Archive for the Mae West Category

Several Sad Swan Songs: Unworthy Final Films by Great Comedians

Posted in Abbott and Costello, Charlie Chaplin, Comedians, Comedy, Comedy Teams, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Mae West, Marx Brothers, Ritz Brothers, Three Stooges with tags , , , , , , on August 21, 2015 by travsd

Happy Friday! Because people love nothing more than comedy that depresses them, I thought I would do a little post today about the sad exits of several classic comedy stars. By sad, I mean sad, in the literal sense. Most of these comedians are my heroes, who achieved the very highest heights of what it is possible to achieve in the comedy field. Their last films…well, they just kind of bring down their batting average.

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The Heat’s On (1943)

Mae West’s last picture of the original Hollywood studio era (i.e. when she was relatively in her prime) although she would come back in the 1970s to do two more pictures, which we’ll get to. If you are a Mae West fan, The Heat’s On is disappointing; she’s only in about a quarter of the movie. In a normal Mae West movie Mae is the only important person, she is onscreen almost every minute, and she gets all the funny lines. In this one she is horribly upstaged by Victor Moore, William Gaxton and Xavier Cugat and a million musicians and singers in a crummy conventional plot about putting on a show. Ironically, West was the one whose name director/producer Gregory Ratoff relied upon to raise the financing to make the film. It plays with Mae’s image some, but has nothing like the normal ratio of Westian witticisms. A pale reflection of her earliest Paramount work.

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Love Happy (1950)

Love Happy by some measures is the Marx Brothers’ last movie as a team, although Groucho’s turn is essentially a cameo, and Chico’s is somewhat underwritten. It was originally devised as a starring vehicle for Harpo. The other two got involved because Chico, a problem gambler,  needed the money.

The movie also has the reputation for being the “worst” Marx Brothers movie, although I don’t happen to agree. Love Happy is a relatively bad movie; it is weird, and it has problems, but personally I wouldn’t call it their worst picture by a long shot.  For various reasons, I would give that dubious honor to either Room Service, Go West or The Big StorePerhaps it is a three way tie.

The plot of Love Happy (co-written by Frank Tashlin)  is the usual contemptible claptrap about a troupe of actors desperate to put on a Broadway show. It is manifestly impossible to care whether they succeed or not.  Doubly so, in light of the undistinguished musical numbers we are obliged to sit through. On the other hand, the cast of the show is literally starving for food and that IS an interesting plot. Harpo, the inexplicable mute who appears to be part of the company, although I’m not sure in what capacity, goes to the basement of a grocery store to steal food for them and wanders away with several cans of sardines. Little does he know that one of the cans contains…stolen diamonds! Such plot as there is involves several wicked crooks trying to recover the jewels, which Harpo doesn’t even know they have. Which is ironic, because they could finance a Broadway show and several groceries if they could just fence these rocks, get me?

What is Chico’s role in all of this? Chico plays Harpo’s Italian friend.

And Groucho? He is a detective who narrates the story and shows up at the end. By now he was a solo movie star (Copacabana1947) and a game show host and had taken to wearing a real mustache and glasses rather than the fake ones that had been his previous trademarks. He is almost literally phoning it in here.

Most memorably, when financing for the film ran out the producers struck product placement deals, giving us the unusual spectacle in the big chase scene at the climax where the Marx Brothers run across rooftops past billboards for Mobil, Bulova, Kool and General Electric. Why, it’s just like watching television!

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Utopia a.k.a Atoll K a.k.a Robinson Crusoeland (released in the U.S. in 1954, but released in Europe three years earlier)

Laurel and Hardy’s last film. The team’s last previous Hollywood film had been in 1945. In the meantime they had been touring with live shows. This being their only film offer, they took it. The film was a French/ Italian co-production. Both Laurel and Hardy suffered a wide variety of health problems as they were filming (see photo above). And the film is almost unwatchably bad. It concerns Laurel inheriting a private island. He and Hardy, and some friends go there in a shabby, broken-down boat. When they arrive, uranium is discovered. That’s the extent of the plot. The script is not funny, and the performances are painful. It’s one of the saddest exits in film history.

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The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock (1959)

This is Lou Costello’s last film, released posthumously. He had broken up with Bud Abbott two years earlier. In this spoof of the typical drive-in movie fare of the day, he plays a schlub who is forced to marry a girl who has been exposed to radiation and has grown to the size of, well, Grape Ape. This is the only film on this list I have not seen, although I’ll trust the conventional wisdom that it’s a stinkeroo. Which only makes me want to see it all the more.

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A Countess from Hong Kong (1967)

Charlie Chaplin’s last film and first foray into color and widescreen casts Sophia Loren as a White Russian aristocrat who is now a taxi dancer and prostitute in Hong Kong. She stows away in conservative diplomat Marlon Brando’s state room. After much resistance on Brando’s part, they fall in love.

Unfortunately, despite the involvement of these stellar artists the film veers way off course in amazingly basic ways for so major a filmmaker. For starters, when does it take place? Originally written in the ‘30s, it has now been tweaked to be “sometime after World War II” (as an opening title tells us), but the fashions and some of the music and dancing seem to tell us it is contemporary (1966). Certainly there is nothing in the film to tell us that it’s a period piece, set in an earlier time. That being the case, our White Russian taxi dancer must be substantially older than Sophia Loren, even if she was a child at the time of the Revolution. And if it is 1966, why on earth is Marlon Brando’s character taking an ocean liner to travel to an important diplomatic post, needlessly taking several days as opposed to several hours by airplane? And if it is supposed to be set in an earlier decade, why do we have a scene in which Angela Scoular dances a Watusi as though she were in an episode of Shindig?

So Chaplin (then 77) was showing signs of being woefully out of touch. Further, the attitudes in his sex comedy are perplexing to say the least. The key to such comedies is to keep them light, fast, and ribald. The tone of A Countess is dark, plodding, and prudish. In My Autobiography, Chaplin reveals himself to be surprisingly Victorian on the subject of sex for someone who had apparently had so much of it, and with so many partners. Brando’s character is a kind of mouthpiece for that perspective in this film, and the movie sort of oddly takes his point of view rather than (as most such comedies do) making him a figure of fun. Since this is a film by the world’s greatest comedian, fun is just what we would expect a lot more of in such a film. Door slamming, for example. Farces are predicated on the hilarious choreography of such comic business. Such had been the case with his early films. For a more recent example of how it’s done, see Noises Off (1992). Chaplin does stage some of this kind of business in the film, but it is amazingly flaccid and perfunctory, it never ignites.

While Sophia Loren is actually great in it (and could potentially have been even better), Brando almost single-handedly sinks the whole movie. As we have said, Chaplin’s cinematic style is passive —it depends entirely on the performances within the frame to achieve its effects. But though Chaplin’s style is set up to support a performance, Brando steadfastly refuses to give one. As we know, while Chaplin was laissez-faire on the photographic side, he micromanaged his actors right down to demonstrating to them every gesture to make. Brando, a method actor, couldn’t stand this, and rebelled. In A Countess from Hong Kong his body is moving through a performance according to Chaplin’s instructions, but his interior life has checked out. You can see his hostility and unhappiness right there on the screen. He doesn’t seem to want to be in Chaplin’s movie. And since Chaplin’s entire film depends on Brando’s performance, A Countess from Hong Kong becomes a turkey.

This production brought to you through the courtesy of Kiwi Shoe Polish

This production brought to you through the courtesy of Kiwi Shoe Polish

Skidoo (1968)

After a lifetime of reading about it (being as it was Groucho Marx’s last film, among other things) I finally got to see this cult classic on TCM about five years ago. They played it in the pre-dawn hours, much where it belongs. The film is almost impossible to describe, so I’ll just try to hit it in fragments. Directed by the great Otto Preminger at a time in his career when he was desperately trying to remain au courant, this nutty film stars the Great One Mr. Jackie Gleason as a retired mobster, whom with his wife Carol Channing, is worried about his hippie daughter and her hippie boyfriend.

Forced by the top mobster “God” (Groucho) to do one last hit, he goes undercover into a jail so he can bump off fellow gangster Mickey Rooney before he can testify before a Senate commission. While in jail, Gleason does LSD. His trip is enjoyable in just the way you would imagine (“I can see MATHEMATICS!” he screams at one point).

Along the way, we meet just about every character actor in Hollywood, a mishmash of old and young: Austin Pendleton (in his first Hollywood role — and bald!), Frankie Avalon, Burgess MeredithCesar RomeroGeorge RaftPeter Lawford, Fred Clark, Frank Gorshin, etc etc etc. Harry Nilsson, who also wrote the soundtrack and its several songs (including the famous musical closing credits), also has a small role as a prison guard.

At the time, when there was a lot of this kind of stuff going on, it no doubt seemed less than the sum of its parts, and it bombed with both press and public. Now however, it has the added value of being a historical curiosity, and I highly recommend seeing it at least once in your life just to say you did.

And how does Groucho come off? Well…oddly, Grouchy. He’s not too funny in this, though we are sort of conditioned to laugh at things he says in a deadpan voice, even when they aren’t jokes, and it can be hard to turn that reaction off. He’s kind of mean and scary in this movie, a pool playing, homicidal gangster. He never leaves the tiny confines of his yacht, an undeniable reflection of the fact that the actor was 78 years old.

We’re lucky to see him standing at all. Believe me, Groucho was capable of doing shows where he DIDN’T stand. In 1976, not long before he died, I saw him on this Bob Hope special, where, in the aftermath of several strokes, he sat in a chair and uttered quips that were difficult to understand because his diction had gone. It was a sad spectacle, and to me as an 11 year old, a confusing one. Was I supposed to get this? No, son, the grown-ups have just done something very ill-advised. Get used to that!

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Kook’s Tour (1970) 

The Three Stooges’ final product may be the saddest of all. Intended as the pilot for a tv series, it’s essentially a lot of MOS film footage of the three elderly men pretending to goof around on vacation, with Moe Howard providing travelogue style voice over narration. There is no plot, and the slapstick is almost nonexistent. Really Kook’s Tour looks like it exists just to give the old guys something to do. Sadly, Larry Fine’s stroke right after filming spoiled the prospects of a series. As awful as this program is, it’s still got to better than the movie Moe was trying to get off the ground in 1975 undoubtedly would have been.

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Blazing Stewardesses (1975)

This bizarre film concerns three porn-refugee stewardesses who help a bordello madam (Yvonne De Carlo) and two cow pokes (B movie western stars Bob Livingston and Red Barry) save their dude ranch.

