Continued from our previous post Mae West: The Naughtiest Woman on the American Stage.
1932 was Mae West’s breakout year. Her old pal the nightclub dancer and actual criminal George Raft got her a part in his film Night After Night. Though she was only playing a supporting role she rewrote all her lines (adding, for instance the gem: “goodness had nothin to do with it , dearie”) and was the hit of the picture. My full post on Night After Night is here.
Paramount immediately signed her to a contract. This never would have happened if the studio hadn’t been on the verge of bankruptcy, but at this point they were they were in the depths of the depression and were willing to take a chance on Mae’s ability to shock. Her first starring picture She Done Him Wrong ( which included the oft-misquoted “why don’t you come up sometime, see me?”) was a huge moneymaker, validating their decision. The follow-up I’m No Angel was also a hit. In 1933 she announced a film called Ain’t No Sin (an adaptation of Babe Gordon). It made it to the screen, somewhat sanitized as Belle of the 90s.
By 1934, she was Hollywood’s 5th biggest star, and the highest paid woman in America. Unfortunately the Hays Office and religious groups were beginning to make major trouble. Studio censors progressively weakened her vehicles, but because Mae was the one on screen she was the one, ironically, who had to take the criticism. Going to Town (1935) was perceptibly tamer than her previous films and her stock began to sink. She bounded back with Klondike Annie (1936) based on her aborted stage play Frisco Kate but religious groups protested Mae’s depiction of a former prostitute masquerading as an evangelist.
Real life scandal started to hamper her. Her husband Frank Wallace surfaced in 1935, obviously wanting a piece of the action. As she’d clearly been involved with numerous men and had forgotten to divorce Wallace, her conduct outraged thousands of people with nothing better to do. William Randolph Hearst boycotted ads for her pictures.
In 1937, she inflamed religious groups even further by portraying Eve in an irreverent sketch about Adam and Eve on Edgar Bergen’s radio show The Chase and Sanbourne Hour. People were particularly bent out of shape because the show aired on a Sunday. As Mae aptly said “If they’re so religious why weren’t they in church?”
Her last films for Paramount didn’t make money, so they dropped her, which was a rotten thing to do, since it was the studio that had ruined her films. The other studios floated her promising offers but she turned most of them down, saying they didn’t understand her character. She co-starred with W.C. Fields in My Little Chickadee (1940) but he got the better of it (consider the title). Her last film for quite some time was the disastrous 1943 vehicle The Heat’s On.
For years she had been trying to get the studios to make her screenplay of Catherine the Great. She finally gave up and presented it herself on Broadway as Catherine Was Great, which played the 1944-45 season. It was a moderate success, but anti-Soviet sentiment in the immediate postwar era scotched further plans for this pet project. In 1946 she toured in a Shubert production called Come On Up (as in “and see me sometime”) with a patriotic plot about F.B.I. men but it didn’t make it to Broadway.
She continued to make a very good living on the periphery of show business. She toured with Diamond Lil from 1948 through 1951. In 1952 she wrote the play Sextette about a woman with five ex-husbands, but could find no backers, until 1961, when it was finally produced for the stage. In 1954 she began to work Las Vegas with her notorious stage show featuring an all-male chorus of topless musclebound hunks.
In the late 1960s she became “camp” and acquired a whole new generation of fans. She was savvy enough to know this and exploited it for all it was worth. While she turned a part in an Elvis film down in 1964, by the latter part of the decade she was cutting rock records of her own, such as Way Out West (1966), Wild Christmas (1966), and Great Balls of Fire, (1968). After 25 years, she resurfaced in movies with a role in the notorious 1969 film Myra Breckinridge and the 1978 film version of her play Sextette.
West also wrote a number of books such as her autobiography Goodness Had Nothing to Do With It (1959), a novelization of her play The Pleasure Man (1975) and the non-fiction self-help book Sex, Health and ESP. She died in 1981 but her fan base has only grown since then. In 1999 there were revivals of her plays Sex and Diamond Lil and also that year a play about West’s life called Dirty Blonde was a hit on Broadway. In 2020, this terrific documentary, with the same title.
For more on vaudeville, where Mae West got her start, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on the history of classic comedy film please see Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube