Mae West’s Bawdy Spirit Spans the Gay 90’s

Mae West’s Bawdy Spirit Spans the Gay 90’s


ae West, the blond, diamond-studded, wisecracking, sashaying vamp from Brooklyn who lit up the stage in the 1920’s and the screen in the 30’s with a special brand of gender-bending sexuality, still defies categories and refuses to be conscripted into any one ideological army. The salty double-entendres, delivered with the drawling voice and rolling hips, have been recycled by a thousand female impersonators, but she was already there. As early as 1934 she was being called (by a writer in Vanity Fair) “the greatest female impersonator of all time.”

As writer of her own material, Mae West was as celebrated for her lines as her curves. “Come up and see me sometime” and “Beulah, peel me a grape” even made Bartlett’s “Familiar Quotations.” But as she herself said, “It isn’t what I do, but how I do it. It isn’t what I say, but how I say it, and how I look when I do it and say it.” In fact, her delivery could turn such otherwise innocuous lines as “I wouldn’t lift my veil for that guy” and “I wouldn’t let him touch me with a 10-foot pole” into censorable material. Here are some others.

“A man has more character in his face at 40 than at 20 — he has suffered longer.”

“When a woman goes wrong, men go right after her.”

“I like a man who’s good, but not too good. For the good die young, and I hate a dead one.”

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

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

“Men like women with a past — because they hope history will repeat itself.”

“It’s not the men in my life that count — it’s the life in my men.”

“It’s better to be looked over than to be overlooked.”

“I was in a tight spot, but I managed to wriggle out of it.”

“Marriage is a great institution — but I’m not ready for an institution.”

“Give a man a free hand, and he’ll try to put it all over you.”

“Between two evils I always pick the one I haven’t tried before.”

Hatcheck girl: “Goodness, what lovely diamonds.” Mae West: “Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie.”

“I wrote the story myself. It’s all about a girl who lost her reputation and never missed it.”

Her heart, soul, figure and wardrobe belong to the Gay (18)90’s, the decade in which she was born and which serves as the backdrop for many of her films; but in her roving eye and assertive sexuality she looks forward to the androgynous role-playing of a later era. Born 100 years ago this week, on Aug. 17, 1893, she might be said to span two decades and two Zeitgeists a century apart: the Gay 90’s (hers) and the gay 90’s (ours). In honor of the centennial of her birth (she died in 1980), MCA/Universal is releasing nine of her best-known films on cassette, seven for the first time.

The late Parker Tyler, that pioneering and peerlessly witty chronicler of cinema’s sexual — and homosexual — subtexts, claimed her as the Mother Superior of Drag Queens. Yet there is something straight, sweet and womanly — even innocent — about West that escapes camp. Feminists have found her both liberating and awkward: Her frank obsession with men as both lust objects and figures of identification have made her dubious as a “sister,” but she’s talking only to us when she says life is a man’s game and “I just happen to be smart enough to play it their way.” Moreover, as the writer and producer of her Broadway shows, and the screenwriter of her films, she was a powerhouse who in 1934 knocked off the highest salary of any Hollywood star. And in blurring the lines between the biological and the culturally constructed woman, she stretches the ways in which we think about and define femininity and what it means to be a woman. As a self-parodying sex symbol, she’s not a real siren, a turn-on, but she can brag about liking sex in a way that a more conventionally desirable woman couldn’t. As such, she offers a fantasy, an imaginative projection of what a more sexually active and less romantically enslaved woman might be.

A transgressive, protean figure who both exposes and resolves the power struggle between male and female, she became a flashpoint for the moralists and guardians of public decency and is most famous now for having provoked the outrage that led to the enforcement of the Production Code, the censorship rules that governed Hollywood movie making until the 60’s. Was it the words in her 1933 films “She Done Him Wrong” and “I’m No Angel,” or was it the fact that a woman was saying them, a woman who made bad seem good and refused to honor the dichotomy between virgin and whore.

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

“It’s not the men in your life . . . it’s the life in your men.”

Suitor: “If only I could trust you.”

West: “You can . . . hundreds have.”

She’s a master of the triple dots. The wisecracks have a life of their own, as does the West persona. Unlike other stars, whom we think of in the context of specific films, her image, complete with body language and voice, lifts buoyantly out of celluloid into space like the inflatable life preserver that was named after her in World War II. She’s a pneumatic floozy presiding over an army of panting camp followers, a Catherine the Great from Brooklyn, a Salome who adds on the layers instead of shedding them, a Cleopatra whose infinite variety is debatable.

For years she tried to promote a film about Catherine the Great, in which she would offer a warmer and more sensual alternative to what she described as Dietrich’s “hollow-cheeked doll.” Although West finally succeeded in launching an unfunny Broadway play on the subject of the czarina, for most of her career she was in fact playing a bawdy, carnivalesque version of Catherine, surrounded by an “honor guard” of admirers. See her, as the lion-tamer in “I’m No Angel,” entering atop an elephant, wearing a white spangled jumpsuit. Looking at her now, we can’t but applaud this middle-aged woman (she was 40 when she made her first film), undisguisedly rotund, flaunting an unliposuctioned, unsiliconed body and demanding her sexual privileges!

With unshakable confidence, she seems to have hungered for the spotlight from infancy, and when she got a chance to make her song-and-dance debut at the age of 7, she took it and never stopped showing off. She was the child of immigrants — a Bavarian mother (a “corset and fashion model,” she tells us in her 1959 autobiography, “Goodness Had Nothing to Do With It”) and a pugilist Irish-English father who gave up boxing to become, successively, a livery stable owner and private detective. From him she may have inherited an extra dollop of testosterone; at any rate, she found herself in the legal ring more than once. The first show she wrote, “Sex” (which couldn’t be advertised in any New York newspaper because of the title), ran 375 performances before its author was arrested by the police, after pressure from the Society for the Suppression of Vice, and thrown into a cell (albeit a private, “‘celebrity” cell) on Welfare Island for eight days.

