Mae West

Even if you know nothing about her life or career, you’ve probably spoken a line or two of hers. The lady in question is Mae West, possibly one of the most quotable actresses of all time.  ” Is that a pistol in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?” she purred to an LA police officer in 1936, as he escorted her home from a railway station. “When I’m good I’m very good. When I’m bad I’m better” she wisecracked in I’m No Angel (1933).

Mae West was a dynamic performer, ever so slightly ahead of her time, keeping the censors busy and leaving the easily offended with plenty to shudder about throughout her days in the spotlight. Liz Kenny has this story.

She was born Mary Jane West in 1893 in New York City, to a prizefighter father and corset model mother. This genetic combination of toughness and glamour would serve her well in life. Little Mary Jane hopped onto a stage aged five and was soon scooping up awards at talent contests, no doubt egged on by her mum, who told her everything she did was magnificent. In 1907, aged 14, she turned professional on the Vaudeville stage, acting, miming, singing and even male impersonations were the order of the day. By now she was performing under the name Baby Mae and revelling in the applause and attention.

Her career in Vaudeville continued throughout the Twenties until seeking a stronger outlet for her talents, Mae turned her hand to scriptwriting, penning her own works under the pseudonym Jane Mast.
Never afraid to attract a little attention, she wrote, directed and produced her own Broadway show in 1927 and decided to call it ‘Sex’.

The critics were appalled but unsurprisingly, such a provocative title ensured plenty of ticket sales and the show played to packed houses. That was, until the theatre was raided and the whole cast arrested. Mae was tried and sentenced to ten days in the pen, charged with “corrupting the morals of youth”. Taking it in her stride, she defiantly packed her silk underwear and boasted of having dinner with the warder and his wife. She eventually served eight days, with two off for good behaviour.

Being nobody’s fool, Mae knew, or soon realised that this kind of notoriety translated into free publicity, just the thing any aspiring performer needs. Unbowed, and amazingly modern for the time, her next play was to be about homosexuality and as she put it ” the comedy dramas of life” under the cheeky title of ‘Drag’. After previews in Connecticut and New Jersey, the ‘Society for the Prevention of Vice’ soon caught up and put a stop to it opening in New York City.

She went on to write several more plays, ‘The Wicked Age’, ‘Pleasure Man’ and ‘The Constant Sinner’ among them. Said Mae ” I do all my writing in bed ; everybody knows I do my best work there.” A steady stream of controversy ensured they were rarely out of the headlines and tickets sold out fast. Her most successful play was ‘Diamond Lil’ (1928) a BroadMae+West+039_68763MaeWestPostersway hit chronicling the adventures of a good time girl. She revived the play many times throughout her career, describing it as about ” a girl who lost her reputation, but never missed it.”

In 1932, at the ripe age of 38, Hollywood came knocking, and she was offered a contract with Paramount Pictures. Her film debut was Night After Night. She rewrote all of her scenes, including the infamous exchange, ” Goodness! What lovely diamonds!” – “Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie.”

She also had an eye for talent spotting and could be said to have kickstarted the career of heartthrob Cary Grant. Mae noticed him on the Paramount lot and insisted he was cast opposite her in She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel (both 1933), Grant’s first major film roles.

And so Mae now had the film world at her feet, her hits reviving the fortunes of Paramount and making her the highest paid woman in Thirties America. All was fine until 1934, when the Motion Picture Production Code came into force. This was a backlash against the supposedly loose morals feared to be corrupting the nation and meant all films and screenplays would have to be approved by a strict board of censors before they were judged fit for release.

This could’ve spelt the end of a career for Mae, it meant movies like It Ain’t No Sin were renamed with flowery titles like, Belle of the Nineties. But Mae soon found a way to work around this, the double-entendre was born! Said the lady herself, ” I believe in censorship, after all, I’ve made a fortune out of it.” It meant she could utter lines like “A hard man is good to find”, “When I’m good, I’m very good. When I’m bad, I’m better” and play innocent when challenged by the board of censors. Still her flirtacious mouth got her banned from NBC Radio in 1937. Possibly for quips like ” I always save one boyfriend for a rainy day….and another in case it doesn’t rain.”

Mae+West+maewestIn 1940 she wrote and starred in My Little Chickadee with WC Fields, the two hated each other, teetotal Mae finding Fields to be crude and vulgar. It was then she decided to make a return to the theatre where she could enjoy much more artistic freedom. She returned to film in the Seventies, co-starring in bizarre sex change comedy ‘Myra Breckinridge’ (1970) with Rachel Welch and making her last picture Sexette with Tony Curtis in 1978.

All in all she made a mere 7 films throughout her career, many adapted from her stage plays, but stole the show in each one with her wit and sharp humour. Such was her influence that a WW2 life jacket was named after her and it’s rumoured the Coca Cola bottle was modelled on her body shape. So many of her lines have now passed into popular culture: “Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere else” being just one, there are too many to list here, but it’s well worth looking them up.

Mae passed away from a stroke in 1980, at her home in Hollywood. Of her fearless, uncompromising career she said ” I freely chose the kind of life I led because I was convinced that a woman has as much right as a man to live the way she does if she does no actual harm to society.”

Mae West broke the mould as one of the first performers to write and produce her own material, still quite a rarity today. And in doing so never toned down her sexuality or femininity. Mae was an artist in complete control of her career, or as she put it herself ” A dame who knows the ropes isn’t likely to get tied up.” One heck of a vintage role model.

3 Responses

  1. A-belle

    Mae West has been a huge role model of mine for a while, thanks for sharing! I always liked “Between two evils, I generally like to pick the one I never tried before.”