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Along the way they are helped (hindered) by the two surviving Ritz Brothers, Harry and Jimmy (Al had died in 1965). Their roles were originally to have been played by the remaining Three Stooges, but Larry Fine and Moe Howard both died in 1975, and no one wants Curly Joe de Rita. The film’s title was a craven and rather pathetic attempt to capitalize on the recent success of Blazing Saddles, which is as a Himalaya next to this ant hill of a comedy. Naughty Stewardesses, which features some of the same creative personnel, had come out a few months earlier, though this is technically not a sequel. Seeing two Ritz Brothers in their mid 70s cut up as though they were still in their 30s is quite a spectacle.

“I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!”

Sextette (1978)

Mae West was a pro — she had been in show business for several decades. In fact, it would be technically accurate to say that she had been a professional actress and performer since the 19th century.

Thus, Mae knew that the key to success is: whatever happens, you gotta keep hustling. Keep your mind on your goals, and keep hustling to realize them. Sometimes there may be layoffs. There may be some down time between projects. But always keep a hand in, because the wheel will eventually turn around again.

And so it was that in 1978 — 35 years after her last starring vehicle and over 40 years since starring in a vehicle that could be called her own — Mae West finally got the chance to make her next script, Sextette. She’d written the script in the early 1950s, when she was already a shade long in the tooth, but roughly age appropriate. Then she’d starred in a stage version of the play about ten years later. And now here she was…not 50, not 60, not 70, not 80, but 85 years old, starring in this picture. The iffiness springs not from the fact she was elderly. Hey, look at The Whales of August and On Golden Pond. Nor does chagrin emerge even from the fact that her character is 85 years old and SEXUAL. Hey, look at Cocoon. But what is strange (uncanny? Halloween-like?) about Sextette is that West insisted on playing her character as though the 40 years hadn’t passed at all. The idea was that she was STILL the same sex symbol (a notion that had already become questionable among audiences in the late 1930s). And so in this movie her character gets married to her sixth husband (hence the title), a young Timothy Dalton who was some six decades her junior.

An to prove that she Got By With a Little Help From Her Friends, there was also Ringo Starr! Dom Deluise! Tony Curtis! George Hamilton! Alice Cooper! Keith Moon! All flirting with her (and presumably doing it with her on a large canopy bed with silver, space-age pillows) just as though she were half a century younger. Hey, what the hell. It was the 70s. Sex was in. Even gross sex was in. And not only that, it’s a musical! With crazy disco numbers! Some of which Mae sings herself!

How did this even happen? you may well ask. Well in 1970, Mae had appeared in another of the era’s more notorious films, Myra Breckenridge, an x rated adaptation of the Gore Vidal novel about a transsexual, which despite the adventurous subject matter was a critical and popular flop. Still, Mae was back in the game again and presumably bankable on some level, and so financial backing was found.

At this stage of her life, Mae’s hearing, sight and memory were all gone, so throughout the picture her lines were fed to her through a special ear piece, and you generally see handsome young gents leading her around by the arm. Which a gentleman should do anyway. None of the major studios would distribute the film, so its initial release wasn’t the huge splash one might expect given this major star’s emergence from forced retirement. But over time it has become a cult favorite among, oh, people like me. Everyone should see this film at least once. No one should ever see the film more than once.

But there’s an up side to all this. West passed away two years after Sextette’s release. I think it’s really nice that she passed at a moment when she felt like she was back in the game.

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Cracking Up (1983)

Okay, Jerry Lewis is still with us, but he is 89 years old, and I think it safe to say that Cracking Up will prove to have been his last comedy film as both director and star. In every case we’ve discussed in this blogpost the movie occurred because the artist didn’t know how to quit while they were ahead. And we have to bring some humanity to the contemplation of that. Because that is obviously a hard thing to know how to do. Now Jerry, like many of the folks above (Groucho, Mae West) had more than one “last film”, but kept coming back to the well.  First there was his previous last film as comedy auteur Which Way to the Front (1970), set in Nazi Germany during World War Two. And then there his was aborted Holocaust movie The Day the Clown Cried (1972). (I like to refer to the years 1970-72 as Jerry’s “Third Reich Period”.) After which he ostensibly and perhaps wisely retired.

But…no, eight years later he returned to the big screen for his big “come back” film Hardly Working (1980). The interesting thing about this phase is what he didn’t do. In the last phase of his previous career, Jerry had been trying to “grow”. From around 1965 through 1972, you can see him trying to adjust his previous screen character to account for the fact that he was now a middle aged man. But when he returned in 1980, it was as though he had said “to hell with that.” He just returned to doing what he always did, only much worse. Audiences had grown more sophisticated on some level since Jerry had left the screen. The big stars were SNL alum who made satirical, daring and hip comedies. Jerry ignored what was going on around him at the time and made a film where he just fell down a lot (at the age of 54). Moderate audiences checked out Hardly Working out of curiosity, and I guess Jerry took that as positive reinforcement for his bad behavior.

