Sunday, August 1, 2010

Monthly Muse: Mae West

Today is the first day of August which means it's time for another monthly muse and this month its American actress, playwright, screenwriter and sex symbol - Mae West.

Mae West was born on 17th August 1893 in Bushwick, Brooklyn, Kings County, New York daughter of John Patrick West and Matilda "Tillie" Doelger. Mae's father was a prizefighter known as "Battlin' Jack West" who later worked as a policeman and then a private investigator with his own agency. Her mother was a former corset and fashion model.

Mae began performing at the age of 5 at a church social and started appearing in amateur shows at the age of 7. She often won prizes at local talent contests. She began performing professionally in vaudeville in the Hal Clarendon Stock Company in 1907 at the age of fourteen performing under the name Baby Mae.

In 1918, after exiting several high-profile revues, West finally got her break in the Shubert Brothers revue Sometime, opposite Ed Wynn. Eventually she bagan writing her own risque plays including one entitled 'Sex'. Though critics slated the show ticket sales were good but it did not go down well with city officials and the theatre was raided and Mae was sentenced to 10 days in prison for 'corrupting the morals of youth'. She served 8 with 2 days off for good behaviour.

Her next play, The Drag, dealt with homosexuality and was what West called one of her "comedy-dramas of life". However, The Drag never opened on Broadway due to the Society for the Prevention of Vice vows to ban it if West attempted to stage it. Mae continued to write plays including The Wicked Age, Pleasure Man and The Constant Sinner but her productions were plagued with controversy and other problems. This ensured the Mae stayed in the headlines and resulted in packed performances. Her 1928 play, Diamond Lil, about a racy, easygoing lady of the 1890s, became a Broadway hit.

In 1932, Mae was offered a motion picture contract by Paramount Pictures. Her screen debut was a small part in Night After Night starring George Raft. Mae was unhappy with the small part but was appeased by the fact she got to review her own lines. In West's first scene, a hat check girl exclaims, "Goodness, what beautiful diamonds." West replies, "Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie." Reflecting on the overall result of her rewritten scenes, Raft is said to have remarked, "She stole everything but the cameras.

She brought her Diamond Lil character, now renamed Lady Lou, to the screen in She Done Him Wrong (1933) with Cary Grant whom was cast at Mae's insistence after she spotted him at the studio. The film was a box office hit and earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. In her next release I'm No Angel she paired with Grant again.

West's next film was Belle of the Nineties (1934). Originally titled It Ain't No Sin, the title was changed due to the censors' objections. The next, Goin' To Town (1935), received mixed reviews.

Her next film, Klondike Annie (1936), was very controversial due to its religious subject matter. That same year, West played opposite Randolph Scott in Go West, Young Man. In this film, she adapted Lawrence Riley's Broadway hit Personal Appearance into a screenplay. Directed by Henry Hathaway, Go West, Young Man is considered one of West's weaker films of the era.[52] After this film, West starred in Every Day's a Holiday (1937) for Paramount before their association came to an end.

In 1939, Universal Pictures approached West to star in a film opposite W. C. Fields. Having left Paramount eighteen months earlier and looking for a comeback film, West accepted the role of Flower Belle Lee in the film My Little Chickadee (1940. Despite mutual dislike between West and Fields (at least in part because West was a teetotaler who disapproved of Fields' heavy drinking) and fights over the screenplay, My Little Chickadee was a box office success, outgrossing Fields' previous films You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939) and The Bank Dick (1940).

West's next film was The Heat's On (1943) for Columbia Pictures. She initially didn't want to do the film but after producer and director Gregory Ratoff pleaded with her and claimed he would go bankrupt if she didn't, West relented. The film opened to bad reviews and failed at the box office. West would not return to films until 1970

West made some rare appearances on television, including The Red Skelton Show in 1960. In 1964, she guest starred on the sitcom Mister Ed. In order to keep her appeal fresh with younger generations, she recorded two rock and roll albums, Way Out West and Wild Christmas in the late 1960s.She also recorded a number of parody songs including "Santa, Come Up to See Me" on the album Wild Christmas. West recorded another album in the 1970s on MGM Records titled Great Balls of Fire, which covered songs by The Doors among others.

After a 26-year absence from motion pictures, West appeared as Leticia Van Allen in Gore Vidal's Myra Breckinridge (1970) with Raquel Welch, Rex Reed, Farrah Fawcett, and Tom Selleck in a small part. The movie was a deliberately campy sex change comedy that was both a box office and critical failure.

In 1976, she appeared on the The Dick Cavett Show and that same year began work on her final film, Sextette (1978). Adapted from a script written by West, daily revisions and disagreements hampered production from the beginning. Due to the numerous changes, West agreed to have her lines fed to her through a speaker concealed in her wig. Despite the daily problems, West was, according to Sextette director Ken Hughes, determined to see the film through. In spite of her determination, Hughes noted that West sometimes appeared disoriented and forgetful and found it difficult to follow his directions. Her now failing eyesight also made navigating around the set difficult. Hughes eventually began shooting her from the waist up to hide the out-of-shot production assistant crawling on the floor, guiding her around the set. Upon its release, Sextette was a critical and commercial failure.

August 1980, West tripped while getting out of bed. After the fall, West was unable to speak and was taken to the Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles where tests revealed that she had suffered a stroke.She remained in the hospital where, seven days later, she had a diabetic reaction to the formula in her feeding tube. On September 18, she suffered a second stroke which left her right side paralyzed and developed pneumonia. By November, West's condition had improved, but the prognosis was not good and she was sent home. She died there on November 22, 1980, at age 87.

Mae was famous for her bawdy one liners. Here are some of her best quips:
♥ "It's not the men in my life, it's the life in my men."
♥ "Marriage is a great institution, but I'm not ready for an institution."
♥ "When I'm good, I'm very good. When I'm bad, I'm better."
♥ "A hard man is good to find."
♥ "Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?"

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