West is a born outlaw, a queen of the underworld who knows that two and two are four but five will get you 10 if you know how to work it.
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To say that Mae West is basically impenetrable sounds like the setup for one of her double entendre wisecracks, yet her face is a kind of fortress on screen as she smiles hard and her eyes are raised slowly to heaven either mockingly or ecstatically. Only in her initial movies did the camera ever catch her looking melancholy, as in her first curious close-up in She Done Him Wrong (1933), where West appears downhearted yet self-contained, dignified, and reflective in her horse-drawn carriage before tilting her head back and unveiling a static smile for male admirers.
The meaning of Mae West as an image of smart-mouthed female lust and autonomy is apparent and available to everyone, delightfully legible and adaptable, to a certain extent, as long as you don’t peer too close at it. The famous one-liners West gathered and tailored for herself should always be quotable, and her love of language and wordplay and word reversals makes them always sound fresh. “It’s better to be looked over than overlooked,” West counseled, while she insisted that “Sex is an emotion . . . in motion.” As fast-talking and managing and articulate as she was as performer and author, West is best known still for the “ohs” and “ums” after certain lines that signaled her anticipation of sexual pleasures that did not need words.
She was born Mary Jane West in 1893 and was the star of her own family in Brooklyn and particularly beloved by her mother, a beauty who was called “Champagne Till” by her prizefighter husband. West knew she wanted to be a star very early, and her mother encouraged her always. Billed as Baby Mae in vaudeville, she acted with a stock company and then started playing in revues on Broadway in the 1910s, where she sometimes satirized the kind of “vamps” that Theda Bara and Nazimova were playing in movies. West made a hit in 1918 in a production called Sometime where she did a dance called the “Shimmy Shawobble” in which she very slowly undulated her torso, and her movements were inspired equally by African American musical culture and the camp antics of female impersonators like Bert Savoy and Julian Eltinge.
By the mid-1920s, West was in her early thirties and had not achieved her goal, and reviewers often wrote that she was too dirty-minded for vaudeville and would wind up in burlesque instead. West began to write her own material and copy out lines from joke books; there are 2,000 pages of such raw material in her archive. With some financial aid from her mother, she produced a play called Sex in 1926 in which she played a prostitute named Margy LaMont who scorns the sexual hypocrisy of the upper classes. The slangy Sex is a very angry play in spots and is not really a comedy. It found a mainly male audience in Manhattan in a theater on 63rd Street, somewhat far from Broadway proper, or far enough so that she got away with it for a time.
West had gay friends who talked to her about how they wanted to live their lives openly, and so she was compelled to write a play called The Drag that employed these friends of hers in a free-form last act where they were allowed to camp and improvise all they liked. In the first act of this very daring play, a Shavian West does her best to argue that homosexuals are “born that way,” compassionately and persuasively, and this is what really got her into trouble when The Drag opened in New Jersey in early 1927. The Society for the Prevention of Vice got up in arms when they heard that West wanted to open The Drag in New York, and so police raided Sex, which had been playing for a while, and West spent 10 days in jail for obscenity and reaped many a headline for it.
West seemed to feel a compulsion to write about dangerous subjects that she must have known would get her into trouble, and so she repurposed some of The Drag and wrote Pleasure Man, which opened in 1928 in New York and again featured gay characters like a female impersonator named Paradise Dupont. When the cops raided this show, one of the female impersonators made a speech from the stage about police persecution of homosexuals, and there were photographs of some of these brave queens being led to a paddy wagon, 40 years before the Stonewall riots. West paid the very expensive bail for her large cast and again fought censorship in court.
West’s 1959 autobiography Goodness Had Nothing to Do with It was done as an “as told to” job compiled by several ghostwriters. Pages 92-94 of the book deal very harshly with homosexuality, and they read as if West had been pushed on this subject by her collaborators and her publisher so that elaborations could be added that don’t sound like her. But she did let this go out under her name, and that is unfortunate. When West was interviewed by Dick Cavett in 1976, her proud smile when she talks of “glorifying the homosexual” in The Drag feels closer to her own pioneering emotion on this issue.
