FILM: MAE WEST

Born: August 17 1893
Died: November 22 1980

maewestby PETER TATCHELL (reprinted from LAUGH MAGAZINE #11, 1995)

Mae West can probably be regarded as the greatest comedienne ever captured on film
. . . an 1890s gal who set 1930s Hollywood ablaze with her 1960s morality. A handful of years after the movies had learnt to talk, Mae’s self-penned dialogue was coaxing laughs out of bellies and sending puritans to their soapboxes.

Her antics saved Paramount Pictures from bankruptcy but in the process led to an industry-organized code of censorship that so diluted her later performances she eventually deserted the big screen and returned to the live theatre.

Mae was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1893 and for much of her career found inspiration in the style of the era affectionately known as the “gay nineties”. As a youngster she appeared in various amateur and church run theatrical productions, before graduating to the vaudeville stage in her teens.

She appeared on Broadway from 1911 in a succession of musical comedies and revues which didn’t exploit her talent to its full potential. By 1926 Mae decided to write her own plays, on topics in which she was interested and found entertaining.

Sex was high on that list, and in fact was chosen as the title of her first production. It was immensely successful and ran for almost a year but its mocking of society’s morals finally resulted in Mae (and two dozen cast members) being arrested on an obscenity charge.

No one could find anything offensive to quote at the trial but to use Mae’s own words . . . “It isn’t what I do, but how I do it. It isn’t what I say, but how I say it, and how I look when I do it and say it”. As a result, she was fined and sentenced to a token ten day jail term.

The notoriety of the situation subsequently inspired her to write a series of even more outrageous plays dealing with such taboos as homosexuality, drug use and white slavery. Mae also created a character which would become a virtual alter-ego for the rest of her career and propel her to movie stardom a handful of years later . . . Diamond Lil.

In 1932, Hollywood beckoned with a featured role in the George Raft feature Night After Night. Allowed to contrib­ute her own dialogue for the role, she created a sensation. Raft commented that she “stole everything but the cameras”. In one celebrated scene a hat-check girl praised her jewellery with the line “Goodness, what lovely diamonds”. Mae re­sponded “Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie!”.

Paramount quickly signed her for a starring role in She Done Him Wrong and with its release the name Mae West catapulted to the top ranks of movie stardom. Overnight, her style and sayings were the talk of the entertainment world and the studio produced a series of follow-ups, eventually paying her $400,000 a film (and making her the highest-paid star in Hollywood).

Mae’s playful openness about sexual matters did not find favour with everyone, however. Various self-appointed protectors of morality saw her as a decidedly bad influence and did everything they could to have her thrown out of pictures. Eventually Paramount agreed to tone down her storylines and remove certain sections of dialogue. (Two censored lines were “I wouldn’t let him touch me with a ten-foot pole” and “I wouldn’t lift my veil for that guy”.)

Mae was also in trouble on another front. In December 1937, she guested on the top-rating Sunday night radio programme The Chase And Sanborn Hour with Edgar Bergen (and his dummy Charlie McCarthy). A sketch set in the Gar­den of Eden lit up the switchboards and caused a furore across the nation. Like her Broadway performance ten years earlier, it wasn’t what she said, but how the lines were delivered. As a result, the networks decided she was persona non grata on the airwaves, and Mae didn’t return to the medium until the late 1940s.

Censorship of her movie roles had lessened their sting and in 1939 she switched to Universal to star in My Little Chickadee with W.C. Fields. Half a century later it’s a de­light to watch the two legends sparring for screen space, but at the time it wasn’t considered a success. Mae signed with Columbia in 1943 for The Heat’s On but the modern setting didn’t suit her old-world style and she decided to regain more control over her performances by going back to the stage.

She returned to Broadway in the play Catherine Was Great and later staged a revival of Diamond Lil (which also toured Britain). The 1950sfound her in Las Vegas with a night-club act supported by a company of muscle-built Mr. Universes.

Soon after, Decca Records signed her to record an LP of her popular 1930s songs and by the end of the decade, Mae had written a very entertaining autobiography Goodness Had Nothing To Do With It which quickly made it to the bestseller lists.

Now in her sixties, Mae made several guest-shots on television including a Dean Martin special and the 1958 Academy Awards Ceremony when she sang a song with Rock Hudson. A pre-filmed interview on Person To Person was cancelled at the last moment however when producers got cold feet. And in 1963 she starred in an episode of the popular Mister Ed series in what proved to be an amusing romp for all concerned.

