HOLLYWOOD -- A couple of months ago, Mae West sauntered into Arthur Knight's film class at USC, put her hand on her hip, took her time looking around the room, and finally said: "Hello, boys." It was a co-ed class. Somehow, in the context you understand why Mae West is still the most fascinating personality in Hollywood, and why everywhere you go they're telling Mae West stories again.
Consider. She is 76 years old, or thereabouts. Her last movie, "The Heat's On," was made in 1943. Even her autobiography came out 10 years ago. Her only recent appearance on film was for the Mister Ed TV show during which she and the horse exchanged dialog so laden with double entendres that the CBS censors must have had purple ears.
She hasn't worked in recent years because she hasn't wanted to or needed to. She's a millionaire, they say. All the same, it's astonishing that at 76, and 26 years after her last film, she was persuaded to sign a contract with 20th Century-Fox this year that (a) paid her $350,000 plus expenses for one movie, "Myra Breckinridge"; (b) gave her top billing in the credits, above Raquel Welch, and (c) permitted her to write all her own scenes.
It is likely that the studio made a wise investment. Mae West may very well be the top-drawing female box-office star. It's just that you can't prove it because she hasn't made any movies lately.
One reason Mae West stories are gradually overtaking stories about her co-star W. C. Fields, I suspect, is that everybody's heard the Fields stories and now there's a fresh supply of anecdotes about Miss West. In that film class at Southern Cal, for example, a student asked her: "Isn't it great to be making a movie in 1969? In the old days, the censors wouldn't even let you sit on a man's lap."
Miss West replied (in the genuine Mae West delivery): "I may be old, but I'm not that old. I've sat on more laps than a napkin . . . "
Norman Jewison, who directed "In the Heat of the Night," tells of a time he was working on a Doris Day picture and the producer, Ross Hunter, decided they ought to recruit Mae West for a role. They visited her apartment and, after a sufficient interval, she appeared.
"I know who you are," she told Hunter, "but who's this? The director? Doesn't look old enough to be a director." She looked him up and down, speculatively. "Doesn't even look old enough to be a paperboy . . ." The latest West anecdote concerns the scenes she's writing for "Myra Breckinridge." A studio executive telephones her with an offer to send over a messenger to pick up the script.
"I'm not giving it to any messenger," she said. "I'll bring it in . . . when I'm good and ready. I'm working on it now. And when I bring it in, I'll bring it in personally and give it to Mr. Zanuck. The other day, that director was over here . . . that boy Michael Sarne . . . I gave him a few of my good lines and they turned up in the script without any credit. This time I'll bring 'em in myself and hand 'em to Zanuck, and on the cover it'll say: Mae West - Written by Herself."
The strange thing about these stories, as I look back over them, is that they lose something in print. The lines cry out for Mae West's voice and delivery to make them funny. And that is a tribute to her personality. Ordinary gag lines, manufactured for ordinary comedians, can be used just as well by anybody else. But when the material depends on the style and presence of the comedian, then you have an original. Fields was an original. So is Mae West.