Thursday, August 22, 2013

Classics: A Retrospective of Mae West By Lauren Ennis

Is that a pistol in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?
Despite the many new freedoms that America offered women in the 1920’s, entertainment remained a male dominated medium. The door for women in comedy was kicked open, however, by the arrival of a brassy blonde who knew how to drop lines laced with innuendo as well as any man, and didn’t know how to take ‘no’ for an answer; Mae West. From her beginnings on the vaudeville circuit to her twilight years as a Las Vegas sensation, West proved herself to be a trend-setting entertainer and set the stage for the numerous female comediennes who came after her. West’s reign as the queen of cutting edge for over fifty years proved that too much of a good thing truly is wonderful.

West was born Mary Jane West to boxer “Battling” Jack West and former corset model Matilda West on August 17, 1893 in Brooklyn, New York. Throughout her childhood, West was known for being a headstrong and willful child with a talent for mimicry. In order to both entertain her own lost dreams of fame, and channel her daughter’s energies into something constructive, Matilda began entering Mae in amateur talent contests at local burlesque theaters at age seven. These local performances enabled West to attain her legendary stage presence and proved to be the start of a successful performing career. She began to perform professionally at age fourteen and tried her hand at various vaudeville personas including drag king and minstrel “coon shouter”. While on a burlesque tour of the Midwest, West met and began a relationship with fellow performer Frank Wallace. The two were eventually married in secret, as West was only seventeen and under the legal age of consent. The marriage legally lasted until 1935, although it was over in West’s mind when she began a relationship with another performer the next year. She eventually graduated to Broadway and was featured as a sexy “vamp” in such shows as Vera Violette and A Winsome Widow before finally getting her big break in the Shubert Brothers’ Broadway Revue, in which she performed a scandalous shimmy.

Eager to challenge herself, West soon began writing and producing as well as performing in plays. Her first play, Sex, was written under her pen-name “Jane Mast” and premiered in 1926. The play told the tale of a Montreal prostitute who tries to sleep her way to the top of the social ladder. Although panned by critics, the play became a controversial hit through its combination of racy humor and sharp social commentary. The play gained even more publicity for West and the rest of the cast after the acting mayor of New York, Joseph McKee, ordered that the show be raided on charges of public indecency. West was sentenced to ten days in jail, but only served eight after having her sentenced lightened for good behavior. While West’s stint in prison had little effect on her morale, it led to Sex gaining even more notoriety, and becoming one of the most infamous productions of the 1920’s.

She followed up her debut success by writing another, even more controversial play; The Drag.  The story was considered shocking for its frank portrayal of homosexuality and cross dressing, and as a result was barred from opening on Broadway by the Society for the Prevention of Vice. The success of West’s later plays (The Constant Sinner, Pleasure Man, and The Wicked Age) prompted Hollywood to take notice, and led to her being cast in the George Raft film Night After Night. Although initially distraught at the small size of her role, she used her part to the greatest possible advantage and later won the lead role in the comedy She Done Him Wrong. The film was also the first leading role for Paramount contract player Cary Grant, and is credited with starting his film career. The film became such a massive box office success that it saved Paramount Studios from the verge of bankruptcy. West went on to star in several more films at Paramount throughout the 1930’s before the advent of the Hollywood Production Code forced her to sanitize her scripts. The Production Code, also known as the Hays Code, was a censorship code put in place by Hollywood executives after facing pressure from various religious and morality groups. Although many pre-code films dealt with adult topics, West’s films were by far the industry’s most open in their approach to sexuality. As a result, her films were forced to undergo numerous changes after the code was put in place and lost much of the risqué humor that had made them so popular. By the end of the 1930’s, the effects of the Production Code had led to a steady decline in her career, prompting her to return to her stage roots.

Why don't you come up and see me sometime?
Following her successful run in Hollywood in the 1930’s, West performed her material in various other mediums. Her foray into radio ended disastrously in 1939 after her sketch on The Chase and Sanborn Hour was deemed “vulgar and indecent” by the FCC, despite the fact that the sketch utilized the same humor that West had built her career upon nearly twenty years earlier. The incident prompted NBC to ban her from the station permanently and crushed any hopes she had of becoming a success in radio. Never one to go down without a fight, she  made a comeback career with a Las Vegas nightclub act in the 1950’s that revitalized much of her classic comedy material. She retired from the stage in 1959 and published her biography Goodness Had Nothing To Do With It, which recounted her experiences working in show business. She went on to make guest appearances in various television shows throughout the 1960’s and even made two parody rock albums. She briefly returned to film with 1970’s Myra Breckinridge and 1978’s Sextette (based upon one of her 1930’s stage scripts). Although both films were panned by audiences and critics alike, they have since become camp classics. West died on November 22, 1980 at age 87 of complications following her second stroke and was buried in her native Brooklyn.

West proved that she could walk the walk as well as talk the talk by living a personal life that was almost as controversial as her professional life. For instance, while the United States remained a racially polarized nation throughout her lifetime, she refused to let race interfere with her pursuit of romance. During her relationship with African American boxer William Jones, West became infuriated when she realized that her apartment building's staff barred African Americans. In order to remedy the issue and teach the staff a lesson, she proceeded to buy the building herself and institute a new, racially equal ,set of rules. She also openly supported the gay community at a time when the mere mention of homosexuality was grounds for scandal. In her play, The Drag, she called for tolerance from mainstream society and denounced society's hypocrisy in encouraging homosexuals to lead deceptive double lives while shunning those with the courage to be open about their sexual orientation. She also considered herself a supporter of women's liberation, although she declinded restricting herself to any labels, including 'feminist'. In various stage and screen performances she used humor to challenge traditional gender roles and suggest that women could be just as happy with a career as with a home and family. Furthermore, through the success of her own career, she provided women with an example of what career women could achieve with hard work and innovation.

Though not the first, Mae West was certainly the most memorable of Hollywood’s blonde bombshells. With her signature saucy wit, she was able to challenge her audience’s moral and social views, while still keeping them entertained. She made a career out of breaking society’s rules, as she began a successful film career in her forties, established herself as a voluptuous, middle aged sex symbol, and became one of the industry’s few successful female writers. While best known for her infamous one-liners, her legacy in film, theater, and popular culture could hardly be summed up in a single line. Mae West once said that "you only live once, but if you do it right once is enough", if there was one person who lived up to this statement, it was Mae herself; a woman who lived both her personal and professional lives to the very fullest.
And now, as a bonus, here is a link to some of Mae’s most memorable lines

You can be had...Yes, even you Cary Grant.

No comments:

Post a Comment