22 July 2017

Mae West - anyone for sex?!

Mae West (1893–1980) was born in Brooklyn, the daughter of a professional boxer. She made her first ap­pearance in Vaude­ville at 14, under the name Baby Mae. But although she always wanted to work in show business profess­ion­ally, her parents had her trained for a career as a garment worker instead. Per­haps that was why underage lass and the vaudeville song-and-dance man Frank Wallace were secretly mar­ried by a justice of the peace in Milwaukee in 1911.

Mae West got her big break in 1918 in the revue Sometime. Her character, Mayme, danced the shimmy, a brazen sexy dance that shook the top half of the female body. As more parts came her way, West began to shape her characters, often rewriting dialogue or character descriptions to better suit her roles. She eventually began writing her own plays, initially using the pen name Jane Mast.

Fame arrived with the play Sex, a provocatively titled Broadway production that “Jane Mast” wrote, produced and starred in. Mae cast herself in the role of a prostit­ute named Margie La Monte who wanted to improve her life by finding a well-to-do man to marry. 325,000 people flocked to the theatre to see Sex, once the season debuted in late 1926.

One night in Feb 1927 the puritanical New York city authorities decided to raid the theatre and arrest West and some of the other actors. Apparently fearing that Sex corrupted the morals of the youth, West was charged with obscenity, and sentenced to ten days in gaol on Welfare-Roos­ev­elt Island. She travelled there in style, garlanded in roses and riding in a limousine.

The sentence went re­m­arkably well: She dined with the warden, who she charmed; excited the press with cheeky tales of how she wore her silk undies in her cell; and was even all­owed out two days early for exemp­lary behaviour. In fact, she attracted so much media attention that her career was greatly enhanced, not diminished by her prison days.

Her great gift was her ability to satirise the prevailing soc­ial attitudes then, particularly America’s prudish public att­itude towards sex. That West had become a glamorous American sex symbol of the inter-war years suggested that she never shied away from taboo-breaking naughtin­ess. And got away with it!

One of Mae West's spectacular costumes in the film
I'm No Angel, 1933

West found further notoriety from her three sub­sequent plays: a] Drag 1927 (later renamed The Pleasure Man for Broadway), a play dealing with homosexuality; b] Diamond Lil 1928, which established her signature character in her later career; and c] The Constant Sin­ner 1931, which was shut down after just two performances by the district att­orney. The Pleasure Man ran for only one showing before also being shut down after West and the cast were arrested for obscenity, but this time getting off thanks to a hung jury.

Her plays showed how West could claim power within the con­fines of being a woman and a sex worker in the 1920s. In the plays, every woman was reduced to offering sex – that’s why it her first play was called Sex. But claiming power was not only ON the stage. Mae West was such a big star that she really did control­ her own image. If she could hold control in her own hands, then other women stars could do it too. Iron­ic­ally her naughty plays made the rising star not only fam­ous, but also one of the highest paid women in the USA.

Her controversies and successes soon drew the attention of Hol­lywood executives and it was only then that she took her bawdy app­roach across the country to Hollywood. Despite being 38 at the time, when glamour actresses started to wind down their car­eers, West found herself starting a movie career. Para­mount Pic­tures off­ered her a contract at $5,000 a week!! They also let her re-write her lines in the films.

Mae West looked wonderful and sounded witty

Night After Night, her first film, started in 1932.  A young handsome Cary Grant was her leading man in her second film, She Done Him Wrong  (1933) I'm No Angel (1933) was Mae West's third motion picture, again with Cary Grant. West received sole story and screenplay credit! Made before the "Hays Code" landed with a shudder in mid-1934., these were the three Mae West films that were not heavily censored. Thus it was on the silver screen that West reached the greatest heights of her fame.

Even on radio in the mid-late 1930s, her clever double-entendre lines and sly delivery got Mae West into trouble eg when she appeared alongside Don Ameche and Charlie McCarthy in 1937 in a popular NBC radio variety programme. The Radio Act had given the Federal Communications Commission the power of grant­ing licenses to broadcasters, which in turn largely controlled content. Featuring Mae West on a Sunday evening radio show tested the limits of what The Legion of Dec­ency and others were prepared to tolerate. In response, the FCC opened an in­vestigation and reprimanded NBC on the grounds of indecency. So NBC barred West from ANY network programmes; she would not return to radio again until 1950.

