"Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just happy to see
me" is possibly Mae West's most famous quote - even if it didn't make
it into one of her films until Sextette
in 1978 -, and considering the quote originated in the mid-1930's, it
sounds all the more provocative and downright funny.
Of course, it's
also West's most-cited quote, but nobody came even close in delivery to
Mae West, who wasn't only known for delivering uniquely racy and
provocative oneliners a dime a dozen, she also had the ability to bring
them alive and spell them in three capital letters:
S I N !
She was the woman who virtually singlehandedly brought racy,
adult comedy to the movie screen decades before sexploitation and porn
were even heard of, and to this day she is unsurpassed in playing
bad-girl-roles - promiscuous, greedy and highly seductive bitches - without ever being the
Mae West's screen persona was always that of a erotic
seducer and a sexually liberated woman alike, she was the woman who would
take men home but never take them seriously, and being promiscuous was
just her preferred lifestyle and didn't mean she was a slut.
Interestingly, to this day her screen persona was virtually never picked
up by someone else, and even adult comedies from our time of hardcore
pornography would pale and blush at the same time if compared to Mae
West's best stuff - which makes her films all the more remarkable.
back in her time, she proved to be way too much for self-appointed censors
like the MPPDA, which eventually managed to force the spineless film
industry down to their knees, and even in today's reactionary American
movie- (and TV-)world she would run into troubles with her usually very
racy dialogue, sexual allusions and unambiguous gestures.
all said, in her lifetime Mae West, who came from the theatre and did not
make her first film till age 39 (!), made no more than 12 movies, and
between her 10th and 11th film, 27 years went by ... but more of that
Born 1893 in Brooklyn, New York, Mae West hit the stage at the
tender age of 5 years, when she started to appear in vaudeville acts,
both in solo- and group-performances, and it is said she began to develop
her star persona at a very early age, and even in her teens, when her body
wasn't yet fully developed, she added sexy dances - which does not
mean striptease - to her repertoire, which brought her the nickname the Baby
Vamp when she was approximately 14 years of age. It is said that during her early
years with the vaudeville, she originated her trademark slinky sexy walk
which always spelled seduction in big bright letters.
the beginning of the 20th century saw the slow death of the vaudeville,
and Mae West was smart enough to realize she had to move on ... and soon
enough, she found herself on Broadway as dancer and/or actress in several
rather insignificant shows.
West's big breakthrough came in 1926, when
she played the lead in Sex, a racy comedy she had written herself under the
name Jane Mast. The very blunt title of this play alone made the show a
big hit with the audiences (if not the critics) - and was enough to put the
censors on the map, which resulted in the play being raided by the police
(when it had already played for almost a year or 375 performances) and all
of the principal cast and producers - Mae West included - being convicted
to ten days in jail (West was reportedly released after six for good
After this incident, the play Sex
was dead (and wouldn't be revived until 1999 as an off-Broadway show) -
but Mae West's popularity had only increased, and in 1928, she had another
of her plays produced (with her in the lead, naturally), Diamond Lil,
which ran for 176 performances, followed by Pleasure Man, which was
raided by the police and closed down after only two performances in 1928,
and The Constant Sinner, which ran for 64 performances in 1931.
Hollywood - then still trying to come to terms with the sound film medium
and thus hugely dependent on stage actors and plays with well-written
dialogue - became aware of Mae West, and in 1932, Paramount
gave her her first role in the George Raft-starrer Night After Night
(1932, directed by Archie Mayo). Actually, the film ws designed to be the
launching pad for George Raft's career as a leading man (he had previously
mainly done supporting roles), but for the few minutes that West - who was
alledgedly brought to Hollywood by Raft - was on, she steals the show and
brings the much needed entertainment value - with suggestive dialogue (written by herself) and her own
alluring style of acting and moving, that were by now already fully
developed thanks to years of
stagework - into an otherwise unremarkable
drama about a boxer (Raft) falling in love with a society lady (Constance
Thanks to her performance,
realized they might have a winner on their hands and so they next adapted
her play Diamond Lil into the film She
Done Him Wrong (1933, Lowell Sherman) - which might have been a
bit of a gamble because of the adult nature of the film (it's about a
promiscuous woman facing troubles because she had way too many lovers in
her life and she actually becomes involved in two murders, but still
emerges victorious in the end), but it was relatively cheaply to produce,
at this point had to try anything to produce a hit and avoid bancrupcy
and/or being taken over by rival MGM.
