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Directors’ Statement | Mae West Left a “Legacy of Empowered Female Sexuality”

Mae West checks her appearance on the set of She Done Him Wrong, 1933. Photo: Alamy Stock Photo

I created a kind of twentieth century sex goddess that mocked and delighted all victims and soldiers of the great war between men and women. I was their banner, their figurehead, an articulate image, and I certainly enjoyed the work.

–Mae West

Mae West achieved great acclaim in every medium of entertainment that existed during her lifetime, spanning eight decades of the twentieth century. A full-time actress at seven, a vaudevillian at 14, a dancing sensation at 25, a Broadway playwright at 33, a star of the silver screen at 40, a Vegas nightclub act at 62, a recording artist at 73, a camp icon at 85 – West left no format unconquered. She possessed creative and economic powers unheard of for a female entertainer in the 1930s and still rare today. She had almost no formal schooling, yet she wrote plays, movies and novels featuring complicated leading women who upended traditional ideas of femininity, social conventions, and class hierarchy. From her first produced work, she inspired heated debate, censorship, arrest, and even the passage of a new law, as politicians, watchdog groups and religious leaders struggled to define how much guidance was appropriate to protect the public from provocative entertainment. Unique in American culture, she created and embodied a character – the unrepentant sinner, the bad girl made good, the ‘girl who lost her reputation and never missed it’ – who upended traditional conventions of gender, class, and age, and our collective vision of what the American woman should be.

There is no other Mae West. She is an institution, a living legend, as much a part of the American folklore as Paul Bunyan or Tom Sawyer or Babe Ruth.

–The New York Times, 1969

Mae West’s life as a performer began, fittingly, at the dawn of the twentieth century – a time when many forms of leisure, including the theater and vaudeville, were witnessing the emergence of a female audience. Her unique style was evident even at her first amateur show: a seven-year-old-girl in a sweet pink satin dress and large picture hat, wriggling suggestively while growling men’s vaudeville songs in a deep, rough voice. Doted on by her mother, a onetime corset model from Bavaria, hardened by her father, a former bare-knuckles brawler, “Baby Mae,” as she billed herself, soon left school to join a local theater troupe, playing nightly on the ten-cent stages that dotted working-class Brooklyn.

In 1913, as the first national suffrage parade was taking place in Washington, DC, West was debuting her solo comedienne act on the Keith vaudeville circuit. Absorbing many different types of performance – African American female blues singing, white vaudeville “cooch” dancing, extravagant female impersonation – West synthesized the influences to create something new, and difficult to classify; early reviewers labeled her combination of ragtime songs, lascivious dance moves and mimicry a “nut act.” But she garnered attention as one of the best known performers of the “shimmy” dance, a sexually charged dance craze where she would “shake her chemise” to the delight of the audience.  She soon clawed her way to Broadway, where she rewrote the dialogue in her small roles to be funnier, sexier, bawdier – truer to the persona she had been cultivating.

The rapid social and political changes of the 1920s created opportunities in New York: for new ideas, new artists, and new subject matter. What might have been unthinkable only a few years earlier was suddenly not only tolerated but encouraged, and it was into this creative space that West first ventured as a playwright. Five years after Margaret Sanger founded the American Birth Control League, West wrote a starring vehicle for herself in 1926 that presented her idea of a modern, liberated woman. Written under the pseudonym “Jane Mast,” Sex was a tour de force of humor, vulgarity and marketing savvy. The show ran to ten months of packed houses, playing to 325,000 titillated theatergoers – until enraged moralists succeeded in having West and twenty other cast members arrested. Following a highly publicized trial, West was convicted of “corrupting the morals of youth and others,” and was sentenced to ten days in jail. West recognized the value of the publicity, commenting to a reporter, “I expect this will be the making of me.”

West’s next role would come to define her: Diamond Lil, the story of a Bowery prostitute-turned-saloon-singer with a knack for manipulating men. The popular flapper style of dropped waists and short hemlines was unflattering to West’s curvy figure, so she set her story in the 1890s and modeled her look on her mother’s idol Lillian Russell, pouring herself into a long gown with a low bodice and a huge hat. Diamond Lil was an unqualified smash hit: critics loved it as much as they hated Sex. On the strength of the play’s success, Paramount Pictures offered West a contract, and she became a movie star at the tender age of 38, essentially saving the struggling studio from bankruptcy at the height of the Depression. West was given her own production unit, with wide leeway to rewrite her lines, redefine her roles, and cast her leading men – an unheard-of degree of power at a time when female stars had little say in what parts they played or how their image was molded.

Making five films in four years, West’s screenplay heroines were all essentially a variation of Diamond Lil: the former prostitute made good. Her movies set attendance records at theaters across the country and made her one of the most famous women in America. But her libertine attitude and unapologetic embrace of sex as pleasure also brought the wrath of the Production Code censors, who saw West as a threat to traditional middle-class values – especially at a time when the country was barely holding itself together, and some held it was a lack of moral virtue that had brought the nation to its knees. The censors began editing her screenplays with heavy strokes, obliterating her saucy dialogue and rendering jokes senseless. For a while, West was able to work around it with double entendres and suggestive intonations, but the censors began rejecting finished films and ordering costly reshoots with their own story changes. The films grew dull; audiences grew bored. Ticket sales fell. Moviegoers opted for a bubbly Shirley Temple over a neutered Mae West. The Hollywood Reporter labeled West “box office poison,” and her film career was over.

In the booming postwar era, the burgeoning mecca of entertainment in the desert, Las Vegas, offered Mae West a chance to flout convention without fear of censorship. At the new Sahara Hotel, West sang her old songs, recited her old lines (and some new, raunchier ones) – but now with a coterie of oiled-up bodybuilders in loincloths as her backup men.  The glitzy, over-the-top atmosphere was the perfect setting for West’s brand of racy humor, and the show was a great success with the visiting tourists and retirees who remembered West fondly from her film heyday two decades earlier.

After her Vegas run ended, West corralled her favorite muscleman, a former Mr. California thirty years her junior, and returned to Beverly Hills. Other than occasional television appearances – including an exceptionally popular episode of Mister Ed – West mostly kept to herself. She rarely went out during the day, to avoid the aging effects of the sun. She insisted to interviewers that she could still pass for 26, and rejected the role of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, as well as roles in Pal Joey and various Fellini movies – roles that she felt would ridicule her persona and undermine her identity as a comedic sex symbol. She would eventually make two more films, under the condition that she have creative control and could rewrite her lines as she saw fit. Both films flopped; audiences were uncomfortable with the spectacle of an older woman with a voracious sexual appetite. By the 1970s, sex was no longer a taboo subject – but in presenting a post-menopausal woman with a powerful libido, West had found one last line audiences were still not ready to cross.

When Mae West died at 87, the Los Angeles Times eulogized her as the “epitome of witty sexuality” and a “paradoxical American original.” West left an indelible impression on America’s cultural landscape, and a filmic legacy of empowered female sexuality which opened the door for countless contemporary performers. And yet today, the battles West fought are still being waged in all aspects of American life.

-Written by Sally Rosenthal and Julia Marchesi

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TRANSCRIPT

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ West: I came from the theater, from the stage, you know, as a Broadway star, big box office.

And they wanted me to come to Hollywood.

So I says, I'll make a picture and millions of people will see me.

Train Conductor: All aboard!

[ Whistle blows ] Leider: It's sort of a miracle that Mae West ever went to Hollywood.

She was notorious.

She had spent time in jail, her plays had been censored, and she was known as a bad girl.

♪♪ Doherty: People really hadn't seen anything like Mae West before.

People hadn't heard anything like Mae West.

West: Yeah you'd better come up and see me.

A little bit spicy but not too raw, you know what I mean?

Well, when I'm good I'm very good, but when I'm bad, I'm better.

Von Teese: Mae West crafted this image.

She was a sexual gangster.

Starr: She had that walk in -- 'Well, I'm here, you know, lads.

Take me or take me.'

West: You ain't seen my better side.

Man: You're a dangerous woman.

Talley: Mae West was a pioneer for all those wonderful women who dared to be sexy.

Cher, Madonna, Rihanna, Beyonce.

[ Indistinct shouting ] ♪♪ Lyonne: She arrives to this town fully constructed and her own boss.

[ Indistinct shouting ] Reporter: Will we see you soon as a bad girl?

West: Yes, a bad woman with a good heart!

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ West: Oh, why don't you guys be good and go home to your wives. -Man: Who is it?

West: The fairy princess, ya mug!

Man: Maudie!

West: Hey don't let those guys in. They'll wreck the joint.

Hey, gorilla!

Basinger: She was 40 years old before she ever appeared in a movie.

In her first film, they put her in a small role.

West: Hello, honey. How's business?

-Woman: Fine.-West: You been insulted lately?

Woman: Goodness, what beautiful diamonds!

West: Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie.

Hamilton: West had taken a look at the script, seen that her role was completely banal, and rewritten her lines.

West: Joey, Joey, well, well, come here and kiss me, ya dog.

Let's take a look at you.

Well, you're looking great.

Who's your tailor now?

Basinger: George Raft, the star of that film, said, 'Well, she came in and she stole everything but the cameras.'

West: Sit down, dearie, don't let me keep you up.

Oh, waiter, waiter!

-Man: Yes, madame! -West: A chair, ya mug!

Doherty: You see her on screenand you realize immediately that she's the most electric thing about this tepid melodrama.

West: Oh, Joe, it's just life to see ya!

Come here, crawl to me, baby, crawl to me.

Doherty: And Mae West is not the kind of girl that is going to be a second banana for long.

Newsreader: In the fabled land of California, in a city named Hollywood, there is a gate beneath an arch beneath a famous sign: Paramount Pictures.

Call it the gateway of the stars, or the doorway to the world of glamour.

♪♪ Hallett: This is the 1930s.

Hollywood thinks it's going to be Depression-proof, unlike every other business in America.

♪♪ But by 1932, their box office starts to decline.

Watts: Paramount is teetering on bankruptcy.

Mae West is box office, and Paramount knows it.

Basinger: Mae West was able to come to Hollywood because she had something to give.

She had had success on Broadway.

She had generated buckets of publicity and that, for Hollywood, meant,okay, she can make money for us.

But they were a little bit worried.

Doherty: Mae West had a huge censorship brouhaha with her sensational and scandalous Broadway plays.

So, with Mae West, there's always risk, but it's also this great financial opportunity.

Malachosky: Adolph Zukor from Paramount said, 'What can we do to sign you to a contract?'

And she said, 'Well, I would want writing my own scripts, my own costume designs, and money.'

And he said, 'Well, how much money?'

And she said, 'Well, how much do you make?'

And he told her and she said, 'Well, I want a dollar more.'

So she got it.

♪♪ Doherty: In 1933, she gets her motion picture debut where she's center stage in 'She Done Him Wrong.'

♪♪ Hallett: 'She Done Him Wrong' was shot in, like, 18 days.

They turn it out very, very quickly in part because they don't want censors poking around a lot.

West: Oh, hello, Mickey.

Woman: Ah, Lady Lou,you're a fine gal, a fine woman.

West: One of the finest women ever walked the streets.

Hallett: This is a film they make for like $200,000, half of it went to Mae West.

Right, that's a sign of how powerful she was.

Malachosky: I don't even think today anybody has the control that she had.

She had approval for everything -- leading men, anybody in the background, she knew lighting, she was so specific and she knew exactly what she wanted.

Schlatter: Mae West had that kind of vision about herself.

She also had that kind of vision about others.

Cary Grant -- I mean, you know, can you imagine Mae West looking at Cary Grant?

She just spotted him and said, you know, 'Young man, over here.'

West: I see this guy come walking along a half a block away on the street inside the studio.

So I said, 'This looks like the best looking thing in Hollywood, who is he?'

So they looked and they said, 'Oh, that's Cary Grant.'

They said, 'We haven't had him in a picture yet, we just use him for tests.'

I said, 'Well, if this guy can talk, I'll take him!'

They said, 'What part?' I said, 'The lead, of course!'

I could see it right away!

Hamilton: When you watch Cary Grant and Mae West in this film, it's not the Cary Grant we know -- the suave, you know, whatever.

He's nervous! [ Laughs ] he's not very comfortable in this film at all.

But she is in control... -Grant: Thanks.

Hamilton: Both as a performer and as a character.

-West: Ain't have much luck. -Cary: I'd have a great deal more if Doheny and the others would cooperate.

West: Ain't none of them worth saving.

If you hang around them long enough you'll get that way yourself.

Cary: Well, thanks for the kind interest.

West: You know, I... I always did like a man in a uniform, and that one fits you grand.

Why don't you come up sometime and see me?

I'm home every evening.

Von Teese: She was like, 'Mm-hmm.'

She got whatever she wanted, and she was slow and, like, not predatory but very, like, 'You want to be part of this?

Show me what you got.'

West: You know, I met your kind before.

Why don't you come up sometime, huh?

Cary: Well, I... West: Don't be afraid, I won't tell.

Cary: But, uh... West: Come up, I'll tell your fortune.

Oh, you can be had.

Haskell: She's a parody of, sort of, unbridled male sexuality.

She's, like, standing sexism on its head.

Cary: Guess I'm taking your time.

West: What do you suppose my time's for?

Sit down.

Barreca: Cary Grant does this so straight.

He's the ingénue there.

West: That's it. Loosen up.

Unbend -- you'll feel better.

Barreca: He is a sexually vulnerable young man playing to Mae West's older, authoritative woman.

-West: Cigarette?

-Cary: No, thanks, I don't smoke.

Pierpont: She was not a particularly beautiful woman.

She wasn't Garbo, she wasn't Dietrich, and she knew it.

It was all for laughs.

Cary: So all this is your famous collection, eh?

West: No, this is just my summer jewelry.

You oughta see my winter stuff.

-Cary: I see.-West: You know it was a toss-up whether I go in for diamonds or sing in the choir.

The choir lost.

Nussbaum: That presentation of a preternatural confidence in her own looks, in her own skills, in her ability to get her way, is itself a kind of powerful image for women.

Cary: Well, good night.

♪♪ Good night.

Watts: She gave women permission to be bold and be strong.

Women saw that character on screen, maneuvering and manipulating.

West: Come up again, anytime.

Cary: Thanks, I will.

Watts: She was both the epitome of a sex siren but also the parody of a sex siren.

West: Well, it won't be long now.

Pierpont: One of the lines I love, she's comforting some woman who has been undone by a married man and she says... West: Men's all alike, married or single.

It's their game.

I happen to be smart enough to play it their way.

Pierpont: That isa stunning thing to say in 1933.

She's not only an actress, she's writing the parts.

If you're listening, if you're not just laughing along at the jokes and the hand on the hip, she's got a message for you, and I think it was very revolutionary, and still is.

Cary: Well, surely you don't mind my holding your hand.

West: They ain't heavy, I can hold it myself.

Pierpont: Latter-day feminists might complain, well, it's all about sex.

It's all about men.

Well, it to be.

Remember, she was born in 1893.

This is the first door that has to be opened.

Cary: You bad girl.

West: Mm, you find out.

♪♪ ♪♪ Haskell: What she became was really in her DNA.

Her father was a prize fighter.

Her mother was a model who modeled corsets.

Pierpont: Her mother was a German immigrant woman who married and moved to Brooklyn, had this daughter and did themost American thing of the time, she fell in love with show business, especially vaudeville and she wanted her daughter to be a star.

She was the ultimate stage mother.

Watts: Her mother lost a baby two years before.

I think when Mae West comes along she becomes this kind of prized treasure that her mother has to protect.

There are two children subsequently.

Mae West's mother doesn't pay near as much attention to those two.

She was the favorite child.

And she didn't have to obey by the rules.

Even from an early age, she gets her way.

West: My first time on the stage, it was on an amateur night.

I wanted a spotlight.

And I want to make sure that I would get a spotlight because I kind of like myself you know.

Cavett: How old were you at that time?

West: Oh, about eight years old.

And I went out, and the spotlight was on the opposite side of the stage.

And that upset me, and I stamped my foot.

And the audience start laughing.

So then finally the spotlight came over on me, and I was very pleased and went into my song.

Hamilton: She did a little bit of what would become a kind of muscle dance.

And, you know, that was it, she was hooked.

♪♪ Watts: I think that her mother encouraged these kind of early sexualized performances.

She takes Mae to see the very controversial Eva Tanguay.

♪♪ That's pretty adult entertainment that she's exposing her to.

♪♪ Watts: Turn of the century New York and Brooklyn in 1900 when she's a child coming up, you can go to vaudeville, you can go to burlesque.

♪♪ There's all kinds of ethnic theaters, there's street performers.

It's everywhere.

So she's exposed to all these varieties of popular culture.

[ Applause ] ♪♪ Hamilton: West left school basically as soon as she'd gotten a taste for what it was like to be under the spotlight.

But she had street smarts.

Girls in her neighborhood grew up very fast.

♪♪ ♪♪ There was this kind of culture of what were called 'tough girls' -- girls who were very vocal about sex.

♪♪ They weren't prostitutes, but they traded on their sexual desirability to get favors out of men.

♪♪ They were Mae West's neighbors, they were her friends.

That was the roots of West's persona.

♪♪ Watts: As a teenager, the skits you find her doing, she's making kind of class commentary but also commentary on gender.

In one of her earliest acts you see her with a male partner and really flip the act where she's the powerful one and he's the weaker one.

And so you see that early beginning of the Mae West character that's not going to be dominated by men.

Desrochers: She develops this dance called the shimmy, she got it from black jazz clubs.

Essentially she's justgyrating her torso and her hips.

♪♪ It was pretty raw and raunchy.

This is what drove people crazy.

♪♪ West: I was the first one to do shimmy dancing.

And it was really a show-stopper.

It was a sensation.

So everybody start imitating it,start trying to do it, you know.

They start writing songs, everybody shimmies now, and it was a big hit.

World famous, you know what I mean, see.

Lyonne: But she is not just a shimmy girl.

And she says, 'I got to be around longer than this dance is going to last,' right?

She's trying to make it on the vaudeville circuit.

And it's not happening.

Desrochers: The reviews called her a freak performer, a P.T. Barnum freak show, essentially.

Hamilton: Critics say it all the time, you know, 'She belongs on the burlesque stage.'

She couldn't really stop moving her body.

Von Teese: Burlesque was vaudeville's dirty cousin.