Nonetheless Mae West was still performing in her old age, with her last major production being the 1978 Sex­tette musical. She died in 1980 at 87 from a stroke.

Her sex appeal influenced culture all around the world, and can still be seen today: her image appeared on the cover of the Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; her lips inspired Sal­vador Dali’s iconic Mae West Lips Sofa; and during WW2 the life vests worn by Allied Air Force personnel were nicknamed Mae Wests. I love the name of her 1959 autobiography - Goodness Had Nothing To Do With It. And I loved her explanation for her success - “I climbed the ladder of success wrong by wrong”.


Andrew said...

Wasn't she just wonderful. Some people make great changes to society by negotiation, letter writing etc, all in a very reasonable manner, but some make great changes to society by rattling the bars and shaking the foundations. Both can be respected.

Deb said...

"When I'm good, I'm very good. But when I'm bad, I'm better." Did she write all her clever lines herself?

Ann ODyne said...

Ms West was wonderful. A monument. and she wrote the films and plays.
(I have copy of GHNToDoWithIt)
"My goodness dear, - those diamonds!"
"Goodness, my dear, had nothing to do with it"
Cary Grant's staircase scene is legend, as she looked him up and down in his Salvationist uniform -
"Why don't you ...
come-up and see me ... sometime."

Thanks Hels for putting her into my head today.
[goes off singing "Oh I wish that I could shimmy like my sister Kate ..."]

bazza said...

Sex sells! What a fabulous lady, and very important for the advancement of women and liberal attitudes. I resisted the temptation to make puns on lots of this post (eg, I didn't want to say anything about a well-hung jury - oops, I said it).
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s luminous Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Hels said...


The ordinary punter going to the cinema was not anxious about sex on screen. But the Motion Picture Production Code was the set of industry moral guidelines that was applied to films released by major studios from 1930 on. This Will Hays Code, the work the president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, was vigorously enforced from 1934 on, presumably because they saw Mae West's She Done Him Wrong (1933) and I'm No Angel (1933) and immediately loathed her.

Joseph Breen was the administrator appointed by Hays to enforce the code in Hollywood, the man who drove Mae West mad with imprisonment and censorship. Yet you are correct.... people like Mae West managed to make great changes to society. Even gaol did not destroy her strong will.

Hels said...


Mental Floss wrote that Dorothy Parker's famous lines are sometimes attributed to Mae West and vice-versa. The two were born in exactly the same year, both wrote screenplays and both were known for their sharp wit. I cannot tell which woman wrote which quote, but the lines are still clever 80 years later.

“Is that a pistol in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?"
Apparently West made this remark in 1936, at the Los Angeles railway station upon her return from Chicago, when a Los Angeles police officer was assigned to escort her home.

Hels said...


great choice! Cary Grant/Captain Cummings was a Salvation Army man of honour who set up business next door to Mae West/Lady Lou's saloon. Lou believes it is unbelievable that the sexy captain isn't simply a man to tempt ..thus your great line "Come up sometime and see me." The good captain is not a man of God, as it happens. But it all works out well (if unbelievably) in the end.

Hels said...


sex certainly does sell! Steven Roberts in The New York Times said two movies made Mae West very famous and VERY rich. In 1934 she earned $340,000 and the next year $481,000, the second highest salary in the country, exceeded only by that of the very nasty William Randolph Hearst.

Here is another West quotation for you to pun on: "To err is human, but it feels divine" :)

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I have seen some of Mae West's movies, and beneath the jokes and shenanigans, she had the proverbial "heat of gold" as well as a surprisingly strict personal moral code (including fighting for the underdog).

Hels said...


A strict personal moral code was the very thing that the Hays Code (I would call it rigorous censorship controlled by the Government and the Catholic Church) tried so hard to enforce. But what the Code people meant by morality was preventing naked skin and overt sexuality. What West meant was supporting honesty, women's rights and gay rights.

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