gamble paid off, and better than expected too, when the film made 2
million Dollars in just three months (which sounds like a ridiculous sum
regarding box office takes nowadays - unfortunately - but back then was
enormous), saved the studio single-handedly (!) and became a box office
Seen as a movie as such, She
Done Him Wrong is less than great, the story is as thin as it
is overconvoluted and production values are rather low ... but all this is
forgotten when Mae West enters the stage in her trademark alluring walk
and delivers oneliner after oneliner in her trademark provocative style
that turns the otherwise average comedy into a comedic gem - and you
couldn't even begin to guess that West was already 40 years old when this
came out. West easily overshadows everybody else in the cast, including a young Cary Grant in
one of his early - and rather unimpressive - roles.
the success of She Done
Him Wrong prompted Paramount
to hire West to do another film for them - as writer and lead actress of
course - in no time, and only a few months after She
Done Him Wrong, I'm
No Angel (1933, Wesley Ruggles) was released.
plays her old self from She
Done Him Wrong once more in I'm
No Angel, only this time more effort was put into the plot
(essentially it's promiscuous Mae falling in love with a man - Cary Grant
-, then losing him, then fighting to win him back in court - it might
still be silly, but hey, this is comedy) and the production values were
considerably higher - one of the highlights of this film is a lion-taming
scene which Mae, upon her own insistence, performs herself, which is shown
in numerous shots showing her with the lions and even touching one of
them. Of course, Mae looks great even when facing lions instead of
fighting of wolfish men. Plus, West's co-star Cary Grant is given a little
more opportunity to shine in West's shadow in this one.
films of Mae West (and similar racy films from the early 1930's)
however where a thorn in the eye of the religious right, a powerful
narrow-minded and hypocritical minority set on changing the world in their own image - and
soon they were looking for ways to keep cinema pure, and it was not long
before they found the Production Code (or Hays Code) - a set
of guidelines for motion picture production - that was actually concocted
in 1930 but never enforced ... and this code among other things clearly
forbade not only the showing of nudity and sex but also all-too-obvious
sexual references, justification of adultery, passionate kissing, or let
sins go unpunished as such - and pretty much all of these points clearly
refer to Mae West's films so far.
Of course, it was as easy for the
religious right back then as it is now to find a spineless politician who
puts his own political career above such human rights as the freedom of
speech, and thus, to enforce the code, the MPPDA (Motion Pictures Prodcuers and
Distributors Association) was installed by 1934, led by former minister
Joseph Breen, and all films released after July 1st 1934 had to obtain a
certificate of approval from the MPPDA.
With Mae West, the
MPPDA (allegedly) even went so far as to send a watchdog to the set of her
next film, to be titles It ain't No Sin, but West (allegedly) managed to keep
the watchdog off her back by making up a phony death threat story and
having herself surrounded by a bunch of bodybuilders posing as her
bodyguards. Still, the MPPDA had their say before the movie came out and It
ain't No Sin had to be retitled Belle
of the Nineties (1934, Leo McCarey).
of the Nineties, the influence of the MPPDA could already be felt,
she was no longer the openly promiscuous woman of her early films but a
woman in love with a boxer (Roger Pryor) who is wronged and forcefully
split up with her boyfriend - but in the course of the proceedings, she
lets all who have wronged her have their just desserts and comes back
together with her boxer again ... why this film was refused the title It
ain't No Sin is incomprehensible, other than for Mae West's own, sinful
appearence - which makes one question the objectivity of the MPPDA (which
of course was never even meant to be objective to begin with).
from being a bit of a watered down version of herself, West hasn't changed
much for her first MPPDA-controlled film, her walk and gestures would
still ooze sex, and her dialogue was still suggestive to the hilt, even if
her blunter remarks were here substituted by her very own brand of double
entendre, in which West soon developed true mastery.
of the Nineties was followed by Goin' to Town (1935,
Alexander Hall), a sort-of modern-day Western, in which West plays a dance
hall queen who has come to riches and who falls for an English gentleman,
so she tries to become a lady - which for some reason involves
opera singing and horse racing - to ultimately find out he's an Earl.
the (slightly) different story, Goin' to Town is more of the same,
a showcase for Mae West's amazing, provocative comic talents paired with
her very sensual appearance - in other words, quite a blast ...