So…in 1983 he went back to the well yet again with Smorgasbord , which he renamed Cracking Up. Co-written with his old screenwriting partner Bill Richmond the film does everything it can to ignore the commercial will of audiences in 1983, by phoning in Lewis’s own 2o and 30 year old screen behavior, and populating the rest of the movie with over-exposed tv comedians like Foster Brooks and Milton Berle and football player Dick Butkus. After a single preview, it was decided not to distribute the film to theatres. It went straight to cable tv. (Fortunately, Jerry has had many chances to redeem himself as an actor since 1983. This is his last hurrah as actor/director).

To find out more about  the history of show businessconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And check out my other 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

Sextette: Mae West Goes Out with a Bang

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Mae West, Movies, Women with tags , , , , , , on August 17, 2015 by travsd

“I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!”

Mae West was a pro — she had been in show business for several decades. In fact, it would be technically accurate to say that she had been a professional actress and performer since the 19th century.

Thus, Mae knew that the key to success is: whatever happens, you gotta keep hustling. Keep your mind on your goals, and keep hustling to realize them. Sometimes there may be layoffs. There may be some down time between projects. But always keep a hand in, because the wheel will eventually turn around again.

And so it was that in 1978 — 35 years after her last starring vehicle and over 40 years since starring in a vehicle that could be called her own — Mae West finally got the chance to make her next script, Sextette. She’d written the script in the early 1950s, when she was already a shade long in the tooth, but roughly age appropriate. Then she’d starred in a stage version of the play about ten years later. And now here she was…not 50, not 60, not 70, not 80, but 85 years old, starring in this picture. The iffiness springs not from the fact she was elderly. Hey, look at The Whales of August and On Golden Pond. Nor does chagrin emerge even from the fact that her character is 85 years old and SEXUAL. Hey, look at Cocoon. But what is strange (uncanny? Halloween-like?) about Sextette is that West insisted on playing her character as though the 40 years hadn’t passed at all. The idea was that she was STILL the same sex symbol (a notion that had already become questionable among audiences in the late 1930s). And so in this movie her character gets married to her sixth husband (hence the title), a young Timothy Dalton who was some six decades her junior.

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And to prove that she Got By With a Little Help From Her Friends, there was also Ringo Starr! Dom Deluise! Tony Curtis! George Hamilton! Alice Cooper! Keith Moon! All flirting with her (and presumably doing it with her on a large canopy bed with silver, space-age pillows) just as though she were half a century younger. Hey, what the hell. It was the 70s. Sex was in. Even gross sex was in. And not only that, it’s a musical! With crazy disco numbers! Some of which Mae sings herself!

How did this even happen? you may well ask. Well in 1970, Mae had appeared in another of the era’s more notorious films, Myra Breckenridge, an x rated adaptation of the Gore Vidal novel about a transsexual, which despite the adventurous subject matter was a critical and popular flop. Still, Mae was back in the game again and presumably bankable on some level, and so financial backing was found.

At this stage of her life, Mae’s hearing, sight and memory were all gone, so throughout the picture her lines were fed to her through a special ear piece, and you generally see handsome young gents leading her around by the arm. Which a gentleman should do anyway. None of the major studios would distribute the film, so its initial release wasn’t the huge splash one might expect given this major star’s emergence from forced retirement. But over time it has become a cult favorite among, oh, people like me. Everyone should see this film at least once. No one should ever see the film more than once.

But there’s an up side to all this. West passed away two years after Sextette’s release. I think it’s really nice that she passed at a moment when she felt like she was back in the game.

For more on  comedy film history don’t miss my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, jeleased by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etcchain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500

In Which Mae West Offends the Public in Her 4th Medium (Radio)

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Comediennes, Comedy, Mae West, Radio (Old Time Radio), Women with tags , , , , , , , on August 17, 2015 by travsd

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In continuing celebration of Mae West’s birthday….a little post about a historical event which occurred on December 12, 1937. That is the date on which Mae appeared on The Chase and Sanborn Hour starring Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy.

Thus far in her career West had run afoul of the authorities and producers in the fields of vaudeville, the Broadway stage, and Hollywood films. She had been banned, censored, fined, arrested and even incarcerated for her naughty mouth and equally naughty pen. But thus far she’d had no run-ins with the radio networks (probably because she hadn’t done much radio). All that was about to change. Her appearance on the show featured a sketch where Don Ameche played Adam, and Mae played Eve – – an Eve who was all too willing to eat the apple of temptation, and only too glad to blow the boredom of Eden, which her character refers to as a “dump”. Then she did a skit with Charlie McCarthy where she said suggestive lines like “Honey, I’ll let you play in my wood pile”.

A massive protest write-in campaign occurred (mostly from religious groups) and Mae was banned from NBC for 12 years. Aside from Orson Welles’ “little green man” prank, this is one of the most notorious incidents of the classic radio era.

Curious to know what all the fuss was about? You can hear it here:

http://www.oldtimeradiodownloads.com/variety/edgar-bergen-and-charlie-mccarthy/adam-and-eve-mae-west-1937-12-12

To find out more about  the history of show businessconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And check out my other 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

The Time Mae West Was on the “Mr. Ed” Show

Posted in Animal Acts, Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Comediennes, Comedy, Mae West, Sit Coms, Television, Women with tags , , , , on August 17, 2015 by travsd

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Here’s a little tidbit that should be known not only to every classic comedy fan — but to every soul, living or dead who has ever spent time on planet earth. For God’s Sake, man — this isn’t “trivia”! This has import!