The 1960s also saw a new stage production Sextette and several more record albums (of contemporary compositions). Despite a number of offers though, Mae consistently refused to return to the big screen.

Finally, in 1970, she did agree to appear in the controver­sial movie adaptation of Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge. Though generally regarded as a cinematic mess, Mae’s scenes as the sultry theatrical agent (complete with dialogue she her-self had written) were the film’s only bright spot.

The nostalgia boom saw her thrust back into the spotlight as one of the few legends still around to glory in the applause for an era of show business long gone. As she entered her eighties, Mae was determined her career was nowhere near its conclusion.

Her next venture was a film version of her stage play Sextette, though getting the financial backing for a project with an octogenarian in the starring role was not easy. Eventually the movie was made (with a lineup of motion picture greats in featured roles) but it ended up a strange mixture of Hollywood kitsch and campy production numbers and enjoyed only a limited release.

Mae’s further plans were put on hold and, soon after, her health began to falter. A series of strokes in mid-1980 incapacitated her and she died several months later.

 

in the words of Mae West …

When I’m good, I’m very good, but when I’m bad, I’m better.

She’s the kind of girl who climbed the ladder of success, wrong by wrong.

Its about a girl who lost her reputation but never missed it.

Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.

A man in the house is worth two in the street.

It’s better to be looked over than overlooked.

Between two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before.

Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?

A gold rush is what happens when a line of chorus girls spot a man with a bankroll.

Give a man a free hand and he’ll try to put it all over you.

Gentlemen may prefer blondes but who says that blondes prefer gentlemen?

Some women pick men to marry and others pick them to pieces.

Too many girls follow the line of least resistance but a good line is hard to resist.

I didn’t discover curves, I only uncovered them.

A thrill a day keeps the chill away.

When a woman goes bad men go right after her.

I always say, keep a diary and some day it’ll keep you.

That guy’s so crooked he uses a corkscrew for a ruler.

Women with “pasts” interest men because men hope that history will repeat itself.

He who hesitates is last.

It’s not the men in my life that counts … it’s the life in my men.

Films

Night After Night (Paramount 1932) 70 min

She Done Him Wrong (Paramount 1933) 66 min
songs: Frankie And Johnnie
A Guy What Takes His Time
Easy Rider

I’m No Angel (Paramount 1933) 87 min
They Call Me Sister Honky Tonk
No One Loves Me Like That Dallas Man
I Found A New Way To Go To Town
I Want You — I Need You
I’m No Angel

Belle Of The Nineties (Paramount 1934) 75 min
My American Beauty
When A St. Louis Woman Comes Down To New Orleans
Troubled Waters
My Old Flame

Goin’ To Town (Paramount 1935) 74 min
Love Is Love
He’s A Bad Man
Now I’m A Lady
My Heart At Thy Sweet Voice

Klondike Annie (Paramount 1936) 80 min
Occidental Woman
Little Bar Butterfly
It’s Better To Give Than To Receive
Cheer Up, Little Sister
My Medicine Man
Mister Deep Blue Sea

Go West, Young Man (Paramount 1936) 82 min
On A Typical Tropical Night
I Was Saying To The Moon
Go West, Young Man

Every Day’s A Holiday (Paramount 1938) 80 min
Flutter By, Little Butterfly
Every Day’s A Holiday
Along The Broadway Trail
Jubilee
Mademoiselle Fifi

My Little Chickadee (Universal 1940) 83 min
Willie Of The Valley

The Heat’s On (Columbia 1943) 80 min
Stranger In Town
Hello Mi Amigo

Myra Breckinridge (20th Century Fox 1970) Colour 94 min
You Gotta Taste All The Fruit
Hard To Handle (both deleted before release)

Sextette (Crown International 1978) Colour 91 min
Happy Birthday 21
Baby Face
After You’ve Gone

 

Bibliography

Babe Gordon — The Constant Sinner
by Mae West
(The Macaulay Company, New York. 1930)

Diamond Lil
by Mae West
(The Macaulay Company, New York. 1932)

Goodness Had Nothing To Do With It by Mae West
(Prentice-Hall, New Jersey. 1959)
* revised and enlarged paperback edition published’ by
Macfadden-Bartell Books, New York. 1970.