It was kind of a place where vaudevillians didn't really want to end up.

They saw it as a step down, because burlesque was more about sex.

♪♪ Lady Bunny: You know this was pre-prohibition, wasn't it?

So, you know, it was definitely naughty and she definitely was a sexual creature.

She was never an ingénue.

♪♪ Chauncey: In the late '20s and early '30s, the prohibition era clubs were cultivating much more salacious entertainment.

Hamilton: Prohibition pushes respectable people who want drinks underground.

They're rubbing shoulders with prostitutes, with fairy impersonators, with all kinds of people that they wouldn't otherwise know, and there is this fascination with what was called at the time the sort of seamy underbelly.

♪♪ Chauncey: There was a lot of sexual experimentation in the 1920s, and Mae West was a master at pushing the envelope as far as she could, and then a little bit further.

♪♪ Pierpont: And there was nobody who could write what she wanted to be unless she wrote it herself, this completely independent, sexy woman who didn't want to get married, who wasn't going to die in the last act, who wasn't going to follow some man into the desert.

Mae West had to create the material in which she would shine -- and she did.

♪♪ West: I'm on the waterfront and I saw this blonde and she had two sailors.

In those days, sailors were rough, terrible characters.

She had two big blotches of red paint on her face, and they must've been telling her dirty stories because she'd laugh, you know what I mean, see?

It made such an impression on me that when I went home I start thinking about it, and I said, 'What on Earth am I thinking about this two dollar tramp for?'

And then it start to dawn on me.

I said, 'Gee, is it possible?

Is this a play that I'm gonna write?'

♪♪ Watts: Mae West needs something as outrageous as she is.

But there's talk about censorship on Broadway, that the stage in New York needs to be cleaned up.

So she enters right into the controversy full bore.

West: So I said to my lawyer, I says, 'I'm gonna call it 'Sex'.' He said, 'Oh, my God, if we only dare.'

I says, 'Well, I'll dare.'

'Mae West in Sex.'

Pierpont: But what she created was not a comedy.

It was actually a play about an angry prostitute.

And it had serious issues about men and women and power.

Desrochers: The play itself, 'Sex,' is not about sex.

It's about lust.

That everybody has a sense of desire.

But women are going to be labeled as unrespectable and the men are, of course, actually gonna be given credit for being lusty.

Basinger: You'll never know to what level Mae West really was thinking in feminist terms.

But she does show women some truth.

This is a world in which, you know, men are telling you the rules.

There is a double standard.

Hamilton: 'Sex' got excoriating reviews from critics who basically saw it as pretty much unvarnished pornography.

''Sex'...an offensive play, monstrosity plucked from garbage can, destined to sewer.'

I think what rattled the critics most, not just that she was performing a prostitute, but that she seemed to be getting actual sexual pleasure out of the performance.

♪♪ Cho: If you're casting yourself as a sex worker and the narrative of the play doesn't take you to hell, then people are going to have a problem with it.

You know, it's like, fine if you're a sex worker, but as long as you get killed.

Pierpont: This is outrageous. This is so horrible... Of course people flocked to see it.

There were lines outside the theater every time somebody condemned it for being too dirty.

♪♪ Hamilton: West had her own sense of why crowds were flooding in, which wasn't about intellectual stimulation but something much more voyeuristic.

She saw herself as a sort of entrepreneur of the underworld.

Why wouldn't homosexuality have the same voyeuristic appeal?

♪♪ West: I met so many chorus boys and people of different walks of life, you know, that were gay, and they were nice people.

They were interesting.

They all had great personalities, witty.

So I start writing a play about it.

Pierpont: She had grown up watching drag queens, throughout vaudeville, she played on bills with them, she played with the great Bert Savoy.

[ Applause, chatter ] Hamilton: She performed onthe Lower East Side of New York, that was where the gay world congregated.

The same drinking houses where you'd find prostitutes, you also found what were called at the time 'fairy impersonators.'

Waiters: ♪ If a sailor in pajamas I should see ♪ ♪ I know he'll scare the life out of me ♪ ♪ And on a great big battleship you'd like to be ♪ ♪ Working as chambermaids! Stuck! ♪ Chauncey: In the late '20s there was just an enormous amount of fascination with fairies and pansies and drag queens, sapphic women.

Drag balls drew hundreds of female impersonators and literally thousands of straight spectators.

Pierpont: And she wrote a show called 'The Drag,' with guys swanning around in boas and gowns and makeup.

It again had a social point of view about homosexuality and tolerance, but it climaxed in a drag ball, which apparently went on for 20 minutes.

Chauncey: She actually went into a bunch of Greenwich Village speakeasies where the queer set hung out and recruited 40 or 50 queens to come be a part of her show.

There's a great line in 'The Drag' where a queen talks about walking up 10th Avenue and all the meat that's sizzling.

Cantone: Oh, yum yum.

Chauncey: I can't think of any other straight woman who was writing a gay play in this period.

It's pretty unusual for anyone to be writing gay plays in this period.

I don't think that she was a sweet social reformer trying to improve the position of gay people in producing these plays.

She was using them to get ahead and to make a name for herself.

But in the course of doing that, she gave a lot of gay people and a lot of drag queens, genderqueers, a chance to express themselves.

Watts: The play 'Drag' really rankled the critics and the social reformers.

And they were determined to put an end to Mae West.

They began to agitate for Mae West to be arrested for the play 'Sex' before 'The Drag' could make it onto the Broadway stage.

Hamilton: February 9, 1927, Mae West went backstage and found herself surrounded by officers from municipal vice squad who rounded up the cast, put them in Black Mariahs and careened through Times Square.

Watts: When they take her to night court, the judge asks her, 'Are you Mae West?'

And she says,'Don't you read the newspapers?'

She was brought to trial.

A journalist said, 'Mae, what do you think's gonna happen?'

And she turns and says, 'I expect this will be the making of me.'

Hamilton: She's convicted of obscenity and of behavior designed to corrupt the morals of youth, and she's sent to the workhouse.

She said later that the onlything that bothered her about it was that she had to wear cotton underwear.

Kenwith: I asked her what jail was like, she said, 'Oh, I had a lovely time.'

She became very friendly with the warden and his wife.

They would take her out on evenings.

Von Teese: So it wasn't really like prison, you know.

She was treated really well, and I think that also gave her time to plot and plan what she was going to do next.

Desrochers: She only spent eight days in jail.

In those eight days she used that publicity to get the show running again and sell more tickets.

Najimy: It was great publicity and it also was a great statement about what she thought her rights should be as a performer, as an artist.

She's like, 'I'm doing my play.

You can come or you can put me in jail, it's going to be fantastic either way.'

♪♪ Hamilton: Mae West knows that when she steps onto the stage she is stepping onto the stage not just as a character but as Mae West the celebrated pornographer who spent eight days in jail for an obscene play.

She was a very, very canny reader of her audiences and a very canny reader of her own publicity.

♪♪ West: They said to me, uh, 'Gee, you pack 'em in, but you have 80% men.'

And then I start paying attention, and I look out and see and I said, 'Gee, what is it?

What am I doing or what am I not doing, that I'm not getting enough women in my audience?'

Then I start to analyze it.

May have been this belly dance I did in that first show, that kept the women out, see?

Then I start to think of what I wasgoing to write for my next play.

I wanted to write somethingthat I would get the women, see?

'What can I do to get the women? What can I do?'

♪♪ Hamilton: The play that she debuts on Broadway in the spring of 1928, it was a period piece.

It was set in the 1890s.

She's wearing these amazing, ornate floor length hourglass corseted gowns.

All of a sudden they're not talking about her in terms of sleaze, they're talking about her in terms of glamour.

♪♪ Talley: The Mae West look is all about corsets.

And everything about her is overkill.

Overkill in jewelry, overkill in diamonds.

But it manages to look incredible.

The way she walked across the stage in a portrait hat with plumes.

Even when she's undressed, she's dressed.

She's not sitting around there in a nude chiffon chemise, she's still laced up.

Those clothes were not vulgar.

West: 'Diamond Lil' was the one that really took the world, you know what I mean, see?

When I had the hats and gowns and the corsets, then I had -- oh, God, I had women, and, oh, the way they turned them away.

That did the trick.

Hamilton: People who would never have gone to her play 'Sex,' respectable people, they'll go to this play because it makes them feel sophisticated without making them uneasy.

[ Applause ] Thomas: She was 35 with 30 years of show biz experience of how to reach an audience, how to sing, how to dance, how to act, how to present personality.

West: ♪ I wonder where my easy rider's gone ♪ ♪ I wonder where my easy rider's gone ♪ Hamilton: Her performance starts to take on the distinctive overtones that we recognize as Mae West-ian.

West: And you, Mister... Mm-hmm.

Hamilton: She's playing a sexy woman but there is a kind of in-joke.

She learns to do it with a nod and a wink.

West: Warm, dark and handsome.

♪ I put all my junk in pawn ♪ ♪ To bet on any horse the jockey's on ♪ ♪ Well, I wonder where my easy rider's gone ♪ ♪ Oh, I wonder where my easy rider's gone ♪ Pierpont: She's completely transformed, not her message, but the way she's delivering it, people are laughing.

Maid: You buy such pretty things.

And all of them diamonds -- you're so rich!

West: Yes, I wasn't always rich.

-Maid: No? -West: No, there was a time I didn't know wheremy next husband was coming from.

Pierpont: The persona that she then adopts is a woman who loves sex.

And that is true, she loves men.

West: Wouldn't hurt me any to have a new kind of man added to my record, would it?

Pierpont: That's also about power.

That's about not having one man have any power over you.

And the 'A-ha' moment of when she realized, 'I can make it funny,' I think it's one of the great lightning strikes in our entertainment history.

West: ♪ Well, I wonder where ♪ My easy rider's gone [ Cheering and applause ] Pierpont: For the movies, 'Diamond Lil' becomes 'She Done Him Wrong,' and it made her a star.

She goes from basically being sent to jail for what she wants to say in 1926 to being the toast of Broadway in 1928, to being the highest paid actress in America by the mid-'30s because she learned to make people laugh.

Grant: Haven't you met a man that could make you happy?

West: Sure, lots of times.

Man: I see a man in your life.

West: What, only one?

Arnold: Tira, I changed my mind.

West: Yeah, does it work any better?

Man: Young lady are you tryingto show contempt for this court?

West: No, I'm doing my best to hide it.

Anytime you got nothing to do and lots of time to do it, come up.

♪♪ ♪♪ Basinger: The stronger a persona that's created by a movie star, the harder it is to penetrate any understanding of who they were.

They had to play that role publicly so much that they started playing it privately.

Hamilton: I do believe she was as promiscuous as she claimed.

The consequences of claiming that were not that easy to live with.

In 1911, when West was coming up on 18 years old, she was touring in a small time vaudeville troupe.

And she met a dancer called Frank Wallace.

She started sleeping with him.

Reportedly she was sleeping with other people in the cast as well.

Somebody took her aside and said, 'You need to look out for your reputation.'

It was the one time in West's career where that kind of advice seems to have stuck with her.

So they got married, and almost immediately she regretted it.

There were even reports of her locking him in their hotel room while she went off at night and gallivanted with other members of the cast.

Malachosky: After a week or so, he started talking about settling down, having a house, having her as the housewife.

And she said, 'Oh, no, that's not going to happen.'

So she made arrangements for him to go on a separate vaudeville circuit.

Hamilton: She would then go on to deny that she'd ever been married.

And I think probably just willed herself to forget that it had ever happened.

♪♪ I think what was most painful about this episode for her, it wasn't so much the marriage.

It was the fact that she succumbed to a fear.

Succumbing to fear of any kind was anathema to her.

But succumbing to fears about her reputation, that was really not what she did.

It wasn't how she wanted to think about herself.

It wasn't how she presented herself to the public.

It's a sense of having betrayed herself, I think, that seems to come across to me in this.

♪♪ Pierpont: I don't think she ever told her mother.

She says it was her mother whotaught her how to deal with men.

She taught her: have lots of them, just don't have one.

One was dangerous.

One would take her off the stage, one would take her attentions away from her profession.

Reporter: Do you think you'll ever marry?

West: Not unless I met a man who could mean more to me than my work.

I don't think that is likely at present.

♪♪ Thomas: There was Jim Timony, her manager for many years.

They had started out as lovers and that petered out.

♪♪ Malachosky: Owney Madden was one of the backers for 'Diamond Lil.'

She had to break it off because of his connection with the mafia.

Kenwith: She loved George Raft.

Pierpont: She loved musclemen.

She hung out with the Bowery types.

Thomas: She was big into wrestlers and boxers.

Malachosky: Chalky Wright and Gorilla Jones.

Kenwith: Black men.

They were men, that's all that mattered to her.

Leider: She had an insatiable appetite for new and better lovers.

Von Teese: She always acted like she had lots of men around but I think that privately, I think there were certain men that really got her.

♪♪ Watts: Guido Deiro was the world's most amazing accordion player.

And they meet in vaudeville and she falls for him.

He's good-looking, sweeps her off her feet.

And she falls for him.

♪♪ Deiro Jr: My father and Mae went together for almost four years.

The physical attraction was incredible.

As she's described in her autobiography, sex with this man was something that she wanted to do morning, noon and night,and that's all she wanted to do.

Her method of contraception was primitive.

She put a tiny sponge on a silk ribbon.

Eventually that led to the inevitable.

She wired her mother, ''Lady's Journal' hasn't come for the last two months, what should I do?'

And Tilly wired back, 'Cancel it.'

The doctor botched the abortion, which almost killed her.

She was now barren.

When my father found out, he was emotionally devastated.

He refused to see her or talk to her.

Von Teese: She never talks about heartbreak ever in her whole life.

She would never even speak about being sad.

West: I don't allow myself to have any negative thinking, you know what I mean.

I just stop it, wipe it out.

I won't allow my emotions to develop in that vein, you know, sorrow or anything negative or depressing.

Watts: Men in her life said they could never get close to her.

That could come from her father.

There's a lot of tension between the two of them.

He was a bare-knuckle prize fighter in the era when it was the most violent of sports.

Pierpont: she said he had an explosive temper and that she didn't want him to touch her.

But she goes out of her way to say that he wasn't abusive, she just didn't like him.

Watts: She doesn't like the way he treats her mother at all.

She had such a difficult relationship with him.

She views men as people who disempower women purposefully.

She would say that her mother understood her better than her father did.

♪♪ Pierpont: Her mother was the love of her life.

Malachosky: Her mother passed away in 1930, and she kind of just went bonkers.

West: My mother always thought everything I did and said was great.

That was the worst tragedy in my life, I don't ever expect anything to equal that.

♪♪ Thomas: It's too bad that Mathilde didn't live five more years.

She would have seen Mae become the highest paid woman in America in 1935.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ Watts: Mae West's film 'She Done Him Wrong' gave everybody from the smallest town and the biggest city the chance to actually see her.

It was released in February of 1933, just after FDR is elected.

And a lot of people see her and FDR as kind of a new spirit that seizes America.

The film generates so much box office that by June, according to Paramount it was able to climb out of bankruptcy.

Announcer: And now, folks, we are entering the gates that so many try to crash and so few pass.

Within these portals you may see such famous stars as the Marx Brothers, Mae West, Cary Grant, and many of your other favorites.

Watts: It catapults her into the limelight, into success.

Announcer: And now the huge crowd is awed as the star of stars makes her appearance.

Mae West has come to town.

Talley: People wanted to escape in the movies.

The poverty, the difficulty, the breadlines.

And Mae West created an image of this beautiful woman walking around in these extraordinary clothes.

The glamour of 1930s Hollywood depended a lot on Mae West.

West: I'm up here atMr. Graumann's beautiful theater to see the grand opening premiere of my new picture, 'I'm No Angel.'

Of course, I didn't call it 'I'm No Angel' for nothing.

Don't forget, come up and see me sometime.

Malachosky: Paramount came and said, 'Well, we need another film for you, so what would you like to do?'

She actually wanted to be a lion tamer as a child.

And so she wrote 'I'm No Angel,' and she portrays Tira the lion tamer.

[ Fanfare ] Ringmaster:Tira, the million-dollar beauty!

♪♪ It was a childhood fulfillment.

♪♪ Talley: There she is, making an entrance into the circus in Madison Square Garden on a big, beautiful elephant, and there she is whipping the lions into performance.

[ Lion roaring ] Come on! A woman, training lions?

Putting her head in a lion's mouth?

So she's thinking of ways to show herself as a woman of power, an original woman.

Doherty: One of the great Mae West moments is at the beginning of 'I'm No Angel.'

♪♪ Man: If I wasn't a married man, I could go for you, baby.

West: No wisecracks now.

Penny for your thoughts.

Doherty: All the guys are like cheering her and she's on stage, and she does her act.

West: ♪ I've got the face of a saint ♪ ♪ On the level, it ain't paint ♪ ♪ Beware of these eyes ♪ I'm a devil in disguise ♪ And they call me Sister Honky Tonk ♪ ♪ Get over, dirty ♪ They call me Sister Honky Tonk ♪ I gotta scram now.

♪ They call me Sister Honky Tonk ♪ [ Men shouting ] ♪♪ Am I makin' myself clear, boys?

♪♪ Suckers. -Basinger: 'Suckers.'

I mean, that was her.

She's not vulnerable.

She's not easy to take.

She can't be hurt easily.

Mae West cannot be had.

She can take you, but she can't be had.

Hamilton: When West came to the screen I think the assumption was that she would be a draw for men.

Kind of stag night out.

But 'I'm No Angel' drew so many women that a theater owner in Omaha, Nebraska, had women-only screenings.

Woman: It's been such a great pleasure to meet you.

-West: Thank you. -Woman: Permit me to say I think you're perfectly wonderful.

West: Coming from a woman that's a big compliment.

Charming to meet you lovely people.

Pierpont: There's a lot of women's fantasy.

The jewels, the clothes, Cary Grant falling at your feet, all the men in the world falling at your feet.

Plus you're independent, you're tough, and you don't take it from anybody.

You've got your femininity and your independence.

♪♪ Talley: I love when she's sitting at home.

And there's this lazy Susan, and each boyfriend represents a kind of an animal.

There's a skunk for the skunk and there's a lamb and there's a little chipmunk and a squirrel.

It's an amazing tactic to say, look, these are the kind of men I've had, and I've had them and I remember them in this way.

