Mae West has two kinds of fans today. Those who relish her wit, exemplified in dozens of one liners familiar still from her films of the 1930s (see below). And those who associate her with sexual frankness and lack of hypocrisy; a tough moll who created the ‘sex symbol’ role, not because men foisted it on her to fuel their fantasies, but as an astute career move. A dumpy, plain woman with an overbite and only five foot tall (high heels were important to her), she dressed and acted as though she had the natural attributes of Marilyn Monroe, and made the whole process of sexual fantasy look slightly ridiculous (it probably is when it becomes public). She might have said: “It ain’t so much what ya got. It’s more what ya do wid it!”.
In the late 1920s, when she herself was in her mid thirties and on her way to the top, Mae West spoke out against prejudice shown to gay people, oppression against women, and exploitation of the poor. She wrote and starred in a number of controversial plays that bought the world and concerns of prostitutes, black people of African heritage, and transexuals to mainstream audiences. The public nature of what she did, and the consequent jail sentences she served, changed the ball game as far as these groups were concerned. Although she was strictly business, which meant selling tickets, Mae West spoke for these groups 40 years before the rest of the world caught up.
The 1920s was a pretty uninhibited time in Hollywood. When producers introduced their Production Code they did so because they were worried about scandals that involved actors and directors. They didn’t care what these people got up to, even when they were murdered, but they did care if box office receipts were to be affected. The Code dates from 1930, but was only really enforced from 1934.
Mae West worked by parodying both the behaviour that led to scandals and the naive censoriousness that condemned such behaviour (such as the Code). This was only possible pre Code. So West had an effective career as a satirist from 1926, when her play Sex was produced, to her 1934 film with Cary Grant, I’m No Angel. It lasted a mere nine years and comprised six plays (some not produced) and three films. After the Code kicked in, West was limited to the saucy double entendre, willowy hip sway and suggestive wiggle of the eyebrows that Groucho Marx did as well, a parody of a parody. Censorship didn’t worry Mae West any. She was always more interested in making money than in fighting causes, which she did strictly for business reasons. She said later she had nothing against censorship: “I made a fortune from it!”.
But before looking at Mae West’s effect on sexual prejudice, called ‘morality’, let’s be clear about what’s involved here. This is not just behaviour. It’s public behaviour. And, predominately, it’s how public behaviour affects markets. We tend to think of markets as being just us. For me that’s white, middle class urban sophisticates. But there are other markets. Marketers don’t discriminate. There are black (Afro-American), homosexual, racial minorities, addicts to various substances, minors, and mentally challenged markets. And probably more.
And we’re talking about disturbing a market to the point where they may no longer spend. That’s the long and short of it. Mae West’s acts should have lost money, they offended so many people. They did at first, but she became a star eventually. Why?
When a well known photographer exhibits photo prints of children in which their sexual organs are visible, what’s at stake? Not the safety of children. Sexual organs are not a mystery, and people who prey on children sexually will not be affected one way or the other by the sight of these photos (as they are fantasists, they may even find them a deterrent). What’s affected is our complacent, middle class, white, self concept as a sophisticated urban dweller. We’re not interested in considering the sexuality of children, nor the difference between the essentially innocent sexuality of children and the cynical attitude of the sexually exploited. We want them to be innocent, asexual, and the sight of their sex organs stops us from doing this. The photos are a confrontation with our prejudices. And we might not buy photo prints.
Nude female models once had their sex organs and pubic hair air brushed out of sight in photographs for the same reason. To avoid confrontation. Women were somehow ‘pure’, not beings with pubic hair. A whole generation of furtive young boys who saw these pictures were firmly convinced childbirth had something to do with the navel, with repercussions that probably affected an entire generation of women. Ask a woman with a health problem affecting her genitals how much research is done into female sexual functioning. Not much; too many male doctors think the area unimportant.
