Happy Birthday, Mae!

Way before Sinead O’Connor ripped a photo of Pope John Paul II on live TV while singing the word ‘evil,’ or Lady Gaga attended the MTV Video Music Awards wearing a dress made of raw beef, or Madonna’s so-called obscene sexual imagery of her 1990 video, “Justify My Love,” there was Mae West, who was born this week in 1893, and who pretty much invented all the tricks of the trade, rocking the entertainment boat more profusely and shockingly than any other performer since.

Mary Jane West was born on August 17, 1893, in Kings County, New York. Her father was an American boxer, while his mother, of Bavarian descent, was a former corset and fashion model. She was barely five when she began entertaining crowds during church social gatherings and by the time she was seven, she was a regular in amateur shows, often winning prizes.

By age 14, West was appearing regularly in a vaudeville company playing several characters. She made her first appearance on Broadway in 1911, at age 17, and was singled out by a New York Times reviewer only a year later.

She began using Jane Mast as a pen name to write her own risqué plays. In 1926, she had her first starring role on Broadway for her own play, titled Sex, which she also produced and directed. Ticket sales were strong but the production didn’t go over well with conservative critics, leading to a theater raid in which she was arrested along with the rest of the cast. While she could have easily paid a fine, she chose to serve time, spending 10 days in jail for “corrupting the morals of youth.” Her next play, The Drag, dealt with homosexuality and never opened on Broadway.

Whereas other actresses considered ‘sexy comediennes’ (Marilyn Monroe, for example) relied on their looks exclusively, West wrote all her material choosing sex as her subject matter. Despite being what was considered late to embark on a film career, West accepted a contract by Paramount Pictures in 1932 when she was almost 40. She was allowed to rewrite her scenes to better suit her zingy one-liners, such that her co-star, George Raft, is said to have remarked, “She stole everything but the cameras.”

In a matter of months, references to Mae West appeared everywhere, from Cole Porter Songs to Betty Boop cartoons, to a painting by Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. By 1935, her ability to make fun of sex—and tap into subconscious fears of it—made her the United States’ highest-paid woman in any field with only five motion pictures under her belt. By 1934, however, the Motion Picture Production Code, a set of industry moral guidelines that was applied to most US films, tarnished her genius as a playwright, actress and singer. She continued to appear in film and television during the ensuing decades, but the censorship Code was not lifted until 1968 when it was replaced by the film rating system currently used today.

Her comeback film after a 27-year absence from motion pictures, Myra Breckinridge (1970, see below), is now considered among the worst films of all time. In 1971, the student body of University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) voted Mae West “Woman of the Century” in honor of her relevance as a pioneering advocate of sexual frankness and courageous crusader against censorship.

Some Films to Consider

Who could possibly count the number of drag impersonators professional imitators or animated cartoons in which some semblance of West’s sexy moves has been imitated or parodied? In order to discover (or rediscover) the original, consider the following films:

She Done Him Wrong (1933) and I’m No Angel (1933)
These were her first two starring roles in the movies. The former film offers a beautiful glimpse at how crazy Hollywood could be before vigilant censors began restricting her actions in subsequent films.

Belle of the Nineties (1934)
This film gets additional music-related nods, as West lobbied successfully for the film to feature the Duke Ellington Orchestra, which also meant that it was the first time a white female singer shared the screen with so many black musicians.

My Little Chickadee (1940)
A unique opportunity to see West working alongside renowned vaudeville comedian, W.C. Fields.

Myra Breckinridge (1970)
Based on Gore Vidal’s 1968 novel of the same name, this comedy film has been cited by many critics among the worst ever made. It stars Rachel Welch as a transgender woman who has undergone a sex-change operation. A 77-year-old West stars as Leticia van Allen, an octogenarian casting agent who seduces young men who come to her for auditions, including a 25-year-old Tom Selleck, in his film debut. Ouch!

And a Bit of Music…
Given the sexual revolution that took place during the 60s and 70s, it seemed like a good time for West to consider a comeback to the silver screen. To test the waters, she recorded a few rock albums, including Way Out West (1968) in which she covers versions of the Beatles’ “Day Tripper” and “Twist And Shout.” And if this doesn’t seem twisted enough for you, go to YouTube and search for her 1972 version of “Light My Fire,” recorded at age 79. Consider consuming some strong spirits or mind-altering substances prior to enjoying the latter, for a more palatable experience.

Memorable One-Liners by Mae West

“I believe in censorship. I made a fortune out of it.”

“When I’m good I’m very, very good, but when I’m bad, I’m better.”

“When choosing between two evils, I always like to try the one I’ve never tried before.”

“A hard man is good to find.”

“Is that a pistol in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?”