Mae West: Actress and Screenwriter

“Being an actress and a writer both-that’s the best thing you could be because you can be anyone you want,” Mae West once said. Considered one of the most popular sex symbols in film, she was indeed much more than that. Passionate for her crafts of acting and writing (directing and producing at times) she portrayed women who were comedic, headstrong and sultry but never vulgar in witty screenplays. West is credited with discovering Cary Grant by chance while looking out the window, being an early supporter in equality for everyone and challenging censorship with her controversial plays for stage and screen. But it’s her writing and artistic drive that continues to empower and helped create the enduring legacy of the name Mae West.

From Child Actor to Vaudeville Headliner

Mae West was born on August 17, 1893. Growing up, her mother encouraged her interest in performing. In a 1979 interview with Charlotte Chandler, West recalled her father built her a stage in their basement. He thought she’d have stage fright but West said, “Stage fright! Can you imagine? I didn’t know the meaning of the word. Still don’t. My mother didn’t listen to my father. She knew I could do anything I wanted.” West’s mother seemed to have been her daughter’s greatest fan and that’s where Mae West’s confidence in herself as a performer came from as well as a personal liberation to take artistic risks.

You might say that she grew up in a unique home since she was encouraged to freely choose her own path rather than what would be expected of her gender. (Though there were relatives who didn’t like the idea of being an actress!) West began to perform professionally at the age of 8, according to her in an interview at UCLA in 1971. She joined summer stock at 14, became a headliner in vaudeville at 17 and debuted on Broadway at 25.

Writing Process and Style

Mae West was always thinking of stories and poems. Her poem she wrote at 15, Cave Girl, has been quoted many times. She published novels such as Babe Gordon in 1931. But it’s her plays that showcased her personal style of writing comedy that had wit. Everything had another meaning. And this didn’t go well with the law.

A promo for the infamous play, Sex.

A promo for the 1926 play, Sex. This is the production that Mae West was arrested and jailed for.

West began to write her own plays under the pen name of Jane Mast. She told Cavett she did this because she felt it’d be too much to have her name so many times on the poster for writing, producing, directing and starring. These plays were considered very controversial at the time for featuring frank sexuality. The first was in 1926 infamously entitled Sex which caused uproar for “corruption” of morals. She was arrested at the end of the 37th performance. Though she could have paid a fine, West chose the jail sentence which lasted eight days. She knew how to capitalize on publicity and worked it to her advantage. Her following plays such as The Drag (about sexual identity) and Diamond Lil (what many say inspired the Hollywood persona) weren’t praised by critics necessarily but the seats were filled by audience members anyway.

 Regarding her approach to subject matter and the play Sex, in an interview from 1974 West said, “Well, then there was an epidemic of sex plays, all of them using dirty words. I’d never use bad words like hell or damn in my plays. I wrote innuendos, I write the way I feel. It just comes out that way. I’d hit ’em all the way through the beginning, middle and end. My play had a plot, a story. No woman’s going to pay to see other women being slapped around, and these other plays were embarrassing. Sex is only exciting on the inside.”

Interestingly enough, Mae West told Charlotte Chandler that she never learned to type and wrote longhand. To Dick Cavett, West said that she would have secretaries transcribe the handwriting to script format.

Arriving and Surviving in Hollywood

In her film debut as Maudie in Night After Night (1932).

In her film debut as Maudie in Night After Night (1932).

Mae West was nearly 40 when she arrived in Hollywood. This was very unusual, since most actresses that age would have been finished with their careers due to lack of roles.  I believe that’s what allowed Mae West to survive Hollywood. She arrived already experienced in her craft and was used to being around fellow actors, press, working long hours and wasn’t one to be taken advantage of. Hollywood wasn’t sure what kind of roles she could play so she began to write her own. In her debut in Night After Night (1932) with George Raft (who got her the role) as Maudie, featured lines she wrote herself. In terms of censorship, she said she was never afraid of it (saying she invented censorship) and said she’d have her scripts read before filming due to the Hay’s Code. You will notice in some of her films there are writing credits such as “suggestions by Harlan Thompson” in I’m No Angel and W.C. Fields in My Little Chickadee. The former relates to making sure that her work could be put to film and the latter was a compromise she made with Fields.

