15 Mae West Films That Never Got Made

Mae West as the title character in the stage version of “Catherine Was Great”

For over 80 years, Mae West has ruled the screen, as one of the pantheon of so-called “classic comedians”, as one of the top female comedians of all time, and as a boundary breaking pioneer of free speech for both the stage and screen. It was the latter credential that accounts for her small cinematic legacy: only 9 starring vehicles, one co-starring vehicle, and two appearances as a supporting actor. If it were left up to West, there would have been many more pictures to her credit– if movie producers had had the cojones to shoot them. Here are some of her notorious never wases.

Diamond Lil 

In a way, this film was made, and in a way it wasn’t. Prior to her film career, West was best known for her 1928 smash hit Broadway show Diamond Lil. Like all of her early stage vehicles, the play got her into trouble with the law and garnered many headlines due to her special brand of risque comedy. Her first starring film (initially called Ruby Red) was pretty much an adaptation of Diamond Lil, but Paramount executives were querulous about having the movie be so closely tied to the very notoriety they’d hired her for. By the time the film made it to the screen in 1933, it was in the form of the much cleaned up She Done Him Wrong. Still, Mae cherished the original play. She revived it onstage in the 1950s, and was still trying to get the original version made into a movie as late as the 1960s.

It Ain’t No Sin

I love the title of this so much, I wish they’d kept it.  This was an adaptation of Mae’s 1931 stage play The Constant Sinner, based on her 1930 novel Mae Gordon — about miscegenation! Of course, Hollywood was too terrified to take that on, so they made Mae’s boxer-lover character white, renamed it Belle of the Nineties, and cut out all the good parts. The bowdlerized film came out in 1934.

The Queen of Sheba

Mae hoped to play the title character in her version of the Biblical tale as a follow up to Belle of the Nineties. Paramount wouldn’t hear of it (although she did get to sing the park of Delilah in an opera scene in her next film)

Now I’m a Lady

This is the original (far better) title of the film that became Goin’ to Town (1935)

Gone With the Wind

Yes! Believe it or not, Mae was strongly considered for the part of Belle Watling by MGM executives (or maybe it was just the publicity people), but either Mae or producer David O. Selznick balked, or they both did.

Catherine Was Great

Mae originally planned this as her follow up to Go, West Young Man, with herself playing the title character of Catherine the Great. She revived her hopes again in 1939, never dreaming that her time as a solo star was already over.  With her movie career on ice, she finally brought her script to the Broadway stage in 1944. This is perhaps the most painful one of all. She had a script, she played the part…but it was never filmed so we don’t get to see her in it. I bet it was fantastic.

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Come on Up

Another disappointment. This was Mae’s follow up stage vehicle to Catherine in 1946, in which she played a lady spy. She barnstormed with the play for 9 months, but this one didn’t even make it to Broadway.

Sunset Boulevard

Billy Wilder originally wanted Mae for the role of Norma Desmond, but after discussions he realized she wouldn’t be right — Mae only ever played herself.

Pal Joey

Billy Wilder also consider a version of the popular musical Pal Joey with Mae West in the role that later went to Rita Hayworth, and Marlon Brando in the Sinatra role. In this case, the studio passed.

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Sextette

As you know, this was rather notoriously filmed in 1978, when Mae was 85 years old. But she had written it in 1952 and performed it as a play in 1961. A film made in either year would likely have been more in line with Mae’s original intentions, i.e. less of a freak show, if less “free” about the sexual content.

The Art of Love

Producer Ross Hunter reportedly wanted Mae for this 1965 comedy starring Dick Van Dyke, but they hit an impasse when Mae wanted to rewrite all her lines. The part went to Ethel Merman.

Juliet of the Spirits

Federico Fellini reportedly wanted Mae for a role in this film but it didn’t come to pass.

Satyricon

Fellini wanted Mae in the role of “erotic witch mother”

Roustabout

Elvis Presley really wanted Mae to play the lady carnival operator in this 1964 musical, but Colonel Tom Parker scotched the deal, claiming that Mae would steal the picture from him. (More likely the pair would have produced screen magic as had his pairing with Ann-Margaret in Viva Las Vegas). The part wound up going to Barbara Stanwyck – – who hated Elvis!

Dinah East

A pornographic film announced by columnist Rona Barrett as Mae’s follow up to Myra Breckenridge, when Mae was pushing 80 years old.

I wanna see all these movies! (with the possible exception of Dinah East. And I’d even like to see about ten seconds of that!)

To learn more about comedy film history don’t miss my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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One Response to “15 Mae West Films That Never Got Made”

  1. R. Mark Desjardins Says:

    Two comments beg to be made here. While researching my manuscript, “in Search of Mae West,” I met West’s last secretary who showed me the letter written to her by Colonel Tom Parker outlining promotional considerations he was willing to provide if she considered the role of carnival operator. West declined the offer as she would only consider a role as Elvis’ romantic interest! West had much respect for Elvis and according to close sources, was visibly shaken when she heard of his death, perhaps sensing her own immortally. As for her feelings about Ms Stanwyck, one will have got wait for my book to be published.

    Much misinformation has been posted over the decades concerning the film “Dinah East” and a Mae West connection. Here are the findings from my research on this matter.

    Dinah East, written and produced by Gene Nash in 1970, starring renown transvestite, Jeremy Stockwell, and featuring Andy Warhol alumni, Ultra Violet, the film parallels several key aspects of Mae West’s career. It is this connection, however tenuous, that made this long unavailable camp classic controversial. at the time.

    Advertisements for Dinah East claim the movie was pulled from distribution after Mae West filed a successful lawsuit stating the film slandered her name, and then proceeded to buy and destroy as many prints of the film she could find.

    However, the following facts seem to be at odds with these claims. In 1982, Gene Nash told the LA Times that he had given Mae West and Paul Novak a private screening of the film in 1970. West found the film entertaining and made a few suggestions to “beef up the dialogue” which Nash was unable to do, as the filming had wrapped up.

    Certainly Variety would have run a story on any Mae West lawsuit. Stanley Musgrove who was her publicist at the time would have brought the topic up with friends, and Kevin Thomas who was a film critic at the LA Times would have known about any such lawsuit as well. Since no word of this civil action ever surfaced, it is highly possible that West never brought about a lawsuit.

    The Mae West overtures aside, Dinah East stands on its own merits. The characters are colourful and engaging, the sets are over the top and the scene set in a gay bar complete with a nude go-go boy in a cage is delightfully wacky. Good humored fun and a sensitive examination of a subject that would have been handled in a tacky way by a less enlightened director.

    What is not generally known about Gene Nash is that he had a show business background and worked with Eddy Cantor in his later years, once filling in for him and nobody noticed the difference. Nash also produced, directed as well as wrote the movie screenplay and all of the songs for the film, “What Am I Bid?,” featuring the legendary country and western entertainer, Leroy Van Dyke. Other stars who appeared in the film include Al Hirt, Tex Ritter and Faron Young.

    My request for information about Gene Nash went unanswered by Paula Stewart, credited as Co-Producer of Dinah East. Stewart, currently a weekly host on KCLA FM in Los Angeles, is working on a biography of Lucille Ball.

    Dinah East is a blast from the past that is still fun and essential viewing for today’s jaded sensibilities.

    Like

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