Mae West On Sex, Health And E.S.P.
by Mae West
(W.H. Allen, London. 1975)

Pleasure Man
by Mae West
(Dell Publishing paperback, New York. 1975)

The Wit And Wisdom Of Mae West
(compiled) by Joseph Weintraub
(G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York. 1967)
* paperback version titled Peel Me A Grape
(Futura, London. 1975)

The Films Of Mae West
by Jon Tuska
(Citadel Press, New Jersey. 1975)

Come Up And See Me Sometime
by David Hanna
(Tower Publications paperback, New York. 1976)

Mae West
by Fergus Cashin
(W.H. Allen, London. 1981)

Mae West
by George Eells and Stanley Musgrove
(William Morrow And Company, New York. 1982)

Mae West: Empress Of Sex
by Maurice Leonard
(Harper Collins. 1992)

Mae West — When I’m Bad, I’m Better
by Marybeth Hamilton
(Harper Collins paperback. 1993)

Mae West
by Simon Louvish
(Faber & Faber, London. 2005)

 

Discography

I Like A Guy What Takes His Time/I Wonder Where My Easy Rider’s Gone
Brunswick 78rpm 6495
(February 7 1933)

I’m No Angel/I Found A New Way To Go To Town
Brunswick 78rpm 6675
(October 3 1933)

They Call Me Sister Honky Tonk/I Want You — I Need You
Brunswick 78rpm 6676
(October 7 1933)

* the above six vocals are included on:
Ethel Merman/Lyda Roberti/Mae West
Columbia LP CL 2751

* all except I Want You — I Need You are included on:
Mae West And W.C. Fields — Side By Side
Harmony LP HS 11405

My Old Flame/Sing You Sinners (Duke Ellington instrumen­tal)
Biltmore 78rpm 1014, Cosmopolitan 78rpm 7501

Come Up And See Me Sometime/Frankie And Johnny
Mezzotone 78rpm 100

That’s All Brother, That’s All/Imaginary Love
Mezzotone 78rpm 101

My Man Friday/Page 54
Mezzotone 78rpm 102

Mae West Songs
Mezzotone 10” LP 1
Come Up ‘N’ See Me Sometime
That’s All Brother, That’s All
My Man Friday
Frankie And Johnny
Imaginary Love
Page 54

Mae West Songs
Mezzotone 10” LP 21
Pardon Me For Loving And Running
Put It Off Until Tomor­row
Slow Down
A Guy That Takes His Time
He’s A Bad Man
Men (non-West vocal)

The One And Only Mae West
Monogram Supertone EP MEP 111
features four of the above Mezzotone recordings:
Come Up And See Me Sometime
Page 54
Put It Off Until Tomorrow
That’s All, Brother, That’s All

* eight of the above Mezzotone vocals are included on:
W.C. Fields — His Only Recording, Plus 8 Songs By Mae West
Proscenium LP 22
also issued as W.C. Fields And Mae West
American LP AAT 120
Frankie And Johnny
My Man Friday
Page 54
That’s All, Brother
Pardon Me For Loving And Running
Put It Off Until Tomorrow
Slow Down
Come Up And See Me Sometime

Frankie And Johnny/All Of Me
Decca 78rpm 29452
(November  26 and 29 1954)

The Fabulous Mae West
Decca LP DL (7)9016, M.C.A. 2053E
* also released as Decca 91537/8/9 (three EP set)
Love Is The Greatest Thing
I’m In The Mood For Love
Pecado
My Daddy Rocks Me
All Of Me
The Call Me Sister Honky Tonk
Frankie And Johnny
I Want You — I Need You
Havana For A Night
A Guy What Takes His Time
If I Could Be With You
Criswell Predicts
(recorded November 23, 26 and 29 1954)

Way Out West
Tower LP T 5028
Treat Him Right
When A Man Loves A Woman
You Turn Me On
Shakin’ All Over
If You Gotta Go
Lover, Please Don’t Fight
Day Tripper
Nervous
Twist And Shout
Boom Boom
Mae Day

Day Tripper/Treat Him Right
Tower single 260

If You Gotta Go/Shakin’ All Over
Tower single 261

Wild Christmas
Dagonet LP DG-4
also issued as Under The Mistletoe: Round LP RS 100
and Mae In December: A.E.I. LP AEI 2104
Merry Christmas, Baby
Santa Baby
Santa, Come Up To See Me
Put The Loot In The Boot, Santa
Santa Claus Is Back In Town
My New Year’s Resolutions
Santa, Bring My Baby Back To Me
With Love From Me To You

