rock ‘n roll albums. In 1999, the American Film Institute posthumously voted West the 15th greatest female screen legend of classic American cinema.


West began writing her own risqué plays using the pen name Jane Mast. Her first starring role on Broadway was in a 1926 play entitled Sex, which she wrote, produced, and directed. Although conservative critics panned the show, ticket sales were strong. The production did not go over well with city officials, who had received complaints from some religious groups, and the theater was raided, with West arrested along with the cast. She was taken to the Jefferson Market Court House, (now Jefferson Market Library), where she was prosecuted on morals charges, and on April 19, 1927, was sentenced to 10 days for “corrupting the morals of youth”. Though West could have paid a fine and been let off, she chose the jail sentence for the publicity it would garner. While incarcerated on Welfare Island (now known as Roosevelt Island), she dined with the warden and his wife; she told reporters that she had worn her silk panties while serving time, in lieu of the “burlap” the other girls had to wear. West got great mileage from this jail stint. She served eight days with two days off for “good behavior”. Media attention surrounding the incident enhanced her career, by crowning her the darling “bad girl” who “had climbed the ladder of success wrong by wrong”.

Her next play, The Drag, dealt with homosexuality, and was what West called one of her “comedy-dramas of life”. After a series of try-outs in Connecticut and New Jersey, West announced she would open the play in New York. However, The Drag never opened on Broadway, owing to efforts by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice to ban any attempt by West to stage it. West explained, “The city fathers begged me not to bring the show to New York because they were not equipped to handle the commotion it would cause.” West was an early supporter of the women’s liberation movement, but said she was not a “burn your bra” type of feminist. Since the 1920s, she was also an early supporter of gay rights, and publicly declared against police brutality that gay men experienced. She adopted a then “modern” psychological explanation that gay men were women’s souls in men’s bodies, and hitting a gay man was akin to hitting a woman. In her 1959 autobiography Goodness Had Nothing to Do With It, a memoir compiled by ghostwriter Stephen Longstreet, West strongly objects to hypocrisy while, for surprising and unexplained reasons, also disparaging homosexuality:

I have always hated the two-faced, the smoother-over folk—the people who preach loudly one way of life, and then do something in private that they’re against in public. In many ways homosexuality is a danger to the entire social system of western civilization. Certainly a nation should be made aware of its presence—without moral mottoes—and its effects on children recruited to it in their innocence. I had no objections to it as a cult of jaded inverts, or special groups of craftsmen, shrill and involved only with themselves. It was its secret anti-social aspects I wanted to bring into the sun.

This perspective, never elaborated upon by West in other books or interviews, seems inconsistent with the Mae West persona, for in her 1975 book Mae West: Sex, Health, and ESP, she writes, “I believe that the world owes male and female homosexuals more understanding than we’ve given them. Live and let live is my philosophy on the subject, and I believe everybody has the right to do his or her own thing or somebody else’s—as long as they do it all in private!”

Between the late 1920s and early 1930s, West continued to write plays, including The Wicked Age, Pleasure Man, and The Constant Sinner. Her productions predictably aroused controversy, which ensured that she stayed in the news and often resulted in packed houses at her performances. Her 1928 play Diamond Lil, a story about a racy, easygoing, and ultimately very smart lady of the 1890s, became a Broadway hit and cemented West’s image in the public’s eye. This show had an enduring popularity and West successfully revived it many times throughout the course of her career.

Three years after the initial success of Diamond Lil, West portrayed another sexually charged character, Babe Gordon, in The Constant Sinner, which opened on Broadway at the Royale Theatre on September 14, 1931. The influential drama critic for The New York Times, J. Brooks Atkinson, was among many reviewers at the time who bashed the play’s storyline as well as West’s performance. Atkinson’s “scathing” assessment of her three-act production was published in The Times the day after the dramedy’s premiere:

…”The Constant Sinner” commits one of the major sins in the theatre; it is dull. This is a sin which is common to all of Miss West’s wonderworks except “Diamond Lil,” but because of the luridness of the hokum plot and the highly colored melodramatic backgrounds of the new piece, it has seldom been more in evidence…”The Constant Sinner” is also, as might be expected, vile as to speech…. Seldom, come to think about it, has fouler talk been heard on the Broadway stage, even in these frank and forward times…

However creditable an impersonator of scarlet roles Miss West may be, variety of attack is not among her qualifications as an actress…. Her peculiar slouching about the stage, which seems to provide firsthand evidence that, as the program says, she originated the shimmy dance, her vocal stunts, her exploitation of blond buxomness—all these grow pretty tiresome through repetition….

Other prominent reviewers in 1931, like Atkinson, roundly criticized the stage production, calling it a “‘clumsy drama'”, “‘deliberately outlandish'”, and labeling West herself as an “‘atrocious playwright'”. Ultimately, the elaborate play closed on Broadway after just eight weeks and 64 performances. When compared to Diamond Lil, which had run for nine months with 323 performances, The Constant Sinner was critically, financially, and personally a disappointment for West. Nevertheless, its notoriety and even its negative reviews further enhanced her public image as a daring, sensational performer and brought her additional widespread media attention. During that time, in the months after the play closed, West decided to put her stage career on hold and to accept a short-term but lucrative contract offer from Paramount Pictures to perform in a feature film in Hollywood.

In June 1932, after signing a two-month contract with Paramount that provided her a weekly salary of $5,000 ($99,300 today), West left New York by train for California. The veteran stage performer was by then nearly 40 years old, an unusually late age to begin a film career, especially for women, although Paramount certainly never had the slightest intention of casting her as an ingénue. She nonetheless managed to keep her age ambiguous for some time. She made her film debut in the role of Maudie Triplett in Night After Night (1932) starring George Raft, who had suggested West for the part. At first she did not like her small supporting role in the drama, but was appeased when she was allowed to rewrite portions of her character’s dialogue. One of several revisions she made is in her first scene in Night After Night, when a hat-check girl exclaims, “Goodness, what beautiful diamonds”, and West replies, “Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie.” Reflecting on the overall result of her rewritten scenes, Raft is reported to have said, “She stole everything but the cameras.”

For her next role for Paramount, West brought her Diamond Lil character, now renamed “Lady Lou”, to the screen in She Done Him Wrong (1933). The film was one of Cary Grant’s early major roles, which boosted his career. West claimed she spotted Grant at the studio and insisted that he be cast as the male lead. She claimed to have told a Paramount director, “If he can talk, I’ll take him!” The film was a box office hit and earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. The success of the film saved Paramount from bankruptcy, grossing over $2 million, the equivalent of $140 million today. Paramount recognizes that debt of gratitude today, with a building on the lot named after West.

Her next release, I’m No Angel (1933), teamed her again with Grant. The film was also a box-office hit and was the most successful of her entire screen career. In the months after its release, references to West could be found almost everywhere, from the song lyrics of Cole Porter, to a Works Progress Administration (WPA) mural of San Francisco’s newly built Coit Tower, to She Done Him Right, a Betty Boop cartoon, to “My Dress Hangs There”, a painting by Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Kahlo’s husband, Diego Rivera, paid his own tribute: “West is the most wonderful machine for living I have ever known—unfortunately on the screen only.” To F. Scott Fitzgerald, West was especially unique: “The only Hollywood actress with both an ironic edge and a comic spark.” As Variety put it, “Mae West’s films have made her the biggest conversation-provoker, free-space grabber, and all-around box office bet in the country. She’s as hot an issue as Hitler.”

By 1933, West was one of the largest box-office draws in the United States and, by 1935, she was also the highest paid woman and the second-highest paid person in the United States (after William Randolph Hearst). Hearst invited West to San Simeon, his massive estate in California, where Hollywood celebrities and prominent political and business figures frequently gathered to socialize. “I could’a married him,” West later commented, “but I got no time for parties. I don’t like those big crowds.” On July 1, 1934, the censorship guidelines of the film industry’s Production Code began to be meticulously enforced. As a result, West’s scripts were subjected to more editing. She, in turn, would often intentionally place extremely risqué lines in her scripts, knowing they would be cut by the censors. She hoped they would then not object as much to her other less suggestive lines. Her next film was Belle of the Nineties (1934). The original title, It Ain’t No Sin, was changed because of censors’ objections. Despite Paramount’s early objections regarding costs, West insisted the studio hire Duke Ellington and his orchestra to accompany her in the film’s musical numbers. Their collaboration was a success; the classic “My Old Flame” (recorded by Duke Ellington) was introduced in this film. Her next film, Goin’ to Town (1935), received mixed reviews, as censorship continued to take its toll by preventing West from including her best lines.

Her following effort, Klondike Annie (1936) dealt, as best it could given the heavy censorship, with religion and hypocrisy. Some critics called the film her magnum opus, but not everyone agreed. Press baron and film mogul William Randolph Hearst, ostensibly offended by an off-handed remark West made about his mistress, Marion Davies, sent a private memo to all his editors stating, “That Mae West picture Klondike Annie is a filthy picture… We should have editorials roasting that picture, Mae West, and Paramount… DO NOT ACCEPT ANY ADVERTISING OF THIS PICTURE.” At one point, Hearst asked aloud, “Isn’t it time Congress did something about the Mae West menace?” Paramount executives felt they had to tone down the West characterization or face further recrimination. “I was the first liberated woman, you know. No guy was going to get the best of me. That’s what I wrote all my scripts about.”

Around the same time, West played opposite Randolph Scott in Go West, Young Man (1936). In this film, she adapted Lawrence Riley’s Broadway hit Personal Appearance into a screenplay. Directed by Henry Hathaway, Go West, Young Man is considered one of West’s weaker films of the era, because of the censor’s cuts.

West next starred in Every Day’s a Holiday (1937) for Paramount before their association came to an end. The film performed below its goal. Censorship had made West’s sexually suggestive brand of humor impossible for the studios to distribute. West, along with other stellar performers, was put on a list of actors called “Box Office Poison” by Harry Brandt on behalf of the Independent Theatre Owners Association. Others on the list were Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich, Fred Astaire, Dolores del Río, Katharine Hepburn and Kay Francis. The attack was published as a paid advertisement in The Hollywood Reporter, and was taken seriously by the fearful studio executives. The association argued that these stars’ high salaries and extreme public popularity did not affect their ticket sales, thus hurt the exhibitors. This did not stop producer David O. Selznick, who next offered West the role of the sage madam Belle Watling, the only woman ever to truly understand Rhett Butler, in Gone with the Wind, after Tallulah Bankhead rejected the role. West also turned down the part, claiming it was too small for an established star and that she would need to rewrite her lines to suit her own persona. The role eventually went to Ona Munson.

In 1939, Universal Studios approached West to star in a film opposite W. C. Fields. The studio was eager to duplicate the success of Destry Rides Again starring Marlene Dietrich and James Stewart, with a comic vehicle starring West and Fields. Having left Paramount 18 months earlier and looking for a new film, West accepted the role of Flower Belle Lee in the film My Little Chickadee (1940). Despite the stars’ intense mutual dislike, Fields’s very real drinking problems and fights over the screenplay, My Little Chickadee was a box office hit, outgrossing Fields’s previous film, You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1939) and the later The Bank Dick (1940). Despite this, religious leaders condemned West as a negative role model, taking offense at lines such as “When I’m caught between two evils, I generally like to take the one I never tried”.

West’s next film was Columbia Pictures’ The Heat’s On (1943). Initially, she did not want to do the film, but after actor, director and friend Gregory Ratoff (producer Max Fabian in All About Eve) pleaded with her and claimed he would go bankrupt if she could not help, West relented as a personal favor. Censors curtailed the sexual burlesque of the West characterization. The studio had orders to raise the neck lines and clean up the double entendres. This was the only film for which West was virtually not allowed to write her own dialogue and, as a result, the film suffered.

Perhaps the most critical, ongoing challenge facing West in her career was censorship of her dialogue. As on Broadway a decade before, by the mid-1930s her risqué and ribald dialogue could no longer be allowed to pass. The Heat’s On opened to poor reviews and weak performance at the box office. West was so distraught after the experience and by her years of struggling with the strict Hays Code censorship office, that she would not attempt another film role for the next quarter-century. Instead, West pursued a successful and record-breaking career in top nightclubs, Las Vegas, nationally in theater and on Broadway, where she was allowed, even welcomed, to be herself (per Wikipedia).

First, a Story:

A hard man is good to find – Mae West

Second, a Song:

CaliforniaDreamin1 writes regarding her video about Mae West on “Some of Mae West’s funniest lines from her movies…She was marvellous, she wrote all of them herself.”  I hope you enjoy this!


Thought for the Day:

“When I’m good, I’m very good. But when I’m bad I’m better.” – Mae West

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Dave & Colleen

© 2022 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky

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