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Mae West's play, Sex, prompted a lawsuit for obscenity in New York. Read an excerpt?
In the mid-1920s, after a career in vaudeville, 30-year-old actress/comedienne Mae West endeavors to make herself a star on Broadway. She co-writes a series of comedy-melodramas shaped for the salty and free-spirited persona that becomes her trademark. The plays thrust her onto the front pages, if not to the heights of critical acclaim. Her bawdy 1926 play Sex, the story of a Montreal prostitute, fills the house for a year before New York's deputy police commissioner raids West and her company, charging them with lewdness and the corrupting of youth. The city's real aim is to derail the Broadway arrival of West's gay-themed play, The Drag, which is trying out in New Jersey. West loses the Sex case and spends ten days in jail, but emerges undaunted. Soon afterward, she achieves her first runaway theatrical smash in Diamond Lil, in which she plays a jewel-encrusted 1890s saloon hostess caught up with white slavers and escaped convicts. The part becomes her signature role.
That same season, West opens a reworked version of The Drag, now called The Pleasure Man, with a heterosexual lead replacing the gay playboy of the original. Again authorities raid the theater, and the ensuing trial is a sensation. After 14 days of testimony, the jury cannot reach a verdict, and the charges are dismissed.
Now West sets her sights on Hollywood. Within a few years, she is one of the biggest stars of the era, flaunting her sexual wiles in one hit picture after another. She and the Hollywood censors wage constant battles over the content of her scripts, and West adjusts her humor, replacing the directness of her earlier work with innuendo and double entendre that often escape the censors' notice.
West's legacy is debated even today: she is hailed by some as a "liberating influence on women's sexuality" and decried by others for her overstated feminine persona. Her films remain available on video and in occasional theatrical release or broadcast.
To learn more about Mae West, watch Hollywood Censored: Movies, Morality & the Production Code, the third film in the 4-part Culture Shock series.
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