The shady area though is the public arena, of newspapers, books, theatre and films. What we feel privately is one thing, what we discuss publicly another. Homosexuality was fine in Victorian England (Oscar Wilde’s lover Bosie had a brother whose lover was the Prime Minister), but publicly exhibited homosexuality had to be swept from sight. Nobody wanted a flamboyant, witty one like Wilde on the scene. But there are many who think it better to debate such matters than put them out of sight, and the ‘morality’ of either stance is still a subject of controversy.
And not just sex. Depictions of violence in the media are thought by some people today to foster violence in society in a simple cause and effect way. These folk want to dismiss the difference between exploration of a problem and its exploitation, between violence in an art form and violence in a society. The extent to which this suppression of discussion changes anything is debatable. Censorship has no effect on anything. It makes some people more comfortable, and it’s good for sales, but it doesn’t stop problems.
Mae West learned to handle the consternation her satires caused by overdoing her role as the sexually frank woman, to the point of travesty. That way, she said what she wanted, and got a laugh as well.
It’s interesting to learn that depictions of sex and violence were issues in America in the 1910s and 1920s as well, the era Mae West grew up in. She came from Brooklyn working class stock and was in the theatre from 1900, age seven. Victorian reformers were then busy preaching the idea of female (not male) purity at a time when young people were discovering their own sub culture. It was cheesy vaudeville and burlesque shows, the clothes worn by performers in those shows, and the syncopated rhythms of jazz and honky-tonk. It mixed black, segregated cultures from Africa with white European ones. Not that different to the 1950s and the sub culture of rock and roll, really. In Mae West’s day there were many rebels without a cause. She was one of them.
West claimed her 1926 play Sex was inspired by the plight of a dockside prostitute who, she was told, probably charged her customers 50 cents a time. West was furious about the woman’s plight. Not about her being a prostitute. About how little money she received for her services, and what that meant for the quality of her life. She was most indignant at the tatty finery of the woman’s clothes. It was the reaction of a woman who had led a comparatively protected life, protected because she knew how to negotiate for what she wanted.
Her play was originally called The Albatross, written by John J Byrne and revised by Mary Jane (“Mae”) West, Adeline Leitzbach, with further revisions made by its director, Edward Eisner. The author was registered as Jane Mast. It was a cash in on a hot topic. Several controversial plays had done well at that time. Lulu Belle of 1926, about a mulatto prostitute who sleeps her way to the top; and The Shanghai Gesture of the same year, about a Chinese prostitute who owns a gambling den and battles a British millionaire. This later play was written by John Colton, who earlier, in 1922, had adapted Somerset Maugham’s story Rain for the theatre.
Hollywood cashed in as well, and the following films were all about prostitutes: 1928 The Fleet’s In with Clara Bow (similar plot, but the film’s lost); 1932 Rain with Joan Crawford; 1932 Shanghai Express with Marlene Dietrich; 1932 Red Headed Woman showing new star Jean Harlow and a character who amorally sleeps her way to the top; 1933 Baby Face with Barbara Stanwyck. And Frank Capra’s 1933 film The Bitter Tea of General Yen, with Barbara Stanwyck, dealt frankly with sexual passion.
West’s play wasn’t daring, as a play about prostitutes might be today. Instead it was blatant. Mae West sneered her lines in a provocative way, and danced the same way in a number right out of burlesque (ancestor of the strip show). This focused critics’ attention on Mae West, as she had intended, and they didn’t like her. The show had the kind of bad reviews that sent people running for tickets. West had a quality she shared with Humphrey Bogart: insolence. Director Howard Hawks told Bogart he was the most insolent man he ever met. Don’t know what he though of Mae West, but she definitely had the same quality. She drawled out her lines and defied you to object to them. Mostly nobody did.
In Sex, which was set mainly in a brothel, a group of women come into conflict over their responsibility for straying husbands. Margy, a prostitute (West) berates a society madam:
“MARGY: …You’ve got the kind of stuff in you that makes women of my type. If our positions were changed – you in my place, and I in yours – I’d be willing to bet that I’d make a better wife and mother than you are. Yeah, and I’ll bet without this beautiful home, without money, and without any restrictions, you’d be worse than I have ever been…The only difference between us is that you could afford to give it away”.
