“When I’m good, I’m very good. But when I’m bad, I’m better.”–Mae West.
Mae West lived to be 87 or 88… her birth year seems to be a matter of debate. For at least 80 of those years, she gave new meaning to the word “show” in her chosen profession.
At a time when very few women in show business had the guts to wangle higher salaries and production control from the fat cats who held Broadway and Hollywood in their grip, she managed to swing both. And they sure made a good investment. Her incendiary Broadway plays drew record crowds and a boatload of publicity. Her successful run of films during the height of the Great Depression pulled Paramount Pictures from the brink of bankruptcy.
Tantalizing highlights of Mae West’s colorful life story are recalled via vintage archival footage, feature film and TV clips and an excessive number of talking heads in the latest episode of the Award-winning American Masters series. Mae West: Dirty Blonde debuts on PBS tonight, Tuesday, June 16, 2020, 8:00 – 9:30 p.m. ET/ 7:00 p.m. Central. (Check local listings for air times in your region, http://www.pbs.org/maewest and the PBS Video app for streaming, and http://ShopPBS.org for DVD availability.)
Mae West was a power player and trailblazer and her forte was sex. She dressed the part, sang the songs, and delivered the racy lines she wrote to make censors cringe and audiences roar with laughter. “I believe in censorship,” she said. “After all, I made a fortune out of it.”
Through eight decades, she established herself as a singer, dancer, actress, playwright, screenwriter, director and producer, in a career that began as child actress “Baby Mae” in Brooklyn dives, then quickly segued to vaudeville and burlesque, where she was credited with popularizing a suggestive dance called “the shimmy.”
Next stop Broadway, where after making a splash in small bawdy roles, she wrote and starred in her risqué 1926 play, Sex, which landed her in a paddy wagon, arrested with 20 other cast members and convicted for obscenity and corrupting “the morals of youth.” She schmoozed with the warden and his wife, and her 10-day jail sentence was aborted for good behavior.
Riding the wave of naughty notoriety, she sashayed back to town and followed Sex with The Drag in 1927, featuring a homosexual theme that dabbled in conversion therapy and climaxed with a drag ball that she cast with 40 or 50 gay and cross-dressing non-pros. The play closed out of town, but cemented her popularity in the LGBTQ community that continues to this day.
While her buxom hourglass figure and titillating characters had surefire appeal to straight men, she deliberately gussied up her next play, Diamond Lil (1928), with gorgeous costumes to broaden her fan base and attract female audiences. It worked.
Diamond Lil became a commercial and critical hit and led to her record-breaking contract with Paramount Pictures. She not only negotiated a higher salary than the Paramount Studio chief who hired her, but the contract also assured her unprecedented control over every aspect of her films, from costumes and lighting to scripts and leading men. And so, in the blink of Mae West’s baby blues, Cary Grant came out of the shadows from studio test extra to land his first leading man role opposite West in She Done Him Wrong (1933), a screen adaptation of her play, Diamond Lil.
“I wrote the story myself,” said Mae West. “It’s all about a girl who lost her reputation but never missed it.”
When the infamous Motion Picture Production Code kicked into high gear in Hollywood in 1934, her films were targeted by the censors. She persevered, but soon America had a new, censor friendly box office superstar: Shirley Temple.
At the height of her success, Mae West wasn’t rail thin or a sweet young thing, but she could stop traffic and turn men into mush with her sexy stroll and bon mots. She always had the upper hand with the men she seduced on and off camera, from Cary Grant and George Raft to W.C. Fields and the phalanx of oiled-up muscle men she featured in her Las Vegas nightclub act during her twilight years. “She stole everything but the cameras,” recalled George Raft.
The period during which Mae West’s life story and show business career played out is rich with potential for any filmmaker. She was and remains an icon–a subversive female artist and writer before her time–and her story has yet to be told fully on screen.
The directors of Mae West: Dirty Blonde, Sally Rosenthal and Julia Marchesi, work hard to make their 90-minute running time work for West. They incorporate wonderful vintage period footage to frame West’s evolution from “Baby Mae” to “Diamond Lil.” Clips from West’s films, as well as abbreviated segments featuring her highly touted TV appearance on Dick Cavett’s talk show, her shelved interview in 1959 with Charles Collingwood for CBS-TV’s “Person to Person,” and her scandalous 1937 NBC Radio tête-â-tête with Charlie McCarthy and Edgar Bergen are high points.
But Rosenthal and Marchesi play it safe… too safe. They plump up the narrative with an overpowering music score, and pack their film with historians and critics, as well as a few of West’s erstwhile pals who have a backstory to tell but don’t tell it, and an odd assortment of show business names that could easily have been replaced by a narrator to whom contemporary audiences would immediately relate and whose career is distinctly modeled on West’s. Paging Bette Midler!
Bette Midler serves as an Executive Producer of this film. She would have been an ideal narrator or, at the very least, a prominent talking head. And why not reduce the number of critics and historians down to one or two that have the most clout: Jeanine Basinger and Molly Haskell get my vote. Celebrity talking heads who actually lend credence and advance the narrative here include André Leon Talley, Lady Bunny, Natasha Lyonne, Candice Bergen (“sister” of Charlie McCarthy) and Ringo Starr, who co-starred with West in her final film, Sextette (1978). One wonders why other co-stars from that film and West’s other late-in-life film, Myra Breckinridge (1970), were not tapped as well.
“A dame that knows the ropes,” wise-cracked Mae West, “isn’t likely to get tied up.” Mae West knew what she was doing, had the last laugh, and died a millionaire in November 1980. Her definitive film bio is yet to be made…but Mae West: Dirty Blonde is a start.
American Masters–Mae West: Dirty Blonde is a production of THIRTEEN productions LLC’s American Masters for WNET. The film debuts on PBS tonight, Tuesday, June 16, 2020, 8:00 – 9:30 p.m. ET/ 7:00 p.m. Central. (Check local listings for air times in your region, http://www.pbs.org/maewest and the PBS Video app for streaming, and http://ShopPBS.org for DVD availability.) –Judith Trojan