Vaudeville Performer, Playwright, Broadway Sensation, Movie Star, Sex Goddess…Mae West was each of these things, but first and foremost she was an independent woman who became an icon simply by being herself.
Mae started performing at an early age and never looked back. She took advantage of the Roaring Twenties and society’s less constricted view of what a woman was allowed to be. Naturally, she pushed the envelope farther than anyone else by calling the first play she wrote “Sex” and causing a sensation in the leading role. Arrest and conviction on a morals charge didn’t slow her one bit—the publicity was fantastic!—and she followed up with success after success on the Great White Way.
In 1928 her fourth full-length Broadway play, “Diamond Lil” drew rave reviews, lines around the block, and made Mae a full-fledged Broadway star. But Hollywood didn’t roll out the red carpet for Mae as it had for other Broadway sensations. The film companies' self-regulatory body, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (commonly known as the Hays Office) banned the play as unsuitable for the screen.
It took a nudge from her old pal, matinee idol George Raft to get her into pictures. On his recommendation, Paramount offered Mae a two-week contract for a small part in Raft’s nightclub melodrama “Night After Night”. Mae, of course, rewrote her part to fit her style and practically directed her own scenes. She stole the show with the line she wrote in response to the comment, “Goodness, what beautiful diamonds.” “Goodness,” she replied, “had nothing to do with it, dearie.”
Her obvious talents won her the studio’s respect and convinced Paramount to take a chance on her recent hit, the controversial “Diamond Lil”. They changed the plot to placate the censors, changed the title to “I’m No Angel” and introduced Mae West to the world. It was a triumph that quickly led to the production of “She Done Him Wrong”. Together they saved Paramount from bankruptcy and made Mae the most famous woman in America. But at the same time, her name became a byword for sex—a situation the censors simply could not allow to continue.
Her next film, based on the play “It Ain’t No Sin” was released under the title “Belle of the Nineties” only after it was cleaned up by the Production Code Administration and then again by the New York State Board of Motion Picture Censorship. The radical changes in the picture had dire consequences. Audience reaction was lukewarm and her next four films suffered the same whitewashing. The true Mae West, the blunt, forthright, independent woman was too much for Hollywood in the 1930s. One of her last films of the era “My Little Chickadee” with W.C. Fields was well-received, but she was frustrated by the restrictions and the meddling coming from the powers that be.
Years later she would retake control of her image by producing another stage show—this time in Las Vegas! The show featured West’s familiar delivery, fabulous costumes, favorite songs, and a chorus of eight weightlifters dressed only in loincloths. The show was a sensation and reminded audiences of her unique talents and star quality.
In the 1960s and '70s the world finally caught up with Mae as the sexual revolution picked up the banner she had carried fifty years before. Her films were rediscovered and showcased at new independent film houses. Mae suddenly had a new career as the “queen of camp”. Two final films resulted: “Myra Breckinridge” and “Sextette”.
Although changing times made Mae’s risqué humor seem more old-fashioned than trend-setting, her style and her inimitable delivery of a delicious double-entendre have remained instantly identifiable even today. As critic Kevin Thomas said in the eulogy delivered at the actress’s funeral in 1980, “the woman and the legend had long since become one.”