Man: Say, what's my picture doing by that skunk?

West: I figured it belonged there.

Haskell: She always had herself pitted against the swells.

Woman: I can't see why everybody's so absolutely gaga about She's obviously a person of the commonest sort.

Haskell: She couldn't have been this swaggering woman of appetites if she were upper class.

She luxuriated in her Brooklyn background.

Woman: I think she's crude and a very ill-bred person.

[ Gasps ] Basinger: The audience could understand, she's not a high-class woman, she's one of them.

She made no attempt to change, to get perfect diction, she just talked like who she was.

West: 'W.'

Aw, 'W' like in witch.

No, no, witch!

Pierpont: I think she was very proud of where she came from and the fact that she made it up.

She was from Brooklyn.

West: Dame misunderstood me.

Pierpont: She sounds like it.

She never tried to create a fancier way of speaking.

West: 'T' like in tomato.

♪ I always loved to be in bright lights ♪ ♪ My streets are paved with gold ♪ ♪ I found myself a new kind of man ♪ Woman: Sing it, honey!

West: ♪ He's one to have and hold ♪ -Woman: And how! -Talley: She always included black women in her films.

Of course they were maids, but they were not just handing her a cup of tea or coffee.

They were her friends.

West: Somethin' not bad, huh?

Woman: Not bad?

I've never seen such presents as this here... Talley: And they're not just subservient.

They're talking and exchanging, and there's a repartee.

Libby: I don't know, but meand men do pretty well together.

West: Yeah, what kind of men do you like, Libby?

Libby: I'm just crazy about dark men.

Watkins: Her relationship toher maids reflects her own sense of being really of the common class.

Underneath this façade of elegance, this façade of wealth, was a common person.

And I think she wanted to show that.

West: I'll trouble you to scram.

Watkins: She treats her maids in a more familiar manner than she does most other people.

Woman: How much?

West: Oh, Beulah? Beulah: Yes, ma'am?

Talley: 'Beulah, peel me a grape.'

In another film, that would be very, very offensive, but when you hear her say, 'Beulah, peel me a grape,' it's like, 'Sister, get me a vodka.'

West: ♪ Takes a good man to break me ♪ -Sure does! -♪ No man can shake me -I know! -♪ Until I let him go Lyonne: Her African American housekeepers are credited in her films, which is radical for its time, even though it sounds inane.

West: Well, is it a flash, or is it a flash?

Watkins: But still there's the overriding fact that they were maids, she was in charge, and that these people in these films were portrayed as maids and that's the only way you really saw them.

Jefferson: Those voices that are, you know, Hollywood's version of black vernacular, which is not really a vernacular, it's a created, constructed dialect.

It's meant to sound, you know, a little naive, and a little ignorant.

West: I don't know him much better than I know Shakespeare.

Maid: Shakespeare?

I don't remember any Mr. Shakespeare calling on you.

West: That was before you came with me.

Maid: Oh, I see.

Watkins: Nothing that I've read leads me to believe that she was a real advocate of civil rights for African Americans.

But my own sense of her relationship to the African American community was that she looked at it with interest.

She felt that there were things going on there that she was drawn to.

She was very taken by and respected black music.

And I think that she, uh, she knew what she was doing with it.

West: ♪ When a St. Louis woman comes down to New Orleans ♪ ♪ When a St. Louis woman comes down to New Orleans ♪ Pierpont: She said she was really revolutionized by seeing black performers dancing and singing in Chicago while she was on tour.

West: ♪ Had a good man in Memphis... ♪ Pierpont: She brings it right into her movies.

In her third movie, 'Belle of the Nineties,' she has enough clout to finally get the studio to hire Duke Ellington and his Orchestra.

♪♪ West: ♪ My old flame ♪ I can't even think of his name ♪ I told them, I said, 'Now I want Duke Ellington in this picture.'

So, they said, 'Oh, they don'tknow how to play the instruments and so it won't come over right.'

I said, 'Well, that sounds awful funny to me,' I said, 'They make records,' I says, 'There's something else there,' I says, 'Otherwise, they wouldn't be putting up a barrier not to let them in.'

I said, 'We need them.

You haven't got anybody here that can play like this man.'

♪ No one can rag it like that piano man ♪ ♪♪ ♪ They got a hot cornet that you could never forget ♪ Pierpont: I think it's her way of saying 'I know I'm white and I know I got this platinum wig on my head, but this is where it comes from.'

West: ♪ I brought them here ♪ 'Cause I couldn't bear to lose ♪ ♪ Those Memphis blues ♪♪ Pierpont: Paramount referred to her as a one-woman production unit in charge of everything.

At least overseeing everything.

No director seemed to ever want to work with her more than once because she directed the director to a degree.

Lyonne: She waltzed in and said, 'I wrote it, and we're going to shoot it like this, kid.'

♪♪ Basinger: She was always working.

She was kind of an outsider to Hollywood, to the system.

She wasn't married.

She wasn't a part of the social world.

If you look at old movie magazines of the days, they're all out at parties together.

You never see Mae West anywhere in these things.

Thomas: She didn't smoke, and she didn't drink.

Nightclubbing didn't appeal to her.

Her idea of going out was to go watch a boxing match.

I don't think she had very many women friends.

She said, 'Men are my kind of people.'

West: You see, my life has never been with women.

Marlene Dietrich is a good friend.

My sister, maybe one or two other women.

But women in general, I have no time for them.

Because they're not writers and they're not producers.

Their lives are different than mine.

Nobody did what I did.

Von Teese: She was so confident.

She was egotistical -- that's the reality of it, but why shouldn't she be?

When you think of that iconic blonde sex symbol, can't really think of anybody before her.

Pierpont: People loved her.

And she didn't look like anything that was around at the time.

She was easy to caricature because she was so exaggerated.

West: Let me see... Well... [ Chuckles ] Talley: Mae West was not a tall woman.

She walked on very high, high platform shoes.

It was like Cleopatra's barge on her feet.

♪♪ Basinger: You know the two great walks in American film belonged to John Wayne and Mae West.

They roll.

He rolls his way, in his direction, she rolls her way in hers.

Jefferson: below the waist it undulates, and it's this languid rhythm.

Above the waist, it's like a pugilist.

♪♪ Pierpont: There were cartoons, birds and dogs.

