JAN / FEB 2016: BY SCARLETT GRANT
When most people think of Classic Hollywood women, their minds drift to Monroe, Hepburn, Taylor or Kelly. Who they really should remember is Mae West. She was a quadruple threat, being an actor, singer, playwright and screenwriter. She also maintained a career spanning across seven decades. Throughout her long career, she encountered problems with censorship, and is considered one of the most controversial stars of her day. This did not seem to bother her though, as West famously stated “I believe in censorship. I made a fortune out of it.”
Mae West was born on 17th August 1893 in Brooklyn. The first crowd she performed for was at a church social when she was only five years old. By the time she was seven, she was performing in amateur shows. Her first professional performances began at fourteen when she entered the incredibly popular vaudeville scene. Like so many other famous stars, her career did not pick up immediately, one Broadway production she was in folded after only eight performances. But her luck soon picked up; when she was eighteen she was singled out in a review featured in the New York Times. The journalist wrote the “girl named Mae West, hitherto unknown, pleased by her grotesquerie and snappy way of singing and dancing.” Although she would not gain such exposure for another seven years, West continued to persevere through the support her mother gave her, who honestly believed she could do anything.
While still performing in theatre, West began writing plays under the name “Jane Mast.” Due to much of the content being deemed as immoral by the standards of the time, many plays were shut down before they opened. In some cases it involved the cast, including West, being arrested. Although sentenced for ten days imprisonment, she only served eight due to good behavior. It was reported that she had dined with the warden and his wife during her prison stint. Furthermore, the media attention surrounding these incidents resulted in many of her performances being completely sold out. The peak of her Broadway career was her 1928 play Diamond Lil, about a racy woman in the 1890s, which was a hit. Its popularity continued throughout West’s career and she revived it multiple times.
Although approaching forty (and even now considered an unusual age to begin a film career), West was offered a contract with Paramount Pictures. She had brought back her Diamond Lil character to the 1933 film She Done Him Wrong. It was a hit and nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture. Also, it is believed this film saved Paramount from bankruptcy. West later starred in five other films for Paramount, including the iconic I’m No Angel (1933), which featured the oft misquoted line “Why don’t you come up sometime and see me?” and Klondike Annie (1935). However, after her 1937 film Every Day’s A Holiday bombed at the box office she was no longer associated with the studio. To add further insult to injury she was dubbed “Box Office Poison.” West later signed with Universal Pictures and starred in My Little Chickadee (1940) which gave her a moderate comeback. But, after the critical and box office failure of The Heat’s On (1943), West did not make another film for 27 years.
West still remained active. She went back to what she did best, being a stage performer. One of the first performances she starred in was the successful Catherine Was Great (1944), a spoof of the Russian empress Catherine the Great. During the 1950s, West performed in her own Las Vegas show, with bodybuilders surrounding her as she sang. Her autobiography Goodness Had Nothing To Do With It was released in 1959. As expected, the book was a best-seller.
In 1970, West made her return to cinema in Myra Breckinridge. The deliberately camp comedy was both a commercial and critical failure, but later achieved an audience within cult film circles. The final film West appeared in was Sextette (1978). Although she was determined, many noticed how she would sometimes become disoriented and forgetful. In addition, her poor eyesight made navigating the set rather difficult. Shortly after the film’s release, she suffered two strokes, which left her paralyzed and she developed pneumonia. She died on 22nd November 1980 at 87 years old.
The long and persistent career of Mae West has left a mark upon popular culture. This includes fellow stage writers and performers such as Cole Porter who referenced her in his classic musical Anything Goes (1934), as well as legendary surrealist artist Salvador Dali. He was so fascinated by her that he made an artwork in the shape of her lips, called Mae West Lips Sofa (1937). If you look carefully, you can also spot Mae West on the cover of the iconic 1967 Beatles album Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band (she’s on the top row).
Her life displayed a dogged persistence. From her years fighting to the top on Broadway, to the rise and decline of her film career and even in her later years she did not allow her star to fade. Her determination also prevailed in that she would write and perform in her own productions, back in an era where women were often belittled into doing nothing. Finally, her famous controversies pushed the moral boundaries of the time making her a true trailblazer. This is all why Mae West is a true Classic Hollywood icon. ♥
Scarlett Grant is going to be graduating university this year, she is half scared and excited to be entering the real world. In addition to being an amateur history buff she is also interested in music, film and writing.