A petite woman in real life, on screen her signature style consisted of a swaying walk from the 9.5 inch wooden heels she wore, a unique singing voice likened to Bessie Smith and an ageless woman with no mention of being older or younger than the rest. It drew a good distraction from that, allowing focus to be on the content itself. Apparently Mae West was closest to those on her team than fellow movie stars. However she did have a friendly professional relationship with Marlene Dietrich. In a biography about one of them, I remember reading how Mae West told Marlene Dietrich that they needed to think about the women in the audience. Both of these women were breaking the way gender roles were seen in film. Dietrich used a different humor and gender ambiguity while West had wit about sexual freedom. With Mae West specifically, her films were first and foremost about entertainment and making people laugh. Yet her roles suggested that a woman didn’t have to submit or find sole purpose in a man. Her characters took the initiative reserved for men in the era, suggesting that women could choose how far to go on their own terms.

Mae West and Marlene Dietrich. Both have been compared for the way they portrayed women in film.

Mae West and Marlene Dietrich. Both have been compared for the way they portrayed women in film.

Dick Cavett asked her how she was able to survive Hollywood, compared to some of her peers who had difficult times being in the public eye. West said, “I don’t smoke or drink. Never did, never have.” She had also said in another interview that she never felt competition with other women nor did she ever feel jealous for not having what others did.

In the early 1940s Mae West left Hollywood after 9 films (though she would make two films in the 1970s that weren’t well received) and returned to the stage and nightclubs where there weren’t as many restrictions on her material. She also recorded some albums including a rock n roll one, but for the rest of her life (until her death on November 22, 1980) it was her work during the 1930s that journalists and fans were most fascinated in hearing about. And I think from the way she spoke of it, that was the work she was the most proud of.

Memorable Quotes

On life and individuality: “You’ve gotta have plenty of self-esteem, nerve, and be bold in life. I’ve been liberated all my life. I always did what I wanted to do. I was an original.” (interview with Charlotte Chandler, 1979)

On strong writing: “The secret of it is to keep everything moving. Don’t let the audience think of the dishes. You need to have some lines they can take away, like songs they go away humming.” (interview with Charlotte Chandler, 1979)

 

On Hollywood in the 1930s versus contemporary films (in the early 1970s): “They haven’t had any [movie stars] in the last few years. And they haven’t had the type of pictures that make stars. They don’t have good parts, they don’t write the parts to give an actor or actress a chance to become a star…the stories are a little different from what they’ve been…I don’t care for nudity. I don’t think it’s necessary and all of this sex–it’s alright but not on film. I think eventually [Hollywood] will get back to substantial solid stories.” (UCLA, 1971)

On Men: “Too many women wait around depending on men to bring them happiness. I didn’t depend on men for mine. I knew how to handle men. I have a code though: No drinking, no smoking, and no married men. There are enough men to go around” (interview with Charlotte Chandler, 1979)

 “Goodness, what beautiful diamonds”  “Goodness had nothing to do with it dearie.” from Night After Night (1932)

“I am delighted. I have heard so much about you.” “Yeah, but you can’t prove it.” from She Done Him Wrong (1933)

“Mmm, funny, every man I meet wants to protect me. I can’t figure out what from.”

“I wonder what kind of woman you really are.” “Too bad, I can’t give out samples.” from My Little Chickadee (1940)

“Don’t forget honey, never let one man worry your mind..” from I’m No Angel (1933)

 

*Interviews featured can be read at The Guardianthe Interview, and please see the Dick Cavett clip as well as the UCLA audio interview.

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