“When I’m good, I’m very good, but when I’m bad, I’m better.”
That’s Mae West to Cary Grant in “I’m No Angel,” just one of West’s oft-quoted one-liners that scandalized pre-Code Hollywood in the early 1930s. She had a million of ‘em. From her screen debut in “Night after Night” when a nightclub coat check girl comments on West’s jewelry, “Goodness, what diamonds:” “Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie.” From “Klondike Annie”: “When I’m caught between two evils, I generally like to take the one I’ve never tried.”
West, an outlier screen goddess, is the subject of “Mae West: Dirty Blonde,” airing June 16 on the PBS series “American Masters” (check your local listings). In one of West’s signature songs, she extolled the man “what takes his time,” but this is ridiculous. It took “American Masters” 34 seasons and nearly 260 episodes before getting around to West, who at her height was one of the screen’s top 10 box office draws and in 1935, the highest-paid actress. She is also credited with saving a financially devastated Paramount Pictures.
Executive produced by Bette Midler, who in her 1970s heyday, might have been considered West’s heir apparent, and directed by Sally Rosenthal and Julia Marchesi, “Dirty Blonde” achieves job one: make one eager to download and see her sometime (to paraphrase West’s most quoted come-on). But that is not so easy. While her scant 12 films (plus one bizarre appearance on “Mr. Ed”) are available on home video, less than a handful are available to stream, and one of them is “Sextette,” her unfortunate 1978 swan song made when she was 84. She died three years later).
The Brooklyn-born, hourglass-figured West stole “everything but the cameras” in her supporting role opposite George Raft in “Night after Night,” but she was no overnight sensation. She was pushing 40 when she made her screen debut. She had been on the stage since the age of seven. She lit up Broadway. Her first play, “Sex,” which she wrote under a pseudonym and starred in, earned her reviews like, “puerile” and “pornography” (and that’s only the p’s), not to mention 10 days in jail. Of course Hollywood came calling, but it’s a tossup as to who seduced whom.
“Dirty Blonde” has done her right, framing West as “a sexual gangster,” to quote modern-day burlesque queen Deeta Von Teese, and a pioneering screen libertine whose still- potent double entendres tipped the scales in the battle of the sexes. West portrayed characters for whom sex was fun and men corruptible. “You could be had,” she purrs to upright Cary Grant in “She Done Him Wrong.”
A montage in “Dirty Blonde” shows her as a natural for caricature in 1930s cartoons. In 1999, the American Film Institute ranked her in the top 15 of the greatest women screen legends of the 20th century. Today, her name has fallen into obscurity.
In the 1970s, West, along with the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields, were rediscovered and embraced by rebellious college students and the counter-culture for their subversive attitudes that upended authority and the status quo. Jeanine Basinger, then in her first years of teaching film at Wesleyan University (she is set to retire in September), introduced them to her students. “They openly embraced them all,” she said in a phone interview. “And they loved Mae West; they knew her name and had an idea of her, but they didn’t know how significant she is and how relevant to the women’s movement. She was always out front and ahead of the game.”
Basinger is a prominent commentator in “Dirty Blonde.” She included West in her 2013 book A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-1960. In our phone interview, she spoke about how even as a young movie-loving girl, she found West, who once said of men—“Find ‘em, fool ‘em and forget ‘em”—to be a positively hilarious role model. And West, she said, is still made for these times.
Can you believe it took “American Masters” 34 seasons to get around to profiling Mae West?
(Laughs) Now there’s a question: Why? They do more men, I think, anyway, but it’s been slow with her. Mae West, for her importance and her relevance, is seen as a comedy figure and not taken as seriously. It’s a great tribute to her that in some ways no decade ever knows what to do with her. I think of this one line when her maid remarks that her dress is beautiful, and Mae says, ‘I know it’s beautiful, but is it a flash?’ That’s the essence of Mae West. Every decade, she’s a flash. She’s always got the edge.
What was your intro to her?
I had two older sisters who told me about her movies and I would see her referred to in movie magazines in the 1940s, which is when I really got going to the movies. My first Mae West film was “I’m No Angel”; that’s the best of them.
What struck you about her?
Women were often very independent figures in the '30s and '40s, but even when you’re really young, you know this is not a traditional female movie star. I saw right away that she was in control. It was not about who was going to take care of her. She made fun of men and I found that funny and wonderful. As I became a teenager what I loved about her was she seemed so sassy, but in a very controlled way. She was genuinely funny. She wrote a lot of her lines. She was really bold. She was a woman who was going to have it her way, was totally confident, and no matter what happened, she would bail herself out. Mae West, for the most part, did not have to be rescued. In “I’m No Angel,” she tried her own court case. She was not defined by a man; She picked the man for her own needs and pleasures.
Did she have any predecessors?
There are all kinds of sexy women in the silent era, although generally it was a time of virginal beauty to be loved and cherished. Mabel Normand is a type of flashy, out on her own comedian. She was active; she did stunts, chases and pratfalls. But it was very important that sound came in to make Mae a movie star.
She was like W.C. Fields (with whom she costarred in “My Little Chickadee”) in that respect. A large part of their appeal is the way they sound; they sound funny.
She needed sound to bring out what was unique about her. Her voice was designed to be unconventionally bold and sexy, to not be polite. She sounds like she’s in a kind of conspiratorial conversation with herself. She makes lots of “mmmm” sounds in a voice (that’s the audio equivalent of giving someone a once-over). She once said of herself that it wasn’t what she said, but how she said it.
What can Mae West teach us now?
She reminds us that women are equal. They have feelings, ideas and bodies of their own. If you really know who you are and what you want, life opens up; and we as a culture need to recognize that. She’s reminding people that women are people, too, but she’s doing it without suggesting you have to be angry. She lives life with confidence and open sexuality on her own terms, but with humor. People are much more willing to listen to what you’re teaching them if it comes from humor. Mae West is a legend to us all.