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MAE WEST

By Kendahl Cruver

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1934 Mae West Lux 9x12 Premium Photo1934 Large Mae West sepia Theater PremiumMae West began her life in middle-class comfort in Brooklyn, New York, August 17, 1895 (some sources say 1893). A seductress from the start, she was called the "Baby Vamp" when she began performing at age five. As a teen, she developed her sensual and slow-paced style in a series of vaudeville acts. Though she had not yet grown into her generous curves, slinky, dark-haired Mae was already raising eyebrows with her "shimmy" dance.

When vaudeville became less lucrative, Mae wrote her first play, under the pen name Jane Mast, and starred herself. From the moment it opened, "Sex" was notorious. The critics despised it, but ticket sales were good enough to threaten the deputy mayor. A year into its run, he had the production raided for indecency.

Along with the principal cast and producers, Mae was sentenced to ten days in jail. She served eight, with two days off for good behavior. She spent a comfortable conviction, even convincing the warden to let her wear silk underwear instead of the scratchy prison issue variety.

Mae continued to write plays. With salacious titles such as "The Wicked Age", "Pleasure Man", and "The Constant Sinner", they were plagued by controversy and production difficulties. If indecency didn't shut down a play, slow ticket sales would.

Mae found the role of her career in 1928 when she wrote and starred in "Diamond Lil". Lil was the racy, easy-going kind of lady who she would play for the rest of her career. The play enjoyed enduring popularity and Mae would successfully revive it many times.

Now Hollywood noticed Mae. She was recruited by Paramount to appear in the new talking films, where strong performers were desperately needed. Mae moved to California to become a movie star.

At first, Mae didn't like her small role in the George Raft vehicle "Night After Night" (1932). She accepted the part only when she was allowed to rewrite her lines. She stole the film from Raft. In her first scene, a coat check girl exclaimed, "goodness, what lovely diamonds". Mae became an instant sensation when she replied, "goodness had nothing to do with it dearie".

Paramount executives had hoped to avoid bankruptcy with a vehicle for radio star Kate Smith. They changed their plans when fans asked for more Mae West. Mae brought Diamond Lil' (now Lady Lou), to the screen in "She Done Him Wrong". The huge hit saved Paramount, earned an Oscar nomination for best picture, and made male lead Cary Grant a star.

On the heels of this success, Mae played a lion tamer in "I'm No Angel". She refused a stunt double for the scenes in the lion cage. Mae didn't learn until later that nervous studio executives had stationed men with guns out of sight with orders to shoot if it looked like a lion would attack. The picture was another hit.

Unfortunately, because of Mae's success, the Hays Office started to object to her racy material. She starred in ten movies during the studio age, but with each film, it became increasingly more difficult to keep her sexy style intact. Audiences were less interested in a censored Mae West.

1934 Player's Film Stars Mae West1970's Issue Mae West Pinback ButtonNot that Mae needed to work. By the late thirties she had invested well, mostly in real estate. She even owned the building where she lived in a plush white and gold apartment. Still, she was not content to settle into comfortable retirement.

In 1940, Mae costarred with W.C. Fields in "My Little Chickadee". She refused to let Fields drink during production, which distressed the alcoholic comic. He complied as much as he could and only got caught with his liquid lunch a few times.

Mae followed her comeback success with "The Heat's On". It was the first film she didn't oversee to the smallest detail and her first flop. She decided never to star in a movie again unless she had total control.

Even without movie roles, Mae was active. She starred on Broadway in "Catherine Was Great", appeared on television talk shows and guest starred on the Mr. Ed show. She also shocked the Sunday night listeners of  ventriloquist Charlie McCarthy's radio show. Mae's sexy sketch with Edgar the dummy ended up getting her banned from radio for years.

In order to keep her appeal fresh, Mae recorded a rock album called "Great Balls of Fire". She was later approached near the end of the seventies to do disco versions of her old movie songs, but she correctly guessed that disco had reached its peak and declined. In 1958, she wrote her autobiography, in which she only included her successes, supposedly for the sake of her loving fans.

Also in the fifties, Mae starred in her own Las Vegas stage show. Surrounded by muscle men, she sang to delighted crowds. One of those men became her lifelong companion. Though he was decades younger than her, Paul Novak was devoted to Mae. He became her  lover, nurse, cook, trainer, and a buffer from anyone who didn't appreciate the Mae West persona.

Mae ended her career with two amusingly bad films. She was over eighty years old when she made "Myra Breckenridge" and "Sexette" and though she walked with a cane and often forgot her lines, many agreed that she looked half her age. Still, it was unsettling to see her seduce twenty-something Timothy Dalton in "Sexette".

In November 1980, Mae was finally forced to retire when she was hospitalized following a stroke. The president of her fan club nursed her, and as always, Paul was at her side. She spent her last days at home.

At the time of her death, Mae West was still a star. She attracted everyone from nostalgic older fans to teenagers who had seen her movies on television. Mae enjoyed being an icon and she seemed to accept the attention as her due. She delighted audiences with the very traits that ensured her long career, unwavering belief in herself and a sensual joy of life.
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Kendahl Cruver is a writer based in Seattle, Washington. She also writes about classic actresses for Suite101.com. Mae West is her third submission to The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter, following excellent submissions on Fay Wray and Theda Bara.

Other Mae West Pages:

Denny Jackson's Mae West Page -- The Actress Who Was Way Ahead Of Her Time!!