Literature it wasn’t. Angry it was. The play ran for a year to quite full houses, but was finally closed on a morals charge. It was great publicity for the next play.
That play was The Drag of 1927, about a gay man whose affair with another man is discovered, ruining him socially and leading to his murder. The matter is discussed at a gay party, and during the party some female impersonators put on a show. Although the issues the play is concerned with, about sexual identity and the right to express it when it doesn’t conform to social norms, are ones that have since been explored, and in some societies accepted, this was an explosive topic in 1927 America. The play premiered out of state but never made it off or on Broadway. Another closure on moral grounds.
The social issues discussed in the play, against prejudice towards homosexuals, tended to be lost sight of as the play progressed, audiences remembering the party scenes and the drag show that went on. West went into gay bars all over New York and recruited 60 female impersonators, and their scenes in full makeup, revealing dresses, and bitchy and raunchy comments, stole the show. This was an act then seen in disreputable burlesque shows in seamy bars. West was trying to take it to Broadway, which considered itself more respectable. Audiences there had never seen homosexual men in drag before. It might have been a good idea to cross fertilise two theatrical traditions. But it never had a chance.
Like Sex, The Drag was an exercise in marketing rather than literature. In some ways West was years ahead of the frowsy debate her two plays engendered, whether the drama should be morally uplifting or attempt to show life ‘realistically’. West later claimed that her look, and the way she walked, was modelled on the dress and behaviour of some of these female impersonators. If so, this was the point at which she ceased to be a raunchy burlesque performer and became “Mae West”.
West kept on trying, searching for recognition she felt was her due after 20 unsuccessful years in vaudeville. She reworked The Drag, calling it The Pleasure Man, and made it a play about heterosexuals, cross dressers rather than gays, yet it still got raided and closed down by the authorities. Charges of corrupting youthful audiences, predominately young female audiences, were eventually dismissed. West spent time in jail for three of her plays. When interviewed, she denied everything. She had made nothing up she said. She also claimed that prison garb was uncomfortable, and said she insisted on keeping her silk panties. Sheer bravado, for she had no idea if this was the end of her career or not.
Later in 1927 West tried a less controversial subject, a play called The Wicked Age, about a young woman, then called a flapper, who runs away from restrictive home life, wins a beauty contest, and enjoys the hotspots of New York. This one wasn’t closed on a morals charge. It flopped. So apart from some notoriety, West had apparently got nowhere on Broadway as well. But things were about to change.
West’s 1928 play was called Diamond Lil. It was set thirty years in the past, a safe distance in time with which to treat of crime, corruption, sex, and, yes, love. Lil owns a dance hall and traffics in drugs. She meets a Salvation Army man who tries to convert her, finds out he is an undercover cop, but instead of arresting her, he falls in love with her, and they live happily ever after. A play about underworld characters in the Bowery district of New York’s Manhattan, it was produced the same year as Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera about Mack the Knife. The play was a hit on Broadway, made a national tour, and was eventually a film called She Done Him Wrong, made in 1933.
Mae West had at last found the winning combination, a mix of nostalgia, melodrama and parody. It was to turn her into a legend. Contemporary sex and violence, crime, addiction and homosexuality were all too confronting. They were worlds West was aware of from her Brooklyn roots, but audiences found the reality of her earlier plays a bit too shocking. But 30 years earlier the same worlds looked a bit quaint. And West’s strong sexuality was masked by nineties fashions and hair styles.
With Diamond Lil doing well at the box office, West turned to fiction in 1929, writing a novel, later dramatised, called The Constant Sinner. In this work she examined the racism of her day, and ridiculed it unmercifully. The heroine takes a black lover, and all the fantasies white people of the 30s had about Afro Americans, and their male sexual potency, about the threat to white racial purity from miscegenation, about primitive lust, were exploded and made fun of in West’s pages. The ‘threat’ is unfailingly described in terms of highflown Victorian melodrama that makes it all sound ludicrous.
