I’m no model lady. A model’s just an imitation of the real thing. ~ Mae West
Born Mary Jane “Mae” West on August 17, 1893, in Brooklyn, New York, Mae West hit her Hollywood stride in her late 30s, when she might have been considered in her “advanced years” for playing sexy harlots, but her persona and physical beauty overcame any doubt. The blunt sexuality of her films aroused the wrath and moral indignation of several groups, but this sexuality is what she is remembered for today.
Known for her bawdy double entendres, West made a name for herself in vaudeville and on the stage in New York City before moving to Hollywood to become a comedian, actress, and writer in the motion picture industry. For her contributions to American cinema, the American Film Institute named West 15th among the greatest female stars of classic American cinema.
One of the more controversial movie stars of her day, West encountered many problems, including censorship. When her cinematic career ended, she continued to perform in Las Vegas, in the United Kingdom, and on radio and television, and to record rock and roll albums. Asked about the various efforts to impede her career, West replied: “I believe in censorship. I made a fortune out of it.”
West was five when she first entertained a crowd at a church social, and she started appearing in amateur shows at the age of seven. She often won prizes at local talent contests. She began performing professionally in vaudeville in the Hal Clarendon Stock Company in 1907 at the age of 14. When work was slow, which it often was for many performers in Vaudeville, she would go on the burlesque circuit playing before a predominantly male working-class audience, where she thrived and honed her performance skills.
Her first appearance in a Broadway show was in a 1911 revue A La Broadway. The show folded after eight performances, but at age 18, West was singled out and discovered by the New York Times. She got her big break in 1918 in the Shubert Brothers revue Sometime. As more parts came her way, West began to shape her characters, often rewriting dialogue or character descriptions to better suit her persona. She eventually began writing her own plays.
In 1926, she got her first starring role in a Broadway play entitled Sex, which she wrote, produced and directed. The play was a hit at the box office but its was panned by the “more respectable” Broadway critics for its explicit sexual content. The production also did not go over well with city officials, who raided the show and arrested West, along with much of the cast. She was prosecuted on morals charges and sentenced to ten days in jail. She served eight days, with two off for good behavior. The media attention of the entire affair did nothing but enhance her career.
Undaunted by any impression of impropriety, Mae West wrote and directed her next play, Drag, which dealt with homosexuality and was what West called one of her “comedy-dramas of life”. After a series of try-outs in Connecticut and New Jersey, West announced she would open the play in New York.However, The Drag never opened on Broadway due to efforts by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice to ban any attempt by West to stage it. West decided not to tempt fate again, and kept the play out of New York. West was an early supporter supporter of gay rights.
West continued to write plays, including The Wicked Age, Pleasure Man, and The Constant Sinner, but did not always play a part. The plays dealt with what today would be called adult subject matter. Her productions were difficult to bring to the stage, largely because of the constant changes needed to bring the dialogue and plot lines in line with the moral codes of the day. Her productions aroused controversy, which ensured that she stayed in the news, which also often resulted in packed houses at her performances. Her 1928 play, Diamond Lil, about a racy, easygoing lady of the 1890s, became a Broadway hit.
By 1932, Hollywood began to take notice of Mae West’s performances and talent and Paramount offered her a motion picture contract. The first film she appeared in was Night after Night, starring George Raft. At first, she didn’t like her small role, but was appeased when she was allowed to rewrite her scenes.
Her first starring role was in 1933’s She Done Him Wrong, in which she spoke the famous Mae West line, “Why don’t you come up and see me sometime?” The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, and also starred newcomer Cary Grant in one of his first major roles. The success of the film most likely saved Paramount from bankruptcy. She was paired with Grant again in her next movie, I’m No Angel, which was a financial blockbuster and made West the eighth-largest box office draw in the United States.
However, the blunt sexuality and steamy settings of her films aroused the wrath and moral indignation of several groups, including bringing her to the attention of the Hays Code censors. On July 1, 1934, the organization began to seriously and meticulously enforce the code on West’s screenplays, and heavily edited them. West responded in her typical fashion by increasing the number of innuendos and double entendres, fully expecting to confuse the censors, which she did for the most part.
In 1936, Mae West starred in the film Klondike Annie, which concerned itself with religion and hypocrisy. William Randolph Hearst disagreed so vehemently with the film’s context, and West’s portrayal of a Salvation Army worker, that he personally forbade any stories or advertisements of the film to be published in any of his publications. However, the film did well at the box office and is considered the high-point of West’s film career.
After West’s next film, Every Day’s a Holiday failed at the box office, West was put on a list of actors called “Box Office Poison” by Harry Brandt on behalf of the Independent Theatre Owners Association. Others on the list were Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich, Fred Astaire,and Katharine Hepburn. The attack was published as a paid advertisement in the Hollywood Reporter and was taken seriously by studio executives. Nevertheless, producer David O. Selznick offered West the role of prostitute Belle Watling in Gone with the Wind after Tallulah Bankhead turned him down. West also declined the part, claiming it was too small for an established star.
With her film career waning, West appeared as herself on ventriloquist Edgar Bergen’s radio show The Chase and Sanborn Hour in two comedy sketches. But days after the broadcast, NBC received letters calling the show “immoral” and “obscene.” Moral groups went after sponsor Chase and Sanborn Coffee Company for allowing such “impurity” on their show. Even the FCC weighed in, calling the broadcast “vulgar and indecent” and far below the minimum standard for broadcast programs. NBC personally blamed West for the debacle, and banned her from appearing on any of their other broadcasts.
Universal Pictures, eager to duplicate the success of Destry Rides Again, approached West in 1939 to star in a film opposite W. C. 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. Despite the stars’ intense mutual dislike (she was a teetotaler and he drank), and fights over the screenplay, My Little Chickadee was a moderate box-office success.
In 1954, West formed a nightclub act which revived some of her earlier stage work, featuring her in song-and-dance numbers and surrounded by musclemen fawning over her for attention. The show ran for three years and was a great success. With this victory, she felt it was a good time to retire. In 1959, West released her bestselling autobiography, Goodness Had Nothing To Do With It. She made a few guest appearances on 1960s television comedy/variety shows like The Red Skelton Show and some situation comedies like Mister Ed. She also recorded a few albums in different genres including rock ‘n’ roll and a Christmas album.
After a 27-year absence from motion pictures, West appeared in the 1970 Gore Vidal film, Myra Breckinridge, with Raquel Welch, Rex Reed, and Farrah Fawcett. The movie was a deliberately campy sex change comedy that was both a box office and critical failure. Despite it’s mainstream failure, Myra Breckinridge found an audience on the cult film circuit where West’s films were regularly screened and West herself was dubbed “the queen of camp”.
She wrote and starred in her final film, Sextette. Production began in 1976 but suffered from several problems. Being the professional she was, West persevered and the film was completed in 1978. The critics were devastating in their reviews but, like Myra Breckenridge, the movie has endured as a cult-film classic.
In August 1980, West suffered two strokes and her health deteriorated rapidly. She died on November 22, 1980, at the age of 87.