Mae West was on the Mr. Ed show. The episode premiered on March 22, 1964. And why is that significant? Well, it’s the only motion picture acting West did between The Heat’s On (1943) and Myra Breckenridge (1970). What’s astounding is the stuff she could have been in, and yet the one job she took during that 27 year fallow period was THIS! The answer emerges, I think, after only a little cogitation. Mae plays herself on the show, and this was probably the only thing she was offered that asked her to play her traditional screen character. In 1964, Mae was 71 years old. She hadn’t gotten scripts that asked her to be a sex symbol in over two decades. The Mr. Ed gig not only flattered her ego….but there had to have been a perverse joke at the back of it. After all, Mae had played Catherine the Great on stage. (The legend is that Catherine died while copulating with a stallion from her stables – -and I don’t mean the stable boy.)

West with "Mr. Ed"'s human co-star Alan Young

West with “Mr. Ed”‘s human co-star Alan Young

If you’re curious you can watch the show here on Youtube. I’ve stopped embedding video. Killjoys are always taking the videos down, leaving me with window into static defacing my blogposts.

For more on slapstick and silent comedy film history don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etcchain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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In Which We Rank the Films of Mae West

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Comediennes, Comedy, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Mae West, Movies, Women with tags , , , , on August 17, 2015 by travsd

Continuing with our series of posts honoring Mae West in celebration of her birthday, herewith is my entirely subjective ranking of her films. As with the Marx Brothers, her output was far too small, so one is constantly in the position of wanting more (such as these unrealized gems). On the other hand, it makes it easy to compile a list like this. Here then, from best to worst: the films of Mae West (note: I’m leaving out her two movies from the 1970s, Myra Breckenridge and Sextette – – they don’t really count):

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She Done Him Wrong  (1933)

I think most people agree that She Done Him Wrong, West’s first starring vehicle, is also her best film. It was based on her Broadway stage hit Diamond Lil (the reputation of which was so controversial Paramount changed its title even BEFORE the new Production Code.) As can be expected there’s a lot of pre-marital or just plain UN-marital sex hinted at, and some of it out and out talked about.  It’s set in a Bowery saloon during the 1890s. One of my favorite parts of the film is Mae’s two songs: a hot rendition of the old traditional song “Frankie and Johnny” and an equally sizzling version of the Shelton Brooks song “I Wonder Where My Easy Rider’s Gone”, first popularized by Sophie Tucker.

It features Cary Grant in one of his first big roles as a Salvation Army mission worker (who turns out to have some deeper layers). Also in the cast are former silent star Owen Moore (Mary Pickford’s first husband), Gilbert Roland, Noah Beery Jr, and David Landau (a familiar face in 30s movies. Sharp viewers will recognize him from Horse Feathers). 

I'm No Angel (1933)

 I’m No Angel (1933)

I’m No Angel was the follow up to  She Done Him Wrong, and I’d put both of them on the short list of her best pictures, though nothing is as good as the latter one, in my book.

In I’m No Angel, Mae starts out as a cooch dancer in a circus sideshow run by Edward Arnold. She has a man in her life (Ralf Harolde) but she’s tired of him and keeps an apartment in town where she sees other men. While she is dancing with one, her boyfriend “Slick” enters in a jealous rage  and clonks him. They think he is dead and  flee. (It turns out he is just unconscious.)  The boyfriend is sent up the river and Mae is obliged to cut a deal with the circus boss so he’ll pay for her lawyer.  At his insistence she becomes a lady lion tamer (!) and the act proves a success; she becomes a big star. From here she becomes the kept woman of a society guy (Kent Taylor) and then she dumps him when she falls in love with the man’s cousin, played by Cary Grant. Then Slick shows up and pretends he’s back in her life. Cary breaks off the marriage and she sues him for breach of promise. There’s a big trial scene where she conducts her own defense and Cary learns that she truly loves him and they reunite.

As in most of her films (she wrote them all) the plot is episodic, picaresque. Grant isn’t even in the movie until the last third or so. West shoe-horns a zillion of her quips into the script, many of them just gratuitously in there. They’re funny but don’t help move the plot. The only thing that holds it together really is Mae at the center, but that is plenty, believe you me. The film was directed by silent comedy vet Wesley Ruggles.

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Klondike Annie (1936)

Partially penned by West herself (based on her 1921 stage play Frisco Kate), the comedy essentially follows the same template as Charlie Chaplin’s The Pilgrim. A wanted criminal (West as the “Frisco Doll”) travels far from the scene of her crime and goes in disguise as a Bible thumper (“Sister Annie Alden”.) The turn of the century Alaskan setting conjured yet another Chaplin film: The Gold Rush. And this time out Mae had a serious hard-core quality director behind the lens: Raoul Walsh. The film suffered from heavy censorship — it’s best ten minutes are presumably destroyed forever. Still it marks her last really happy experience as a film auteur and the beginning of the end at Paramount. There were two more films to follow on her original contract, Go West, Young Man (1936) and Every Day’s a Holiday (1937), and then the studio let her go (this after her box office success had essentially save the studio five years earlier). But there’s a kind of Hollywood magic to Klondike Annie I’ve always relished; formally it’s kind of perfect, and it’s always been one of my favorite Mae West pictures.

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Night After Night (1932)

This was Mae’s Hollywood debut and ss you can see from the poster, she’s fourth billed in the picture, her presence there at all the result of her pal George Raft’s lobbying the studio (Paramount) on her behalf. Mae’s performance in the film is an object lesson for all of us: baby, when you get your big chance, do NOT blow it. West knew this was her one opportunity, and she picked up the ball and ran with it. She blazes across the screen as Raft’s ex-girlfriend Maudie, owner of a string of beauty parlors who gradually becomes fast friends with the gangster’s teacher, played by Allison Skipworth. The main plot is about Raft’s romance with a confused, depressed society girl played by Constance Cummings. Mae turns her minor role into a star turn, full of piss and vinegar.  She’s determined to make her mark and she does. She re-wrote her lines to suit her character, and they’re hilarious. She’s only in a few scenes, but she made such a huge impression that she immediately got signed to a contract. Her first starring vehicle was She Done Him Wrong, which rapidly made Mae Paramount’s biggest earner. Overnight she became one of the highest paid women in the country. But it all started with Night After Night.

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My Little Chickadee (1940)

Critics and fans alike have always tended to give this one a bad rap, but I’ve always loved it. I think the film does have a kind of chemistry and a kind of magic that somehow others aren’t seeing. It’s Me’s nor W.C. Fields’s best — but they’re BOTH in it, and they’re both great.  To me that’s like a Christmas gift

While now thought of as a comedy classic starring two Hollywood legends, the reality at the time of its production and release was a cole slaw of complications. In 1939, Universal was looking for a follow-up to the successful Jimmy Stewart/ Marlene Dietrich comedy western team-up Destry Rides Again. Fields and West were in very different positions at the time. Fields was under contract at Universal, experiencing a kind of Indian summer of his career, in the midst of what has come to be regarded as his creative peak as a comedy star. West, on the other hand, hadn’t made a movie in nearly three years. Like Fields, she had parted ways with Paramount acrimoniously. Unlike, Fields, she really had nowhere to go. Her screen character been based in part on sexual desirability and she was now in her late forties. And she was refusing to re-invent herself. (Indeed, she would refuse to do so until her dying day, which is why the world can now enjoy the tin-foil gilded freak show known as Sextette, made nearly 40 years after My Little Chickadee).

The screenplay is credited to both Fields and West, and there were contributions from various studio scribes. Fields definitely wrote several early treatments. The idea of a marriage of convenience seems to have been his. Certainly all of his characteristically flowery lines and his bits of physical business are his. And Mae’s plot seems to be mostly her handiwork. Mae’s comedies, just like most westerns of the time, have one foot planted squarely in the old “Mellers”, so she takes to this genre well. Criminality is a theme throughout her work. It’s a simple matter to transplant the lawlessness of the Bowery to the frontier. Most of the co-stars’ scenes are separate; the two comedians didn’t get along very well. West always hated the film, and Fields downplayed his own involvement in the screenplay.

In this film, Mae plays a Chicago saloon singer named Flower Belle who comes westward on the lam, all on account of her romantic involvement with a masked bandit. On the train she meets con man Cuthbert J. Twillie (Fields) whom she mistakes (thanks to his bag of counterfeit bills) for a moneybags. She “marries” him and they settle into Greasewood City. If Fields hopes to consummate the marriage (and he does) he is sorely disappointed. A goat shares his bed, while Flower Belle sees the Masked Bandit on the sly. (It’s okay. It turns out Fields and West aren’t married, after all. They guy who married them, played by the ubiquitous Donald Meek , merely LOOKS like a minister). Fields get busted when he is caught sneaking into Flower Belle’s room disguised as the Masked Bandit in order to get some action from his wife, even if he has to trick her. He is about to be hanged when Mae saves the day.

Mae’s double entendres are pretty toothless in the film; the censors had begun taking the bite out of her character years before. Latter day fans have cherished this film since at least the 1960s — from a distance. But in 1940, the comedians’ playful self-parody looked to a lot of critics like more of the same, just a rehash, and exhaustion. This didn’t stop the film from being popular with audiences though. Still, it couldn’t help poor Mae. Her next film was the exceedingly weak The Heat’s On three years later, and that was the end of her original Hollywood career.

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Belle of the Nineties (1934)

This was Mae’s third starring feature, directed be Leo McCarey. The film is kind of a “might have been”, one that one wishes could be restored to Mae’s original vision. It was originally to have been called It Ain’t No Sin, a perfect title to follow up I’m No Angel and She Done Him Wrong. That’s a way better title.

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But by now the censors were in full swing; 1934 was when the Production Code began to be more strictly enforced, and Mae’s first two featured had been largely responsible. Paramount changed that title and chopped out most of the best parts of the film. It’s directed by Leo McCarey so we know that the movie had to have been better than it is now. By all reports it had lots more racy stuff, but undoubtedly it was also funnier and made more sense.

Belle of the Nineties was Mae’s biggest budget picture to date. Since the first two were hits she got the go ahead to spend on lavish sets and costumes. There is music by Duke Ellington and lots and lots of songs, probably more than any other Mae West pictures. The picture opens with a TERRIFIC scene at a St. Louis burlesque theatre with chorus girls and comedians. Mae comes out posing in several costumes as a series of “living pictures” tableaux.

Then we get into the plot. She has a romance with a boxer, the Tiger Kid (Roger Pryor). His manager (Johnny Mack Brown) doesn’t like it, thinks it’s a distraction. So he fixes it so the boxer thinks she is playing around. She flees to New Orleans and begins working at a night club. The night club owner Ace Lamont (John Miljan)  takes a shine to her, making his girl friend jealous. Mae rejects the guy, sees another rich admirer who gives her jewels. The nightclub owner hires her old boyfriend the boxer both to fight for him and to steal the jewels. (The boxer doesn’t know they’re on Mae; he robs them in a carriage in the dark). Then there’s a big boxing match scene (which Mae fixes – she fixes ‘em all good). The boxer accidentally kills the nightclub owner as Mae retrieves her jewels. He tells the truth to Mae and she believes him and they burn the nightclub down to hide the murder! And somehow there’s a happy ending of them getting married and getting away with it!

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Every Day’s a Holiday (1937)

From a certain perspective this is the last proper Mae West starring vehicle from the classic studio era, My Little Chickadee and The Heat’s On each containing disqualifying elements.

After the uncharacteristic Go West, Young Man (1936) this one represents a return to Mae’s familiar gay 90s/ New York territory of her early films, but is a bit broader and cleaner (with the Hays Code now in full flower). It’s kind of a nice way for her to round out her initial run as a solo star although it’s sad it ended so early.

Director Eddie Sutherland‘s touch isn’t perfect. I don’t like the supporting cast playing their parts so broadly comical (there had been no need for that in She Done Him Wrong). But at least she didn’t end her solo career on the discordant note set by Go West, Young Man, which would have been unfortunate. In Every Day’s a Holiday she plays Peaches O’Day, wanted by police for repeatedly selling the Brooklyn Bridge to suckers. It opens on New Years Eve, 1900 — the dawn of a new century. Crooked police commissioner and mayoral aspirant Honest John (Lloyd Nolan) was spurned in the past so now he wants Peaches arrested for good. So now she is on the lam. The good looking detective assigned to arrest her tends to be kind-hearted so she keeps slipping away from the authorities. He exiles her to Boston, but not before she has ridden in a cab driven by Chester Conklin, where encounters an automobile driven by Charles Butterworth and his silly millionaire boss (Charles Winninger). Hustler/producer Walter Catlett gets her to return in disguise in her new show, Ooh La La. She pretends to ba French diva named Mademoiselle Fifi. The police chief falls in love with her. When she won’t date him he closed down the theatre so she does date him and when his back is turned she steals her rap sheet and burns it. she then runs the detective for mayor. He is kidnapped for awhile but emerges just in time to win the election. There is a huge parade and celebration featuring Louis Armstrong. Mae rides away with her triumphant boyfriend.

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Goin’ to Town (1935)

Goin’ to Town was Mae’s first post-code feature, and it’s kind of a mess. As always, it’s a showcase for her fabulousness, her beautiful outfits and so forth, although this time it’s set partially in a contemporary milieu (I say partially because the opening section is a western so it feels like a throwback). Most of her previous films had been set against the Diamond Lil backdrop of the 1890s (although Night After Night had certainly been contemporary).

Goin’ to Town is enjoyable and does have its racy parts but does seem to limp into the station on a little less gas.  It would have leaped the tracks into awesome if the main guy had been Cary Grant, whom Mae originally wrote the part for. The whole movie actually only makes sense from that perspective. The plot: Saloon singer Mae inherits an enormous ranch from her husband (murdered by rustlers on their wedding day) that turns out to have oil on it. She falls for the geological engineer in charge of the drilling (how’s THAT for a missed double entendre, Mae?) But he is an English snob and rejects her. (This of course would have been Grant’s part. Here it is played by some poor scraecow named Paul Cavanaugh). She follows him down to the casinos and racetracks of Argentina (because Mae is a show-woman nonpareil, there is a horse racing sequence). Here she throws her money around, but gets the idea into her head that she must have breeding to win her man, who continues to reject her. She marries a broke guy from a good family. Next we go to their mansion in Southampton, where Mae sings in the opera Samson and Delilah for a charity function. Her husband is killed in a plot to frame her, but the truth rapidly comes out and she gets her man. Or “men”. Along the way she’d also had her eye on a good looking Russian dude who is a pawn in the plot against her, and she also has a couple of guys on payroll to do her bidding, a business manager, and an American Indian from the ranch who does her dirty work and more heroic deeds.

I noted many continuity errors in shooting and editing, ones that are internal, i.e., weren’t caused by censor’s cuts, which is why I called it “a mess”.

But look! Mae sings opera!

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Go West, Young Man (1936)

Unthinkably this movie is not a western, the title is literally just a pun on the star’s name. Sadly, this is one of Mae’s worst films, not as bad as The Heat’s On, but it certainly takes second place as far as I’m concerned. Interestingly (and not surprisingly), while Mae was the foremost reason for the strict enforcement of the Hayes Code starting in 1934, she was also its most obvious victim. What could Mae do…if she couldn’t do what she did?!

GWYM was an attempt to make the star more mainstream, to take her out of her two usual settings: the criminal 1890s and the criminal present. Here, she plays something not too far from herself: a movie star diva. The tone is screwball comedy (the genre was then at its peak), and the director is Henry Hathaway. The property was based on a stage play adapted by West. On the face of it, it sounds great. Unfortunately, Mae is working so hard to convince the audience that she is not REALLY this awful character that she gives the worst performance of her career.

The first eight minutes are a film-within-the-film, as we screen the end of one of her character’s films. Then she comes out and gives a very long expository speech. You could cut out the first ten minutes of the movie without spilling a drop. Then we get the set up. Warren William (miscast) plays her studio p.r. man, whose job is to keep her out of trouble with men. (William, one of my favorite actors, is miscast here — too old, and too unselfish. He’s at his best as a con man or an ambulance chaser). Mae has a romance going with a young ambitious Chicago politician (Lyle Talbot), which William tries to discourage. While they are driving across rural Pennsylvania to meet him, their car breaks down and they have to stay at an inn run by a family of women. While there, she falls for local inventor Randolph Scott, who’s fixing their car…but apparently she is just toying with him and wants a piece of his invention. Then the authorities and public get the idea that she is kidnapped. Talbot and cops come rushing to the rescue. In the end she rejects both guys and goes with Warren William. The moral being that this corrupt, immoral movie star belongs with a corrupt, immoral press flack, instead of the normal, healthy, all-American tinkerer. It smacks of a message no one involved with this movie believes, least of all its star. It kind of seems like an exercise in building up Randolph Scott as a studio property at Mae’s expense. But she wasn’t through yet – – she had a couple of perfectly great pictures still to come.

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The Heat’s On (1943)

I’d long heard of this film as one of the classic bad/ sad comedy swan songs, up there with the Marx Brothers’ Love Happy and Laurel and Hardy’Utopia or Atoll K.  The good news is that it is not as bad as those other two movies, and no worse particularly than most of the other disposable crap Hollywood was squirting out during World War Two. If you are a Mae West fan it is disappointing; she’s only in about a quarter of the movie. This was a terrible era for comedy. In the 40s everyone’s needs came ahead of the comedians: singers, soldiers, studio accountants, the flag, jazz lovers, boring ass stuffed shirt romantics, the janitor… In fact the crummy plot of this movie is notably similar to the crummy plot of Love Happy: a bunch of people scheme and strive to put on a Broadway show. In a normal Mae West movie Mae is the only important person, she is onscreen almost every minute, and she gets all the funny lines. In this one she is horribly upstaged by Victor Moore, William Gaxton and Xavier Cugat and a million musicians and singers. Ironically, West was the one whose name director/producer Gregory Ratoff relied upon to raise the financing to make the film. It plays with Mae’s image some, but has nothing like the normal ratio of Westian witticisms. Instead of Mae, you get stuff like this Hazel Scott turn, which, ya know, a vaudeville guy like me can’t hate, which is why I have to say this one is a little better than Atoll K. 

For more on  comedy film history don’t miss my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, jeleased by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etcchain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500

 

15 Mae West Films That Never Got Made

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Mae West, Movies, Women with tags , , , , , on August 17, 2015 by travsd

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 intetntioms, 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

Mae West in “Every Day’s a Holiday”

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Mae West, Movies with tags , , on December 18, 2014 by travsd

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December 18, 1937 was the release date of the Mae West comedy Every Day’s a Holiday, directed by Eddie Sutherland.

From a certain perspective it is the last proper Mae West starring vehicle from the classic studio era, My Little Chickadee (1940) and The Heat’s On (1943) each containing disqualifying elements of one kind or another (she shares billing with W.C. Fields in the former; she’s scarcely in the latter.

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After the uncharacteristic Go West, Young Man (1936) Every Day’s a Holiday represents a return to Mae’s familiar gay 90s/ New York territory of her early films, but is a bit broader and cleaner (with the Hays Code now in full flower). It’s kind of a nice way for her to round out her initial run as a solo star although it’s sad it ended so early.

Sutherland’s touch isn’t perfect. I don’t like the supporting cast playing their parts so broadly comical as they do in this film (there had been no need for that in She Done Him Wrong, for example). But at least she didn’t end her solo career on the discordant note set by Go West, Young Man, which would have been unfortunate.

In Every Day’s a Holiday she plays Peaches O’Day, wanted by police for repeatedly selling the Brooklyn Bridge to suckers. It opens on New Years Eve, 1900 — the dawn of a new century. Crooked police commissioner and mayoral aspirant Honest John (Lloyd Nolan) was spurned in the past so now he wants Peaches arrested for good. Now she is on the lam. The good looking detective assigned to arrest her tends to be kind-hearted so she keeps slipping away from the authorities. He exiles her to Boston, but not before she has ridden in a cab driven by Chester Conklin, where encounters an automobile driven by Charles Butterworth and his silly millionaire boss (Charles Winninger).

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Hustler/producer Walter Catlett gets her to return in disguise in her new show, Ooh La La. She pretends to ba French diva named Mademoiselle Fifi. The police chief falls in love with her. When she won’t date him he closed down the theatre so she does date him and when his back is turned she steals her rap sheet and burns it. she then runs the detective for mayor. He is kidnapped for awhile but emerges just in time to win the election. There is a huge parade and celebration featuring Louis Armstrong. Mae rides away with her triumphant boyfriend.

Oh if only there’d been more Mae West films!

For more on classic comedy please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc. To find out more about show business past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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