Throughout history, Hollywood has presented us with a collection of performers
that defy classification, in my opinion, as human. Are they Aliens? Gods? Mutants?
Who knows, but they still make us pay attention. Even after they depart from the
mortal plane, we are still fascinated.
Mae West was a genius. Her ability to make innuendo an art form makes her unique
in American history. Many try, but few succeed. Years ago, I worked on a project
about her and her fabled Broadway production of Sex and her conviction for
corrupting the morals of youth. Not a youth, all youth. The youth of New York, if not
all of America, was corrupted by Mae West. She spent eight days of a ten-day
sentence dining with the Warden and his wife. When asked about getting released
early for good behavior, she replied, "Imagine that!"
Mae West was born almost 120 years ago, around August 17th. It happened in the town of Bushwick, populated by millennial hipsters today, in the city of Brooklyn. Before New York City consolidated into the five boroughs, we know and love today. Her dad was a bare-fisted prize fighter, and her mother was a midwife and part-time corset model. A hundred years ago, prizefighting and being a fashion model were this: Jack West sometimes got paid to beat someone up in front of an audience, and Tillie West worked for a store, and when women wanted to see what a particular corset looked like, she would put it on and
model it. There was no 1890 version of the Sports Illustrated Bathing Suit edition.
Her modeling career ended in the dressing room.
Jack also worked as a special police officer. They called him in when they needed the
muscle. He would also work as a private detective. The West family lived all over
Brooklyn and it was there that Baby Mae made her first stage appearance, as you guessed it, Baby Mae. As she got older, she tried an array of personas, including that
of a drag king. Mae went a bit farther in that she was a woman, playing a man who
was playing a woman. Blake Edward's fantastic film, Victor Victoria, involves this
sort of thing.
By the time Mae hit Broadway, she was notorious for her provocative walk. She had
copied the exaggerated feminine movement of the Drag Performers she worked
with in Greenwich Village. A sort of Ru Paul's Drag Race of the 1920s. Some would
eventually become popular during the Pansy Craze of the early 1930s.
Pansy Craze? WTF!!! Okay, here's a shocker, the theater has gay people working in it.
After the turn of the 20th century, gay men created a subculture in many of the
world's big cities. I'm sure it existed before, but regarding Mae West, we will start at
the dawn of the 20th century. Places like Greenwich Village in New York, Soho in
London and Paris in France had clubs that provided a particular type of entertainment for a discerning audience. Eventually, it broke through into the mainstream. Heck, it even had its own language, Polari.
Back to Mae sashaying her way onto a Broadway stage at 18(ish) in 1911, the show:
La Broadway lasted half a week. This quote from the New York Times was the
show's best review: "A girl named Mae West, hitherto unknown, was pleased by her
grotesquerie and snappy way of singing and dancing." With reviews like that, it's a
wonder it closed. Next up, she appeared with a young Al Jolson in Vera Violetta in
1912. I wonder how I have lived this long without ever writing the words- Young Al
She finally hit the big time in Some Time, starring Ed Wynne. The play featured Mae singing a song called "Ev'rybody Shimmies Now" She suggestively shimmied to great success in the role. Even though starlet Gilda Grey was considered the creator of the dance sensation, Mae was featured doing the shimmy on the cover of the sheet music for the song. In 1918 this was huge!
Mae West had yet to find a starring vehicle for her singular talent. She began writing plays under the name Jane Mast, "You know, like that thing that sticks up on a boat!" Eventually, she came up with the play Sex, and the rest is, as they say, history. Tickets were selling like hot cakes, okay, like new Nike sneakers. Reviewers panned it, the church - every church came out against it. Finally, the city stepped in and canceled her. The trial, the corruption of all youth, and then she hit them with, The Drag. About, well, it's all in the title. "The city fathers begged me not to bring the show to New York because they were not equipped to handle the commotion it would cause." Mae supposedly told one of her biographers.
However, Mae hit it big after almost a decade of producing plays on Broadway with Diamond Lil. The role cemented her persona and, with her penchant for getting the press' attention, eventually led to her first Hollywood contract in 1932. She could have been anywhere between thirty-five and forty-two years old. A little long in the tooth for a starlet. Paramount paid her $5,000.00 a week, which is around a hundred thousand today, which is why she got on the train and went west!
She made her film debut in the role of Maudie in 1932s Night After Night, starring fellow New Yorker George Raft. Mae hated her small supporting part in the drama. Somehow she convinced them she could rewrite portions of her character's dialogue. She was a real live Broadway-produced playwright. One of her additions is in her first scene in Night After Night, when a hat-check girl exclaims, "Goodness, what beautiful diamonds!" West replies, "Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie." George Raft said, "She stole everything on that picture but the cameras."
And so a legend was born, or made, or concocted. Or perhaps, just perhaps, Mae West landed here from another planet, and that explains her. She lived until a ripe old age of around ninety and made her last film appearance, Sextette, based on her play of the same name, a few years earlier. (Still around ninety) She fell out of bed and lost the ability to speak and move. She died a few days later and returned to a very different Brooklyn than the one she had been born in a century before.
Let's say that the lovely little village of Cyprus Hills, in whose hills she was planted, had inspired its own platinum-selling rap group, Cyprus Hill, with hits like "How I Could Just Kill A Man" and "Hand On The Pump."
So what if she didn't make a film until she was around 40. If you were Mae West, would you tell your age? She was the oldest ingenue in Hollywood. In the words of Max Bialystock in Mel Brooks' masterpiece The Producers, "If you got it, baby, flaunt it! Flaunt it!"
and flaunt it, she did. I guess it's never too late. Hello Mr. De Mille? I'm ready for MY close-up.