Thursday, October 29, 2009
Women Who Dare - Mae West
Known for her bawdy double entendres, West made a name for herself in Vaudeville and on the stage in New York before moving to Hollywood to become a comedienne, actress and writer in the motion picture industry. One of the more controversial stars of her day, West encountered many problems including censorship.
Mae West remains notable for a large number of quips, some firmly tied to herself and her characters, and others widely borrowed for very different settings. A famous Mae West quip was "Is that a pistol in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?" She made this remark in February 1936, at the railway station in Los Angeles upon her return from Chicago, when a Los Angeles police officer was assigned to escort her home. She first delivered the line on film in She Done Him Wrong, and again to George Hamilton in her last movie, Sextette (1978).
In her later years, she famously described the gangster Owney Madden, a former boyfriend who helped bankroll her Hollywood career, as "Sweet, but oh so vicious".
Likewise, "When I'm good, I'm very good. When I'm bad, I'm better", from I'm No Angel, is generally quoted with its original, faintly disreputable meaning. Conversely, however, some quips have been widely adapted to very different settings and meanings. For example, "Too much of a good thing can be wonderful" has been applied to many settings by others, including Warren Buffett (as a sound principle of informed financial investing).
In 1932, West was offered a motion picture contract by Paramount Pictures. She was 38, unusually advanced for a first movie, especially for a sex symbol (though she kept her age ambiguous for several more years). West made her film debut in Night After Night starring George Raft. At first, she did not like her small role in Night After Night, but was appeased when she was allowed to rewrite her scenes. In West's first scene, a hat check girl exclaims, "Goodness, what lovely diamonds." West replies, "Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie." Reflecting on the overall result of her rewritten scenes, Raft is said to have remarked, "She stole everything but the cameras."
She brought her Diamond Lil character, now renamed Lady Lou, to the screen in She Done Him Wrong (1933). The film is also notable as one of Cary Grant's first major roles, which boosted his career. West claimed she spotted Grant at the studio and insisted that he be cast as the male lead. The film was a box office hit and earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. The success of the film most likely saved Paramount from bankruptcy.
Her next release, I'm No Angel (1933), paired her with Grant again. I'm No Angel was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. It was a tremendous financial blockbuster. By 1933, West was the eighth-largest U.S. box office draw in the United States and, by 1935, the second-highest paid person in the United States (after William Randolph Hearst). However, the frank sexuality and steamy settings of her films aroused the wrath of moralists. On July 1, 1934, the censorship of the Production Code began to be seriously and meticulously enforced, and her screenplays were heavily edited. Her tactical response was to increase the number of double entendres in her films, expecting the censors to delete the obvious lines and overlook the subtle ones.
West's next film was Belle of the Nineties (1934). Originally titled It Ain't No Sin, the title was changed due to the censors' objection. Her next film, Goin' To Town (1935), received mixed reviews.
Her next film, Klondike Annie (1936), was concerned with religion and hypocrisy and was very controversial. Many critics have called this film her screen masterpiece. That same year, West played opposite Randolph Scott in Go West, Young Man. In this film, she adapted Lawrence Riley's Broadway hit Personal Appearance into a screenplay. Directed by Henry Hathaway, Go West, Young Man is considered one of West's weaker films of the era. After this film, West starred in Every Day's a Holiday (1937) for Paramount before their association came to an end.
In 1939, Universal Pictures approached West to star in a film opposite W. C. Fields. The studio was eager to duplicate the success of Destry Rides Again starring Marlene Dietrich and James Stewart with a vehicle starring West and Fields. Having left Paramount eighteen months earlier and looking for a comeback film, West accepted the role of Flower Belle Lee in the film My Little Chickadee (1940). Despite on-set tension between West and Fields (West, who was a teetotaler, disapproved of Fields' drinking)] and fights over the screenplay, My Little Chickadee was a box office success, outgrossing Fields' previous films You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939) and The Bank Dick (1940).
West's next film was The Heat's On (1943) for Columbia Pictures. She initially didn't want to do the film but after producer and director Gregory Ratoff pleaded with her and claimed he would go bankrupt if she didn't, West relented. The film opened to bad reviews and failed at the box office. West would not return to films until 1970.
I first discovered Mae West when I was twelve or thirteen. I was fascinated by her. Her blond hair. The clothes she wore in her movies. The way she talked. The way walked. She was bold; she was beautiful; she was brash; and she always got what she wanted. I would sit for a couple of hours and watch two or three of her movies in a row. I couldn't get enough. I still can't get enough. I still enjoy those movies. And whnever I get a chance I will watch them. Over and over. A truly bold, beautiful, confident woman, who dared. Mae West.