Known for her bawdy double entendres, Mae 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. In consideration of her contributions to American cinema, the American Film Institute named West 15th among the greatest female stars of all time.
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.”
Born in Brooklyn in 1893, 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 fourteen. She was encouraged as a performer by her mother, who, according to West, always thought that anything Mae did was fantastic. In 1918, after exiting several high-profile revues, West finally got her break in the Shubert Brothers revue Sometime, opposite Ed Wynn.
Eventually, she began writing her own risqué plays using the pen name Jane Mast. Her first starring role on Broadway was in a 1926 play she entitled Sex, which she wrote, produced, and directed. Although critics panned the show, ticket sales were good. The production did not go over well with city officials, and the theater was raided, with West arrested along with the cast. She was prosecuted on morals charges and, on April 19, 1927, was sentenced to ten days for “corrupting the morals of youth.” Media attention surrounding the incident enhanced her career.
West continued to write plays, including The Drag, The Wicked Age, Pleasure Man and The Constant Sinner. 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. This show enjoyed an enduring popularity and West would successfully revive it many times throughout the course of her career.
In 1932, West was offered a motion picture contract by Paramount Pictures despite being close to 40. This was an unusually high age to begin a movie career, especially for women, but she nonetheless managed to keep this fact ambiguous for some years. She 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 beautiful 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. She claimed to have told a Paramount director “If he can talk, I’ll take him!” 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 also a financial success, and was the most successful film of her entire movie career. By 1933, West was the eighth-largest U.S. box office draw in the United Statesand, by 1935, the second-highest paid person in the United States (after William Randolph Hearst).[50
On July 1, 1934, the censorship of the Production Code began to be seriously and meticulously enforced, and her screenplays were heavily edited. Her next film was Belle of the Nineties (1934). Originally titled It Ain’t No Sin, the title was changed due to the censors’ objections. Her next film, Goin’ to Town (1934), received mixed reviews.
Her following effort, Klondike Annie (1935) dealt, as best it could given the heavy censorship, with religion and hypocrisy. Some critics called the 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.
West next starred in Every Day’s a Holiday (1937) for Paramount before their association came to an end. After the film 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, Dolores del Río, Katharine Hepburn, and Norma Shearer. The attack was published as a paid advertisement in the Hollywood Reporter and was taken seriously by studio executives. The association argued that these stars’ high salaries and extreme public popularity didn’t affect their ticket sales and thus hurt the exhibitors.
In 1939, Universal Pictures approached West to star in a film opposite W. C. Fields. My Little Chickadee was a moderate box office success. But West’s next film, The Heat’s On, was a box office and creative failure, and West would not make another form for twenty-seven years.
West remained active, however. Among her stage performances was the title role in Catherine Was Great (1944) on Broadway, in which she spoofed the story of Catherine the Great of Russia, surrounding herself with an “imperial guard” of tall, muscular young actors. The play was produced by Mike Todd and ran for 191 performances. In the 1950s, she also starred in her own Las Vegas stage show, singing while surrounded by bodybuilders. In 1958, West appeared at the Academy Awards and performed the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with Rock Hudson. In 1959, she released an autobiography,Goodness Had Nothing to Do With It, which became a best seller.
West made occasional appearances on television, including The Red Skelton Show in 1960. In 1964, she made a guest appearance on the sitcom Mister Ed. Demonstrating her willingness to keep in touch with the contemporary scene, she recorded a pair of rock-and-roll albums, Way Out West and Wild Christmas (later re-issued as “Mae in December”) in the late 1960s. In 1965 she recorded two songs, “Am I Too Young,” and “He’s Good For Me” for a 45 rpm record released by Plaza Records. She also made several parody songs including “Santa, Come Up to See Me” on the album Wild Christmas
After her long absence from motion pictures, West appeared as Leticia Van Allen in Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge (1970) with Raquel Welch, Rex Reed, Farrah Fawcett, and Tom Selleck in a small part. Despite Myra Breckinridge’s mainstream failure, it did find an audience on the cult film circuit where West’s films were regularly screened and West herself was dubbed “the queen of camp.”
West recorded another rock album in 1968 (released in 1972) on MGM Records, titled Great Balls of Fire, which covered songs by The Doors among others.
In 1976, she appeared on Back Lot U.S.A. on CBS, where she was interviewed by Dick Cavett. That same year, she began work on her final film, Sextette (1978), adapted from a script written by West.
Mae West died on November 22, 1980 at the age of 87. For her contribution to the film industry, she has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1560 Vine Street in Hollywood. For her contributions as a stage actor in the theater world, she has been inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame.
Text courtesy of Wikipedia, licensed under Creative Commons