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The Immortality Of Mae West
Nearly a century after she came on the scene, her wit, bravado, and sexuality are a bigger presence than ever
September 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 6
Her mother encouraged her to try a new tactic: write, produce, and star in her own plays. In 1926 she came up with Sex. (There were disputes, lawsuits, and oddly worded credits for so many of her plays and film scripts that it’s hard to know how much writing she actually did, but she certainly suggested themes, added dialogue, and had final control.) A melodrama featuring foreign settings, prostitution, and drugs, Sex created a scandal that landed her in jail. Thrilled at the publicity, she continued to churn out plays with shocking themes.
In 1928 she hit on the role that would make her Broadway and movie career, Diamond Lil, described by Emily Words Leider in her book Becoming Mae West as an “insouciant, insinuating, sashaying, tough-talking, sultry-voiced, golden-wigged, diamond-encrusted, bone-corseted, wasp-waisted, flaringhipped, and balloon-bosomed 18905 Bowery saloon hostess and singer.” The Gay Nineties atmosphere, costumes, and music delighted audiences, and Mae, dressed in flattering period gowns, looked a part of that era but put herself across as a contemporary woman by singing the new blues songs and openly expressing her sexual interest in men. The show ran nearly a year on Broadway and toured the country.
When she got word on the road that her mother was dying, she canceled all bookings, rushed home, and went into seclusion, emerging only to testify in a court case brought against her play Pleasure Man. The case was dismissed, but Mae shut down production anyway. Her best friend was gone, she was exhausted from touring and fighting legal battles, and she was broke. After three decades, she had still failed to achieve the stage success she craved.
The new talking pictures were a lucrative source of work for performers with strong personalities and good voices, but Hollywood had already rejected her both as a performer and as a writer. Top studio executives concluded in I9z8 that her stage persona would never work in movies. Her plays Sex, Pleasure Man, and Diamond LiI had been deemed “unsuitable for adaptation to the screen” by the Hays Office, the enforcer of motion-picture morality.
When she headed for Hollywood in 193z, it was not as a star but as a woman who desperately needed a job. Her former lover George Raft had wangled a small part for her in his new film, Night After Night. She insisted on rewriting her own lines for the scene that launched her film career. When she sweeps into Raft’s speakeasy, the check-room girl exclaims, “Goodness, what beautiful diamonds!” Mae replies: “Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie.” She was a sensation in her bit part. “She stole everything but the cameras,” said Raft. She was offered her own film, with total script control.
Determined to sneak Diamond LiI past censors who had already rejected it, she retitled it She Done Him Wrong, renamed her character Lady Lou, and had Paramount screen-writers cut out the most objectionable lines and situations. Censorship proved to be the undoing of Mae West, but it was the making of her too. Her sharp wit might never have surfaced in her movies if it hadn’t been for the Hays Office: “I didn’t start putting in all the wisecracks till I started pictures… the studios and the censors wouldn’t let me do certain things … and so with everybody weakening my drama, I figured I had to put some other element in.”
The film broke box-office records, earning more than two million dollars in three months and helping bring Paramount back from the brink of Depression bankruptcy. Sensing an imminent censorship crackdown, the studio rushed her second film, I’m No Angel, into production.