08 June 2011

The Entertainers: Mae West

By Delia DeLeest

"Give a Man a Free Hand and He'll Run It All Over You." - Mae West

First there was theater, then vaudeville, then the silent pictures. Many stars of the stage, both in legitimate theater and from vaudeville made a successful transition to silent pictures, but there were those who looked upon the new medium with suspicion and chose not to make the transition. Still others were waiting for bigger and better things. Mae West was one of the later.
Born in or around 1893 (she kept mum on the exact year), Mae West started on the live stage at a young age and when the 1920’s rolled around, those wild and crazy years seemed made to order for this brash, sexual young woman. She soon branched out from simply acting on the stage to writing plays of her own, her first being the notoriously, yet aptly named, “Sex”. Arrest and conviction on morals charges not only didn’t slow her down, but she basked in the free publicity.

By 1928, her fourth full-length Broadway play “Diamond Lil” drew rave reviews, but didn’t send Hollywood rushing out to wave movie contracts in her face. The infamous Hays Code, Hollywood’s self imposed morals police, banned the play as unsuitable for the screen. Mae wasn’t interested anyway. She was all about what you heard and how you heard it and wouldn’t translate well on the
silent movie title cards. But, then came the talkies.

Through the promptings of her friend, matinee idol, George Raft, Paramount pictures signed Mae to a two week contract to play a bit part in George’s upcoming melodrama, Night After Night. Mae changed her lines and practically directed her scene herself, which led to her infamous big screen debut. Gliding into a nightclub in a skintight dress, she passes her wrap to a coat check girl who gasps, “goodness, what beautiful diamonds!” to which Mae replies in her signature nasal drawl, “goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie.” The screen itself almost burst into flames. Mae West had arrived in Hollywood.

After that movie stealing scene, Paramount was more than eager to sign Mae to a long term contract. Almost single handedly, Mae’s movies pulled the studio, struggling during the depression, from near-bankruptcy to solvency, and Mae into one of the most famous women in America. Of course, making a Mae West movie wasn’t an easy way to make money, the studio had to deal with the men enforcing the Hays Code. These enforcers would carefully examine every script Hollywood planned to produce. They would mark any scenes not conforming to their idea of morality and any word or phrase that didn’t pass the decency code. Since Mae wrote many of her own scripts and was a very smart woman, she could get her scripts passed with a minimum of corrections, but only because Mae could turn something that looked totally innocent written down on a piece of paper into a eye rolling, snickering innuendo with merely her delivery. Once the Hays men saw what they thought was a relatively innocent comedy turned into, for that time, a spicy, slightly raunchy laugh fest, they started cracking down on the edgy Miss West.

Once the production code and censorship people got a hold of her movies, they turned them into sanitary, whitewashed versions of Mae’s original visions. The more sanitized the movies became, the less the public was interested in them.

Frustrated with upper level meddling, Mae left Hollywood as soon as she was able, recaptured her image and put it back on the stage, this time in a city made in her image, Las Vegas.
Mae had a resurgence in popularity in the free-wheeling days of the 60’s and 70’s and made two more movies, both of them wincingly campy. Despite her new title as The Queen of Camp, Mae’s inimitable delivery of her wonderful double entendres have made her still famous and oft quoted even today, over thirty years after her death.

Delia DeLeest is fascinated by all things 1920s. She suspects she was once a flapper or, more probably, a bootlegger in a previous life. Her third 1920s era book, NOT LOOKING FOR TROUBLE, is available now from The Wild Rose Press.