Far from being a dumb blonde, Mae West–whose glistening platinum gold locks graced the silver screen for decades–was more than just a conventional actress but a trailblazing writer, director and entrepreneur. No period showcases West’s achievements and talents more than the pre-Code era. Although she was only featured in three films –two as writer, sometime director and star– her performances were critical and crowd favorites and have even been attributed to saving Paramount studios from bankruptcy during the Great Depression. Her vaudeville roots are easily visible in her use of voice, movement and costume to excite, entertain and enliven the audience…but without being overt, crass or taking any of her clothes off. The two films she is credited as writing, 1933’s She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel, are crammed with sneaky, erotic double entendre, feisty confrontations and satisfying conclusions surrounded by, some may say, overly simple plots.
Another part of West’s overall genius is her powerful discernment of actors and actresses as she always wanted to appear to the best advantage. She would only work with the handsomest leading men–the exotic George Raft and a young Cary Grant, among others–and cunningly refused to hire youthful, voluptuous female co-stars to steal the spotlight. Her musical numbers teased the line between acceptable and offensive as a source of still more double entendre, sexy metaphors and winks. Accompanying every frame of film, is a jaw-dropping, bordering on parody walk that pulled audiences to cinemas and made every person–whether on the streets or on the set–stop and stare.
Mae West was and always will be the original’s original. Although her dialogue and persona seemed dripping with sex, her films in the most part are family friendly and extremely relatable to contemporary viewers. Yet how many people other than film buffs and classic movie lovers have seen a Mae West film? Not many, or perhaps a few saw an old re-run of My Little Chickadee,which most people call W.C. Fields’ picture. Pre-Code Mae West films should be at the top of every person’s bucket list and here’s why:
Unlike most actresses from the Golden Era whose movements and mannerisms were painstakingly monitored by studio bosses, Mae West’s appearance of screen was a creation all her own. The most provocative and blatant feature of her style is clearly the overt and sensual walk she used to shimmy across camera. It was a trademark that reportedly drew actors from their dressing rooms and made everyone in the vicinity stop and stare. The “haughty strut”–The New York Times named it–was created by West during her vaudeville and stage days as a useful and stimulating acting tool. Strangely, the move was reportedly influenced by men, not women; namely, two famous female impersonators, Bert Savoy and Julian Eltinge, who West encountered during her early show business days. Whatever and wherever it came from, West’s characteristic walk is as much a part of her legend as her acting performances.
Probably the most underrated feature in support of Mae West films and the pre-Code era in general is their length. At between an hour and an hour and a half, West’s three early 1930s films definitely pack a punch with no boring shots of scenery or long pauses. The movies are similar to a short story or a novel, with only the most interesting, powerful and plot-developing points included and all the irrelevant scenes or secondary plots left on the cutting room floor. With these fast-paced pictures they don’t leave the viewer bored or wanting to go for a toilet or food break; however, on the negative side, some can fail to conclude stories properly or end scenes too quickly. But, with the scripts and productions mostly controlled by Miss West and with little or no sub-plots, there is almost never a moment in the films that does not feature her which brings more and more “rapid-fire entertainment”.
Although the code was not compulsory, films still needed to answer to the questionings of the Hays Office and local censor boards. Therefore, in lieu of sexuality filled discussions and story lines, West used songs as a way to include the material while camouflaging it with dance sequences and music. She Done Him Wrong included the largest example of sexual innuendo-filled lyrics that only the audience could unravel. Songs, such as the Depression-era classic “Frankie and Johnny,”which discusses the adulterous behaviour of one of the title characters; “A Guy Who Takes His Time,” the topic of which topic is pretty self-evident; and “Where’s My Easy Rider Gone,” with “easy rider” reportedly meaning pimp, are explicit examples. Together with the songs’ lyrics, West often used suggestive dance moves to complement the music. Singing “Sister Honky-Tonk,” performed in I’m No Angel, West does her best snake impression with lots of provocative shimmies and belly dancer-esk moves. Her last Pre-Code film proved extremely problematic with censors, with even the songs becoming major issues. Her track “No One Loves Me Like a Dallas Man” had apparently been changed from “No One Does It Like a Dallas Man”because of its sexual undertones.
It is public knowledge that West always wanted to look good on camera, but one of her greatest secrets that she used her co-stars as one method of accomplishing it. In the early stages of the making of her films she would replace “too beautiful” actresses with ones less appealing and always choose the most handsome and talented leading men. The standout of her pre-Code leading men is definitely a very young and very attractive Cary Grant, who appeared with her in both She Done Him Wrongand I’m No Angel. West always claimed that she discovered the complete unknown Grant on the studio lot and told producers, “If he can talk, take him!” Grant, however, often argued that he was already an established star, having featured in Marlene Dietrich’s Blonde Venusa the year before as well as many other movies, and that West’s story was a bit of a fabrication. Beside Grant, West co-starred with screen gangster George Raft, exotic Gilbert Roland, and Kent Taylor, as well as many other handsome and muscular circus performers in I’m No Angel. Raft, after playing opposite West in her film debut, 1932’s Night After Night, commented “She stole everything but the cameras,” showing how difficult it was for a man to co-star with West.
West’s greatest talent onscreen and off has always been her ability to craft witty innuendo filled comments for every situation that are both hilarious, sexual and surprisingly true. Even her first screen appearance–aged about 40–in Night After Night is a classic West moment, with a concierge commenting, “Goodness, what beautiful diamonds!” and West replying, “Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie.” It would be a taste of what was to come, with her following two pictures rife with double entendres dished out as helpful advice, sexual advances or cleverly concealed insults. She Done Him Wrong included one of West’s softer moments when she was helping Sally (Rochelle Hudson), a “fallen woman” who had just tried to commit suicide. She says to her consolingly, “When women go wrong, men go right after them.” She never stops, with later in the film delivering the line that would become fodder for impersonators and the public alike, “Why don’t you come up sometime and see me?” Incidentally, it was a line which has gone down as one of the most incorrectly remembered pieces of dialogue in film history.
For those who love great classic films, or great films in general, Mae West’s small but engaging assortment of movies are a must-see. Their mixture of great dialogue, hilarious plotlines, charming character actors and cheery musical numbers, bombard the sixty minute features making them intriguing and completely entertaining.
Emma Alsop is a classic movie-obsessed university student from Australia. Her current passion is the pre-Code era, and her aim is to make everyone love it as much as she does.