The play, staged in 1930, was a much tamer product. After the success of Diamond Lil West seemed reluctant to court the controversy which seemed to follow all her productions. The play The Constant Sinner was played with a white actor in the black role, and with West herself on the sidelines for a change. Predictably it flopped. Once more everything seemed to melt away. West was left with nothing but a bad reputation with the critics. But she had a friend who was to prove instrumental in positively changing her career.
George Raft was a strong arm henchman of a powerful underworld figure in the 1920s; he had taken bit parts in movies, and unexpectedly became a star and a matinee idol. He knew West because his boss had put up funds for several of West’s plays; Raft now suggested to Paramount Pictures that West would be good for a small part in a movie they were starring him in, called Night After Night. Paramount hired her. With no movie experience at all, West took over the set. She rewrote her part, added one liners, directed her scenes, and, as Raft said, stole everything but the cameras. Quite suddenly, she was a film star. The public loved her.
West was to make ten films in the next ten years, the Production Code gradually squeezing more and more life out of her films. Most of the well known sayings of West come from the films, where she was not allowed to be so outrageous as she had been on Broadway. But she was a lot wittier.
Night After Night of 1932, her first film, spawned the famous exchange: “Goodness, what beautiful diamonds!”. “Goodness had nothing to do with it dearie!” She Done Him Wrong of 1933 made a star of male lead Cary Grant, and contains the famous lines: “Is that a pistol in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?”, as well as: “When women go wrong, men go right after them”. Later that same year of 1933 I’m No Angel had West guying her ‘sexy’ persona: “When I’m good I’m very, very good, but when I’m bad I’m better”, as well as “It’s not the men in your life that matters, it’s the life in your men”. In Belle of the Nineties of 1934 West’s character says: “A man in the house is worth two in the street” and “Some of the wildest men make the best pets”. Klondike Annie of 1936 has: “Whenever I’m caught between two evils, I take the one I’ve never tried”, as well as “It’s better to be looked over, than overlooked”. And My Little Chickadee of 1940: “I generally avoid temptation, unless I can’t resist it.” (reminds me of Oscar Wilde, who said, “I can resist anything, except temptation”).
Mae West discussed sex and racial and sexual prejudice in her plays of the 1920s, and it was very distressing and disturbing to a rather complacent audience. So they stopped her. And she still laughed all the way to the bank.
She survived by self consciously adopting a role. It was the streetwise tough girl of her teenage years, but by making it theatrical she made it more than a role, much more. West came from a working class district where brothels openly plied their trade, where drugs were freely available, where black and white shared a musical culture in hundreds of jazz bars, where the gay subculture was visible and tolerated. West proclaimed that sex was just a role we all play at times. And she became for some women at least a support for those times when they preferred not to be sexually desirable, which after all is a responsible role to play, for all the fact that it’s often fun. She spoke also for black people, whose heritage was in Africa and not recognised at that time, and for people who were not happy with their sexual identity and sought to change it. She spoke purely for commercial reasons, but she spoke, and that made a difference. West cross fertilised some of the then segregated cultures in America and helped the process of toleration and enrichment that a multicultural society brings.
At the heart of her act was a protest, one based on experience of poverty and struggle. She spoke out at first against oppression that left poor people with few resources and no opportunities. Like her contemporary Sophie Tucker she could say: “I’ve been poor and I’ve been rich: rich is better”. She was determined to be rich because she knew there was no future in being poor. She hated the hypocrisy that lectured the poor about their ‘vice’, while the same people exploited them economically and left them nothing else to make life tolerable.
We all have a self concept. Some have more than one. No matter who you think you are, it’s a little disturbing to think it’s only a role. Weak and strong, successful and a failure, sexually powerful or a bit of a wimp. All the world’s a stage and all the people players. Those like Mae West let us see we can always look for a better part: and anyway, it’s not the role but the way it’s played that’s important.
©2013 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.