West finally wrote a vehicle for herself that pleased everyone. In Diamond Lil, a rowdy comedy set in the 1890s, she played one of the finest women who ever walked the streets. She next tackled interracial sex in the mainly Harlem-set Babe Gordon, which was published as a novel in 1930, renamed The Constant Sinner in 1931, and then made into a stage vehicle for herself. Babe Gordon is the most unsympathetic heroine West ever wrote, a ruthless schemer and pleasure lover always ready to manipulate and double cross, and her machinations result in the death of her African American lover Money Johnson.
By the time West went to Hollywood to make movies for Paramount, she was nearly 40 years old and was known as a controversial stage star and a fighter for freedom of speech. She was not pleased with the script of her first movie, Night after Night (1932), a George Raft vehicle in which West was set to play a sort of guest star part, and so she re-wrote her lines and also picked up the pace of her own delivery after seeing how slow the first scenes in the movie were. Sexy Raft tells one of his lovers (Wynne Gibson) here that her looks will be gone in 10 years, but when West’s Maudie Triplett enters the picture a little over a half hour in, she busts that male presumption wide open and leaves it KO-ed on the mat.
West’s Maudie is brash and fast-talking and clearly a tough girl type, always on the defensive as she pushes Raft around physically, making quick work of him and then focusing her attention on Mabel Jellyman (Alison Skipworth), a prim woman in her late sixties who is teaching Raft’s Joe Anton elocution and manners. There is a drinking montage in which there is an image of two lesbians obviously making a sexual connection, and then we see Maudie and Mabel waking up in bed together after a very debauched night out on the town! The really radical thing about Night after Night is this morning-after scene in which Maudie tells the elderly Mabel that she has a lot of class and can still get some fun out of life. When Mabel wonders if she isn’t too old for such things, Maudie won’t hear of it and immediately offers her a job as a hostess for one of the “beauty parlors” she runs.
Babe Gordon in The Constant Sinner does dirt to her friend Cokey Jenny, but the screen West is always warm and encouraging with other women as long as they aren’t society snobs. In She Done Him Wrong, an adaptation of Diamond Lil that made so much money that it saved Paramount, West’s Lady Lou looks out for a young girl who tried to kill herself and keeps a poker face through all manner of trouble and melodrama while still managing to sing some low-down songs in a Bowery saloon. West’s Lou/Lil is slangy, ungrammatical, yet Wildean in her wit, and she has nerve, or “noive,” to burn. This is a woman who is fine with transactional sex even if she rolls her eyes at some of the men after her, and this is partly because Lady Lou loves sex so much that even bad sex with a seemingly unattractive man excites her. It is this above all that makes West still seem as dangerous as she ever was, and as threatening to conventional morals.
West’s own love life was busy, and to hear her tell it she was always having to put up with jealous men fighting over her. In all of her Paramount movies of the 1930s, her characters deal with very possessive men who want to control her, and no matter how violent or crazy they get, it is as if nothing can faze the unflappable Mae. Some of her older screen men are physically repulsive, yet she seems to respond to their sleaziness just as enthusiastically as she responds to the pretty-boy looks of Cary Grant and Gilbert Roland. Only once does she deal on-screen with an unrequited crush, in Goin’ to Town (1935), where she pursues a snooty Englishman (Paul Cavanagh) and even sings some grand opera at the end in an attempt to impress him. Otherwise, in Mae-world all the men are mad for her and they all rave about her beauty and appeal, and like all good jokes this is taken as seriously as possible by everyone.
West often has African American maids on-screen, and she busts apart the stereotyped, asexual roles they were playing in other movies by making them into girlfriends who talk and laugh with her about their own sex lives; it is a complicated pleasure to watch Hattie McDaniel sitting at her side in I’m No Angel (1933) with a tickled expression on her face that seems to say, “This white woman is nuts!” West also had a lifelong interest in gay African American men and portrays one such named Madame Jolly in The Constant Sinner and even manages to get a gay African American character named Nicodemus (Nick Stewart) into one of her post-censorship pictures, Go West Young Man (1936). On the musical front, West had to fight to get Duke Ellington to play for her in Belle of the Nineties (1934) and Louis Armstrong for Every Day’s a Holiday (1937), and her own love life knew no racial limits.
“What’s the good of resisting temptation? There’ll always be more,” she philosophizes in Klondike Annie (1936), which is a Mae West movie for people who don’t like Mae West movies, a problem picture where she makes an attempt to wrestle with her ideas about religion and morality but is unable to treat them as honestly as possible because of the censorship that had come down on her post-1933. The later West wrote and spoke about her interest in ESP and the occult, but this is part of her carnival side rather than any hankering after spirituality that might be sought in a church.
West is a born outlaw, a queen of the underworld who knows that two and two are four but five will get you 10 if you know how to work it. One of her funniest scenes is in My Little Chickadee (1940) where she attempts to teach school in her own way and tells the boys in her class that “I demand obedience.” There is a moment in I’m No Angel when West is with a man who tells her he is a politician and she cracks, “I don’t like work either.”
Is Mae a feminist? Yes, in her own way. When asked in the 1930s if a woman could be president, she answered, “Why not? . . . Women have been running men for years. One could handle a country just as well. . . . Queen Elizabeth – Cleopatra – Catherine of Russia – and a dozen others got along all right in the past.” For a born ruler like West, there weren’t many professions open to women in the first half of the 20th century that could accommodate her; she could have been a CEO, but surely she would not have had it in her to be a secretary, not for long. Her dream project in the late 1930s was to play Catherine the Great on-screen, but she had to wait to play it on Broadway in the 1940s, after her movie career ended with the whimper of The Heat’s On (1943), a modest musical at Columbia where West looks great in ’40s clothes but was not allowed to pep up her dialogue to her own satisfaction.
West’s play Catherine Was Great, produced as a spectacle on Broadway in 1944 by Mike Todd, was meant as a serious statement against “military-minded men” and the way they destroyed the civilization that a powerful female could build up. It was also jam-packed with as many muscular guardsmen as she could find. By the time she kept reviving Diamond Lil in the late 1940s and early 1950s, West had become an institution, so much so that her reviews were finally respectful and even awed. She refused to make any adjustments to her live act as she entered her sixties and seventies, and she even recorded some rock records in the 1960s, including a Christmas album on which she warbles, “I’m gonna have good will toward men . . . the more men, the more I will!”
Guest-starring as herself on the low-level sitcom Mr. Ed in 1964, West offers this tip on how to remain sexy: “You’ve got to be feminine . . . dress like a woman, look like a woman, act like a woman, and feel like a woman,” she drawls, raising her eyes heavenward on “feel” before strangely concluding, “That separates the men from the girls.” Such proto-gender-queer pronouncements were set aside for the lowest of crude burlesque lines in her two unlikely movie comebacks of the 1970s, Myra Breckinridge (1970), in which she plays an agent and pop star named Leticia Van Allen, and Sextette, which was filmed in 1976 but only let loose in 1978. Sextette is a picture in which a young Timothy Dalton sings that the looks of the 83-year-old Mae will “never be gone,” yet she seems to have trouble walking across rooms on her platform shoes.
In this late period, West’s eyes are hidden under heavy lashes, and she is as armored as possible by elaborate clothes and long blonde wigs. This attempt to stay somehow frozen in time led to her being mocked and derided as she was mocked and derided by critics in the 1910s and 1920s. Her refusal to act her age was tasteless, it was foolish, it was nuts, but it was wonderful in its way, too, and even gallant, and very American. And, of course, as she once said, “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.” Her most memorable sexual encounters in life, as told to interviewers, had a distinctly tantric bent.
Just because West was in her eighties by the 1970s didn’t mean she had lost any of her enthusiasm for sex as an idea, alluding to it and celebrating it and offering it to us in the spirit of freedom and as a paradise that should be open to all. Surely if West was starting out now she’d be doing gross-out humor with enthusiasm and still keeping abreast, as it were, of both African American and gay culture, for she is unconstrained by any limitation of time or place, immediately recognizable, suggestive, joy-giving, subversive, never satisfied, always ruminating on pleasures past and pleasures ahead and the pleasure of each moment as she invited it up for loving inspection and appreciation.