1936, Mae West made what probably sounds like her most interesting film,
directed by none other than proficient veteran Hollywood director Raoul
Walsh, (arguably) the best director she has ever worked with:
Unfortunately, what sounds nothing short of thrilling in
writing totally loses its punch on screen: In Klondike
Annie, West plays a sinful woman who is converted to mere goodness
before the main plot even begins, she plays a dance hall girl on the run
from the law and evil Chinamen alike who takes up the work of a missionary
who died on her in Alaska and - using her dance hall routines - makes the
mission she runs a smashing success. And before the film is over, she even
decides to give herself up to the law ... Now this isn't the Mae West one
has come to expect, and despite of all its polish and all of Raoul Walsh's
skills, the film is nothing more than a cheesy melodrama. Sure, West's
oneliners are still spot-on, but the rest of the film is rather a
disappointment, a piece of kitsch that wouldn't really have needed Mae
West as a star (though in all fairness, she herself wrote the play The
Frisco Kate the
film was based on).
Still, my personal views aside, Klondike
Annie was a commercial success, as bad girls gone good stories
like this where even by 1936 Hollywood staple and almost surefire hits ...
though also saw the beginning of Mae West's downfall in Hollywood's
society of turncoats and yes-men, when she carelessly made a crack about
Marion Davies' acting abilities. It was not that Davies herself was
especially bothered by this ... but she was in a relationship with media
tycoon William Randolph Hearst, and Hearst was never known to be receptive
to any criticism ... but he was known to repeatedly abuse his media empire
to try and get even with people he felt wronged him (the most famous
example is probably Orson Welles, who Hearst felt mocked him in Citizen
Kane). Hearst was so brought up by West's remark that he had his
newspapers make up stories about the moral decline of American motion
pictures, and he made of all films Klondike
Annie - very probably West's most decent film and the one with a
righteous message - the prime target of his campaign.
Soon Hearst went so
far as to make up blacklists of Hollywood stars who were supposed to be
box office poison, and wouldn't you know it, Mae West was on one such
list, even though Klondike
Annie and her subsequent films - Go West Young Man (1936,
Henry Hathaway), in which she plays a glamourous moviestar who hides away
in the country and which co-stars Randolph Scott, and Every Day's a
Holiday (1937, Edward Sutherland), which has West in 1890's New York
messing things up royally and which has Louis Armstrong in a small
supporting role - were still making Paramount
a nice bundle of money.
In 1938 though, Paramount
gave in to the pressure and sent Mae West packing, showing precious little
gratitude to the woman who no five years ago saved the studio from
extinction single-handedly ... but then, Hollywood always was a town of
spineless turncoats, uncultured backstabbers and greedy moneymen - and
apparently it hasn't changed one bit since the 1930's.
did not make another film until 1940, when Universal
put its trust into her and teamed her up with legendary comic and
alcoholic genius W.C. Fields [W.C.
Fields bio - click here] to write a film and star in it together. The
outcome, My Little
Chickadee (1940, Edward F.Cline), is not quite as great as it
would look on paper: Actually, Mae West's style of comedy needed W.C.
Fields as much as his style of comedy needed her: not at all. As a
result the film never seems to really fall together and seems to be little
more than a succession of comedy skits featuring either West or Fields
(and very rarely both). The story on the other hand - a Western about a
masked bandit in love with Mae West, who in turn has married Fields in a phony
wedding - holds little interest, repeatedly seems to lead to nowhere and
lacks a proper conclusion.
Despite its shortcomings, My Little
Chickadee still became quite a success, and Universal
wanted to sign up West for two more films co-starring W.C. Fields, which
she turned down though as she and Fields - each one wanting to outdo the
other on set - did not get along too well ...