Put The Loot In The Boot, Santa/With Love From Me To You
Dagonet single DG 6A

Great Balls Of Fire
M.G.M.  LP SE 4869
Great Balls Of Fire
Men
The Naked Ape
The Grizzly Bear
Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On
Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen
After The Lights Go Down Low
Light My Fire
How Miss West Won World Peace
Rock Around The Clock

Great Balls Of Fire/The Naked Ape
M.G.M.  single K 14491

Hard To Handle/You Gotta Taste All Of The Fruit
20th Century Fox single 45-6718
(out-takes from the movie Myra Breckinridge)

Am I Too Young?/He’s A Bad, Bad Man
Plaza single 45-506

Mae West — Original Voice Tracks From Her Greatest Movies
Decca LP DL (7)9 176
dialogue and songs from her Paramount and Universal films:
Sayings Of Mae West
Mae West Uncensored
Mae West And Friends
Around The World With Mae West
Mae West Has The Last Word
Mae West And W.C. Fields Together
Mae West And “Friend” (includes song I Want You — I Need You)
Mae West Teaches Class
A Swingin’ Sermon (includes song Little Bar Butterfly)
Personal Appearance
Mae West Sings (includes Frankie And Johnny, Mister Deep Blue Sea and My Old Flame)

Mae West — Original Radio Broadcasts
Mark 56Records LP 643
Adam And Eve sketch (from The Chase And Sanborn Hour of December 12 1937)
Frank Bresee Talks To Mae West (1970)
Frankie And Johnny (from The Rudy Vallee Show of Febru­ary 2 1933)
Frank Bresee Talks To Mae West (1971)
Frank Bresee Talks To Mae West (1972)

Mae West On The Air
Sandy Hook LP and CD SH 2098
My Old Flame (unreleased April 23 1934 studio recording)
Romeo And Juliet (from The Chesterfield Supper Club of Janu­ary 1949)
Little Red Riding Hood (from The Chesterfield Supper Club of February 16 1950)
Mae West And Dean Martin (from a 1950s telecast)
Mae West and Red Skelton (from The Red Skelton Show of March 1 1960)

Mae West On The Chase And Sanborn Hour
Radiola LP MR-1126
features the complete NBC radio broadcast of December 12 1937

Sixteen Sultry Songs Sung By Mae West “Queen Of Sex”
Rosetta LP RR 1315, CD RRCD 1315
features soundtrack vocals from
She Done Him Wrong (Easy Rider)
Belle Of The Nineties (Memphis Blues/My Old Flame/ St. Louis Woman)
Klondike Annie (Mister Deep Blue Sea/I’m An Occidental Woman In An Oriental Mood For Love)
Everyday’s A Holiday (Mademoiselle Fifi)
plus 1950s studio vocals for Decca
They Call Me Sister Honky Tonk
A Guy What Takes His Time
My Daddy Rocks Me
and Mezzotone
Come Up And See Me Sometime
Slow Down
Pardon Me For Loving And Running
Put It Off Until Tomor­row
Frankie And Johnny
That’s All Brother, That’s All

Come Up And See Me Sometime
Mastersound CD DFCDI 113
features six Brunswick vocals
I’m No Angel
I Found A New Way To Go To Town
I Want You — I Need You
They Call Me Sister Honky Tonk
A Guy What Takes His Time
(I Wonder Where) My Easy Rider’s Gone
+ Paramount Movie Parade radio promotion for Belle Of The Nineties
+ two ex­tracts from The Chase And Sanborn Hour (December 12 1937)
+ five Mezzotone vocals
Frankie And Johnny
Come Up And See Me Sometime
My Man Friday
Imaginary Love
That’s All Brother, That’s All

 

Laser Discs

THE ULTIMATE MAE WEST COLLECTION
(MCA/Universal)
I’m No Angel
Night after Night
Belle of the Nineties
Klondike Annie

 

DVDs

MAE WEST – SCREEN GODDESS COLLECTION
I’m No Angel
She Done Him Wrong
Belle of the Nineties
Klondike Annie
My Little Chickadee
The Heat’s On
(UK₤49-99)

MAE WEST – THE GLAMOROUS COLLECTION
Go West, Young Man
Goin’ To Town
I’m No Angel
My Little Chickadee
Night after Night
(US$19-95)

SHE DONE HIM WRONG

I’M NO ANGEL

BELLE OF THE NINETIES

KLONDIE ANNIE

 

Advertisements

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: