Where to start with film icon Mae West
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Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre, series, or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing email@example.com.
Geek obsession: Mae West
Why it’s daunting: Of all the great comedy stars of 1930s Hollywood, Mae West may be the one whose enduring image is most cut loose from its context. Thanks to countless animated cartoons and drag impersonators, everyone has some idea of how West talked and moved, and most people probably have some idea of her as a sexy lady whose every utterance was drenched in innuendo. By the time of her death, the number of professional Mae West imitations far outnumbered the number of actual, recorded Mae West performances, especially those from her prime. But the simplified popular image of West doesn’t really convey what was, and remains, challenging and revolutionary about the persona she had already developed by the time of her first movie appearance. Like the Marx Brothers, West started out in show business as a kid and honed her character through years of work in vaudeville, on Broadway, and on any other stage that would have her. By the time she first stepped in front of a camera, her act was perfected, with no room for tinkering and reshaping. As far as most of her audience—which now includes posterity—might be concerned, she was born at 39, with ungodly confidence and a dirty joke on her lips.
There’s a key difference between West and most of the actresses who are remembered as sexy comediennes, like Marilyn Monroe: Monroe was a limited actress who, in her quest to be famous, learned to use what nature had given her. West, who wrote all her best material, chose sex as her subject matter, and if the audience accepted her as sexy, it was because there was clearly no percentage in arguing with her. A female rock critic once wrote that it might never have occurred to her, or anyone else, that Mick Jagger was beautiful if he hadn’t told them, and there was a lot Mick might have learned from West. (“When I was born with this face,” she tells her maids in I’m No Angel, “it was the same as strikin’ oil.”) Certainly Quentin Crisp seemed to have learned something from her when, in the age of celebrity confession and TV-host-as-therapist, he confused interviewers by assuring them that his self-generated persona was who he was: There was nothing beneath the mask, certainly nothing he had any desire to share with millions of strangers. Which points to the other difference between West and someone like Monroe: West had absolutely no interest in appearing vulnerable, and would rather have died than risk being seen as anyone’s victim. She had no objection to being loved, but only if it was for her strength.
Possible gateway: She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel (both from 1933)
Why? These two short features—She Done Him Wrong is only an hour and six minutes long—were West’s first two starring vehicles in the movies, and together they nicely sum up the range of what she could do. Both co-star the young, studly Cary Grant, and he’s pretty essential to their appeal—not because he was a wizardly movie actor, because at this stage of his career, he wasn’t, but because his youth, good looks, and British accent define him as a class act. (The British accent hadn’t lost its last trace of Cockney, but what did Americans know from the British class system?) In both these films, West is the magnetic sexual center of a tough, lawless milieu, surrounded by roughnecks and scoundrels. Grant represents higher things—defined by more comfortable accommodations and a steady bedmate one can’t imagine ever getting tired of looking at—and it’s his job, at the end of both pictures, to elevate her out of the hardscrabble setting we’ve been so enjoying but wouldn’t much want to live in ourselves.
Set mostly in a Bowery saloon in the 1890s, She Done Him Wrong is the movie version of Diamond Lil (the eponymous protagonist of West’s 1928 play), minus a few licentious details and the heroine’s original name. For some reason, Paramount thought it would be way classier and less morally objectionable for her to be called “Lady Lou.” The movie established several near-constants of the Mae West universe. The most obvious of these is that every man who gazes on her loses his mind and has to have her. The villain sold her former boyfriend out to the cops and is now patiently biding his time, waiting for her current main man to fall. Another constant is that there are two kinds of women in this world: Those who are consumed with jealousy over the effect Mae has on men, and the black maids who just feel privileged to listen to her wisecracks and watch a master seductress in action. But it also established the Gay Nineties as West’s period of choice, mostly because the fashions associated with the era were becoming to her figure. In a smart essay on West and her legacy, Claudia Roth Pierpont wrote, “Basically, after 1928, no one ever saw her legs again.” Part of West’s contemporary accomplishment was to help kill off the streamlined ideal of the ’20s flapper, earning her the undying gratitude of every woman who’d been waiting 10 years for the chance to order dessert.
As much as She Done Him Wrong is a rich, potent slice of West’s world, it’s also a tribute to the unbridled wild side of pre-Code Hollywood. In spite of the changes made to West’s play—originally, Gus, her sugar daddy du jour, was involved in the white-slave trade; here, he’s taking lost, hungry girls off the streets and forcing them to become pickpockets—this is one crazy-sleazy world, in which dead bodies are casually disposed of left and right. Luckily, West can always provide a handy distraction by balancing a hat the size of an apple cart on her head and going downstairs to sing “Frankie And Johnny” or “I Wonder Where My Easy Rider’s Gone.” (West’s taste in blues songs, and her patronage of actresses such as Louise Beavers, helped make her almost as popular among black audiences as she was among gays, who appreciated that she’d modeled her “sexy woman” act on female impersonators such as Bert Savoy.) Grant plays a religious Samaritan who claims to see the good in her and wants to change her ways—except it turns out, in the last reel, that he’s really a ruthless undercover cop known as “the Hawk” who’s been motivated to bust up the criminal operation at the saloon so he can have her to himself.
I’m No Angel is a good deal less scuzzy, but still funny. West plays a carnival entertainer whose act “proves that you don’t have to have feet to be a dancer,” until she creates a sensation as a lady lion tamer. She almost busts up the impending marriage of a young Park Avenue swell, until Grant, his best friend, goes to gauge her intentions. As soon as he lays eyes on her, his own intentions undergo a massive shift. Before you know it, they’re engaged to be married, but her old boss and sugar daddy, Edward Arnold, tricks Grant into thinking that she—perish the thought!—has been unfaithful, and he breaks it off without even talking to her. To get even, she hauls him into court and uses her time in the witness chair to show Grant and everyone else just how quick-witted and funny a woman can be. (Like most movie comedians of the ’30s, West could talk very fast, especially considering how slowly she did everything else. As the song says, she was built for comfort, not for speed.) In the end, he comes crawling back, and out of the goodness of her heart, she lets him back in, after shoving the judge from the trial out the front door.
Next steps: These movies were such hits that they’re commonly credited with having saved the studio from going under, but the censors and pressure groups were quick to rise to the bait, and none of West’s subsequent movies caught her at full flavor. Her next movie, Belle Of The Nineties, lost its original title, It Ain’t No Sin, after protesters hit the streets carrying signs reading simply, “It is!” Forced to work extra hard to inject the appearance of something licentious into scripts that had been scrubbed and re-scrubbed, West, like many another cutting-edge comic with a strongly defined persona, began to look like a simulation of herself. Both she and W. C. Fields look like imitations of their younger, more inspired selves in the 1940 team-up effort My Little Chickadee—a movie that has been excerpted and quoted so often that it’s left many people with the impression that they appeared together more than this once. It’s a film that has a crummy reputation among purists, but if you approach it with modest expectations, it’s often funny, and a chance to see two giants together—and to realize that they could both be quite entertaining even when phoning it in. The cast also includes Margaret Hamilton, the Wicked Witch of the West. (“I’m afraid I can’t say anything good about her,” she says of West. “I can see what’s good,” says Fields. “Tell me the rest.”)
West also had a longing to be taken seriously as a writer. Anyone curious to see what she could do with words on the page is directed to her racially charged novel Babe Gordon, which, along with a clutch of her plays, was republished (as The Constant Sinner) in the ’90s by Virago Press.
Where not to start: In the late ’40s, West rejected Billy Wilder’s pleas that she consider taking the role of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. According to Wilder, this was because West pretty much was Norma Desmond; though almost 60, “she thought she was as great, as desirable, as sexy as she had ever been.” In the ’60s and ’70s, it became possible to be as sexually explicit in movies as anyone might have hoped, and it must have seemed to West as if her moment had arrived. She warmed up for her comeback with a few rock albums, including 1968’s Way Out West (including her versions of “Day Tripper” and “Twist And Shout,” which must have been her idea of paying the Beatles back for including her on the cover of Sgt. Pepper) and 1972’s Great Balls Of Fire, which gives listeners the chance to hear Diamond Lil take on “Light My Fire.”
She also appeared in two movies, either of which would be useful in helping a Martian grasp the meaning of the word “unwatchable:” Myra Breckinridge, for which she demanded, and received, top billing for a smallish role, and her last refusal to go gentle into that good night, 1978’s Sextette, in which a small army of guest stars—including Dom DeLuise, Tony Curtis, Ringo Starr, George Hamilton, Alice Cooper, Keith Moon, and Walter Pidgeon—continually frustrate the octogenarian leading lady in her attempts to go to bed and consummate her marriage to Timothy Dalton. As Claudia Roth Pierpont has pointed out, her appearances in these films are very painful to watch, because, in the ultimate indignity for a woman who built a whole career on knowingness, she doesn’t seem to be fully in on the joke.