It took three more years for West to
make another film, The Heat's
On (1943, Gregory Ratoff), this time produced by Columbia,
and even though The Heat's On
is one of the very few films West did withuot being involved in the
writing, it is closer to her actual career than all her previous films put
together. Here West plays a musical star whose show is shut down by an
over-zealous censor (Victor Moore) who soon turns potty in the hands of
whoever wants to (ab-)use him. The parallels to real life events were of
course totally intended.
Despite all this, The
Heat's On is not West's film, despite her top-billing she only
plays a supporting role and leaves most of the on-screen goings-on to
Victor Moore and William Gaxton playing West's producer. In all, one can't
help but like The Heat's On
for making fun of all the self-appointed censors who were around back then
as they are now, but on the other hand, the comedy is a bit too nice to be an actual
blast and features too little Mae West ...
Heat's On, West decided to retire from the film business (at age
especially because censorship got ever stricter and more unbearable, and
she went back to the
theatre where she found more freedom to express herself and further
develop her provocative stage persona.
Over the years, West remained a
smashing success on stage, both in her plays and her revues, and when she
in 1964 starred in an episode of Mister Ed, the popular
sitcom about a talking horse, her episode aptly titles Mae
West Meest Mister Ed (Arthur Lubin) drew a larger audience than usual
for the series -
proving her star power hasn't vanished over the years.
late 1960's, censorship in Hollywood finally relaxed and the sexual
revolution - something West had spearheaded literally decades earlier -
was finally taking place. So by 1970, Hollywood saw the time right to get
Mae West back into the limelight after 27 years, even if by then she was
77 years of age - and looked not a day older than 50.
The film that
marked her return was Myra
Breckinridge (1970, Michael Sarne), and even if West only played a
supporting role with a mere 10 minutes of screentime (and her role wasn't even
important for the plot of the movie as such), she received top-billing,
even over the film's star Raquel Welch, who possibly never looked prettier
than in this film.
Breckinridge - a story about a man turned into a woman (Raquel
Welch) out to teach manhood a lesson based on a book by Gore Vidal - was a
failure, an all-out comedy that ever so often completely lost direction,
but being a failure, it was one of the most charming failures there was,
an entertaining view/parody of late 1960's/early 70's lifestyle. And then
there's of course West, whose comedy was - despite the lady's age - still
spot-on, whose delivery was infallible and whose oneliners were - despite
the sexual revolution - still as razorsharp and provocative as ever. And
even when she sings a contemporary soul tune, she is everything but
embarassing ... wow.
Another 8 years went by before Mae West
made her last film, Sextette
(1978, Ken Hughes), based on one of her own plays. West was now 85 (!)
years old, but she still plays her own stage- and screen-persona, that of a
promiscuous maneater who knows a clever oneliner to almost every
situation. In this film, she tries to consummate her marriage with her
sixth husband (Timothy Dalton), but almost all of her ex-hubbies show up
and try to win her back on her wedding night, and somehow an espionage
plot is weaved into the proceedings as well.
It's interesting to see
that West in many scenes pulls it off, even though her character would
demand an actress about half her age (now this isn't an ageist remark, you
always have to remember she was 85 and is supposed to play a woman
various men including a young Timothy Dalton long for), but in all the
film is rather a failure. For some reason the direction is completely flat
and uninspired and ever so often sacrifices poignant dialogue for flat
comedy, plus the director seems to have not even the slightest idea of how
to use Mae West properly ... which simply put is a shame !
... and a comedienne of Mae
West's caliber would have deserved a better swansong, she died two years
later in 1980 in Hollywood from various complications caused by a series
of strokes ...
Interestingly enough, while being a very
extroverted actress on screen, surprisingly little is known about her
private life. She stayed by and large away from Hollywood parties, would
hardly ever mingle with the Hollywood crowd, and while it was known that
she had at times relationships with various boxers and bodybuilders (never
anyone from the movie business), what happened behind closed curtains
tended to remain behind closed curtains ... and it was actually better
that way, because like this we can remember Mae West as one of the
funniest, most provocative and most sexually charged comediennes of
American cinema - and this is what
really counts ...