Corsets and boxing gloves; vaudeville and female impersonators; plump chorus girls and black dancers and singers. She drew on them all and brought her invented self to its apotheosis as Diamond Lil in the show of the same name, which was a Broadway hit, then a movie (her second) called “She Done Him Wrong.”

As the beauteous Lil, whose nude portrait presides over the Gay 90’s saloon in the Bowery that is the film’s setting, she makes the longest-delayed and most carefully anticipated entrance since Tartuffe, with every man in the bar testifying to her irresistibility before she arrives. Only Joan Crawford got away with such outrageously fawning, ego-feeding star buildups. In fact, entrances were what Mae West did best, and there are at least four in every film, each one, in a different and more lavish costume, outdazzling the one before. The fiction that a middle-aged woman is driving men wild is all in the intonation . . . and the imagination. When she enters, it’s less as a real woman than a sexual landscape unfurling before our eyes, her hills and valleys set off by jewels and furs, feathers and diamonds; a large bow below the waist, concentric circles above, marking critical parts of her anatomy the way trees and shrubbery delineate the contours of the earth.

Her singing is nothing much, a cut-rate Sophie Tucker, but her real music is in her movement, part swagger, part slither, part come hither. In “I’m No Angel,” she virtually lists across the room into the arms of a dancing man and would-be lover. As a so-called sex goddess, West makes it clear she isn’t the marrying kind, doesn’t need a protector, and that gives her freedom. She sizes up her prey like a military general — or a prizefighter — and says, as she does to Cary Grant in “She Done Him Wrong,” “You can be had.”

Grant, her delicious leading man in two films (his first lead roles), is here the head of a mission (we think) looking to save souls. In this role reversal of the Don Juan story, she’s the roue and he’s the tasty virgin who challenges her jaded appetites. In “I’m No Angel,” he plays a patrician lawyer to her carnival performer — “Tira, the million dollar beauty” — who’s angling to better herself, but not if it means compromising her heart. Preserving her Brooklyn accent (“It is kinda wearin’ on the noives,” she admits of her lion act), she is true to her outer-borough roots; but she is confident enough to become one of the swells when she gets Grant as a trophy husband.

Not only does West cross gender lines, but in the unusual collaboration with blacks that marks her career, she crosses racial ones as well. In the 1920’s she saw the shimmy in an all-“Negro” dive in Chicago and introduced it into her live show. Some of her rhythms and inflections probably came out of the black side of show business.

In “Belle of the 90’s” (1934), West stands on a balcony watching a black revival meeting, singing a blues song in counterpoint to their spiritual. In “I’m No Angel,” the film in which she utters the famous “Beulah, peel me a grape” line, there are three black maids who function as a Greek chorus, clucking and whooping with her about the ways of men, preparing her for her next sexual campaign. Her unique locution, lazy and mocking, matches theirs until we feel a bond of the powerless expressed in subversive speech patterns, the shuffling tempo and tone being a form of resistance to and rebellion against the ruling class — in this case men. Even in the end, as she embraces Grant, the cream of the jest has to be shared: “How’m I doin’, Beulah?”

As a heroine, she has more in common with the powerful women of black culture — matriarchal, anti-romantic — than the classically vulnerable white heroines who hold out for the best possible husband.

“I always did like a man with masculine supremacy,” she says to a suitor in “Belle of the 90’s” (pronouncing it ‘supreemacy’), but the trouble is, the supremacy is all hers, and it finally grows wearying. Leo McCarey directed this particular movie, and it is her most fluid, creating sympathy for other characters, showing her in a softer light; but that softness comes to seem incongruous. As the hoary plot unfolds, we are made doubly aware of the degree to which she insists on being smarter, tougher, handsomer than anyone around. Most of her movies, Victorian melodramas with mustachioed villains, are never far from tedium when she’s not onstage, and they grow more tedious and desperate as the 1930’s progress.

Like many of the more sophisticated performers of the decade — Garbo and Dietrich, Katharine Hepburn, even Astaire and Rogers — she eventually fell victim to changing tastes and the American public’s increased resistance to the highfalutin ironies of stars who came to be tagged as box-office poison.

The 30’s was a decade of romantic pairs, and after Grant (and Randolph Scott in “Go West, Young Man” in 1936), West never teamed up with anyone on her level. Her outing with W. C. Fields in “My Little Chickadee” in 1940 was a comic idea that went awry: The sardonic loser he plays is funnier and more sympathetic than her eternal winner, now grown monotonous. Jean Harlow, platinum blond, smart-talking and lovably sluttish, and thus the 30’s star who most resembled her, teamed up with the likes of Gable and Powell and proved herself against such stunning rivals as Mary Astor and Myrna Loy, while West, never one to share the stage with another female beauty, surrounded herself with increasingly numerous bevies of musclemen. With no rivals and no visual competition, male or female, with no plausibility on a realistic level, her films were too fragile as narrative conceits for the plainer appetites of the domestic audience.

In the 70’s, in what became a truly grotesque parody of a parody, she made “Myra Breckenridge” and “Sextette” at a time when she was much too old and her gay constituency had become more explicit and obtrusive. These unfortunate valedictory films, combined with her waning power in the 30’s, may explain why she’s more a figure of speech — in both senses of the word — than a beloved movie memory.

Molly Haskell is the author of “From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies.”

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