Mae West first worked in Vaudeville at age five in 1897, then on Broadway for nearly 20 years where she performed in revues and, later in plays Mae wrote for herself. One such production, actually titled Sex, won her big audiences and 10 days in women’s prison for “obscenity and corrupting the morals of youth” in 1927.
It was reported that as a child Mae West never threw tantrums; if she didn’t want to do something, she simply refused to do it, an attitude that became a lifelong strategy. Mae never flinched. During her eight or nine days in jail, she insisted on wearing her own silk underwear beneath the prison uniform, took her meals with the warden and his wife, was freed a day early for good behavior, and left a couple of thousand dollars behind to improve the offerings in the prison library.
She was about to turn 40 when she made her first movie, Paramount’s Night after Night (1932), starring occasional playmate and lifelong friend George Raft. Although she had never appeared in front of a movie camera before, Mae insisted on rewriting all her dialogue (making her role more prominent and funnier), and told the cameraman to focus on her behind as she climbed stairs.) Raft, ever modest and gentlemanly—unless insulted or challenged, told everyone, “Mae stole everything but the cameras.” It was as true an assessment as it was gallant.
Night after Night was an immediate and profitable hit for Paramount. The studio, teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, asked her to make more films. She agreed, but on her terms. Within a year or so, Paramount was saved from having to close up shop, and Mae West became the highest salaried actor in Hollywood. She insisted on cast approval, so it was Mae who turned contract player Cary Grant into a leading man, and she hired old vaudeville friends for supporting roles.
The supporting cast in Go West, Young Man was top shelf: sensible Elizabeth Patterson, pretentious Alice Brady, manly Randolph Scott, movie-star mad Margaret Perry and smooth Warren William.
Mae’s reign as queen of Paramount comprised eight films released in six years. Her best were her first two starring films: She Done Him Wrong (adapted from her stage hit, Diamond Lil) and I’m No Angel (both 1933). Sex and movies had been introduced long before Miss West took on Hollywood, but by her third, Belle of the Nineties (1934) West was beleaguered by blue-nose groups advocating movie censorship in general and specifically intent on chasing Mae out of movies. The most vociferous were the Legion of Decency, William Randolph Hearst’s scandal-sheet newspaper empire, and Hollywood’s own in-house censors, Joseph Breen’s Motion Picture Production Code Administration. It seemed that sex could figure in a plot provided that it was violent and atoned for by suffering; but sex was not for laughs, particularly if a man was at the wrong end of the joke.
It was Hollywood censors that stripped Mae’s movies, film by film, of their earthy humor. In Go West, Young Man (1936), West played a movie star, Mavis Arden, on a personal appearance tour, but stranded in a small-town after her chauffeured automobile breaks down. She vamps the rangy country hunk mechanic, Randolph Scott. About the sexiest dialogue Mae could get away with was inquiring about the time. When told it was ten o’clock at night, her response was “Hmm, I’m usually in bed by now.”
As she had done in Goin’ to Town with her burlesque of opera, Mae brought satire into Go West, Young Man. Her imitation of a semi-literate movie star, addressing her public, demonstrated Mae’s skill for mimicry. Mavis Arden, a spoiled, undereducated Hollywood star proclaims to her public that she lives a ‘simple life’ away from Hollywood hoopla in her “Eye-talian villa”.
Mae was one film away from being chased off screen; movie-houses were pressured not to screen her films, so that Paramount would feel the pain. That one film (her last for Paramount) Everyday’s a Holiday (1937) was a good energetic comedy that wouldn’t have offended anyone in a nunnery.
Although Mae West tailored the film script to suit her own screen character, Go West Young Man was adapted from the Broadway hit by Larry Riley. The result is not Mae West full out, but it is entertaining despite the censors, and the only Mae West movie presently available on line, free of charge, at
Movies in the Mountains (in Exile) is presented for The Independent by Frank Cullen, published historian and novelist, co-founder of the American Vaudeville Museum, and 2011 recipient of the NY Theatre Museum Award for Excellence in the Preservation Theatre History. Send inquiries and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.