Even the animal world seemed to talk like that for a while.

Bird: Oh, he was so handsome, you know, and so young.

Pierpont: There were paper dolls and people were saying the Coke bottle looked like Mae West.

You know, in 1940, the Royal Air Force names a lifejacket after her because it's got a bulbous shape.

She seemed to penetrate daily life.

And the body thing is important too.

Women really reacted to that body.

Lyonne: That is an empowered woman.

That's the look I want, you know what I mean?

She looks like she's eaten some sandwiches.

Man: ♪ My American beauty ♪ Please don't be coy... Hamilton: But there was lots of discussion about her appeal to young girls.

Girl: Come up and see me sometime.

Hamilton: One of West's critics said that, at a school in his neighborhood, when the children dressed as their favorite movie character, seven girls came dressed as imitation Mae Wests.

Girl: Say, how'm I doing, fellas?

Stick around, you might learn something.

Watts: You read about women in the fan magazines, they write in and say, 'Well, I tried Mae West's moves.'

One woman writes and says, 'Oh, I imitated Mae West and my husband hit me and I got a black eye.'

Hamilton: People concerned with the morals of Hollywood had gotten fed up with Mae West.

Watkins: It became something that the moralists in the country decided had to be stamped out in some way, or at least contained.

♪♪ Breen: The vulgar,the cheap and the tawdry is out!

There is no room on the screen at any time for pictures which offend against common decency.

Doherty: In July 1934 the Production Code Administration is created to regulate motion picture content.

Hallett: The enforcer of the code, Joseph Breen, who is a very devout Catholic, is also very anti-Semitic -- he sees himself as a Christian moral police that will force Jewish producers to stop making these kinds of morally degenerate films.

♪♪ There's this idea that Hollywood is like a hypodermic needle and it's injecting violence and immorality into the youth of America.

[ Gunshots ] ♪♪ Dietrich: And I might have to move a little closer, if I get chilly.

I may even put my hands in your pocket.

[ Gunshot ] ♪♪ Doherty: My father, 1933.

He's 12 years old.

He wants to go see 'I'm No Angel,' a film that he's heard about, right?

But outside the theater is his parish priest, who of course knows my father on sight.

And my father just continues walking.

He's not going to buy a ticket to this film in front of his parish priest.

Now if you multiply that by ten million, you can sort of see the influence that Roman Catholics have over the motion picture box office.

And one of the things censorship under the production code is going to do is control the unbridled sexuality of women.

♪♪ Doherty: The films that you see before 1934 are awash in women who traffic in their sexuality and are not punished for it.

♪♪ One of the best examples is 'Red-Headed Woman,' a film starring Jean Harlow.

She's basically a marriage wrecker who sleeps her way to the top.

And she gets away with it!

Harlow: You're afraid you're gonna take me in your arms.

You're afraid you're gonna kiss me.

Man: Is that so?

Harlow: Well, why don't you do it?

Man: Keep away from me, I'm warning you.

-Harlow: Why don't you do it? -Man: Keep away from me!

Harlow: You don't dare stay here.

You don't trust yourself.

Do it again, I like it.

Do it again!

Doherty: And then there's Mae West.

Man: What's the matter, baby, don't you like me anymore?

West: Sure, I'm just relaxing.

Doherty: You had seen sexually charged women, but you hadn't seen a woman wisecrack sexually, from the title credits to the end credits.

Man: You know, I'd like to take you away from all this.

West: All this?

[ Chuckles ] Oh, I getcha.

Yeah, for a long time I was ashamed of the way I lived.

Man: You mean to say you reformed?

West: No, I got over being ashamed.

♪♪ Hallett: She's writing these characters that are upending the idea that women are passive, women's sexuality victimizes them, and she makes the fallen woman the good woman.

And that really is a threat to the patriarchal structure.

♪♪ Hamilton: This is the depths of the Depression.

People are very worried about family stability and about men's authority within families.

Chauncey: There was a real pushback against women's rights in general.

Legislation passed restricting women's access to jobs and trying to shore up men's position.

Pierpont: People were soconcerned about what women were, whether they were sexual or should they be sexual and what were they allowed to be?

Hamilton: So after 1934 you have much more intensified scrutiny of all films, but West's in particular.

She really has a difficult time.

West: The sex personality was the thing that made me and the thing they wanted, it was the thing the censors were after, you know.

I saw they let someone else do something that they wouldn't let me do, you know.

I couldn't get away with it.

Breen: We must be on the lookoutfor themes or action or dialogue which are likely to give offense.

We work with all who are... Doherty: You submit your script in advance.

Joe Breen marks it up, he sends it back to the studio, you change some stuff, you send it back.

You have a very long, complicated process before the cameras start to roll.

And so there's no room for improvisation or ad libs.

And if you see Mae West givea line that might be licentious, you can cross it out or suggest a change.

Malachosky: She said, I would even have to put things in the scripts that would embarrass me, just to get them to approve what I really wanted.

West: Trying to outsmart me, what a laugh that is.

Fooling with one of the smartest dames he ever put his arms around.

Barreca: She's one lick of the lips away from being shut down by the censors.

But you can't censor a hand on a hip.

You can't censor an eye-roll. -Man: I beg your pardon.

You dropped your glove. -West: Oh, thank you.

Maybe I can do something for you sometime.

Yeah.

Man: I got a model in the workshop, one I've been working on, if you'd like to see that.

West: Oh, in the workshop, huh?

Oh, I'd just love to see your model.

Man: Are you in town for good?

West: I expect to be here, but not for good.

Hamilton: 'Belle Of The Nineties' is actually just cut to pieces.

They bring West back into the studio to film a new ending where she and her partner are given a hasty wedding.

Judge: By virtue of the solemn promise you have here made one to another, I hereby pronounce you man and wife.

West: Thank you judge, thank you.

Hamilton: A questionable woman sees the error of her ways and is safely married off at the end of the film.

But the film makes no sense with that ending.

Doherty: And in fact the reviews actually say, 'This is here to placate the censors.'

I mean, Mae West doesn't get married, right?

Man: I don't suppose you believe in marriage, do you.

West: Only as a last resort.

Watts: But then it became public that Mae West had been married at the age of 17, and that she'd failed to get a divorce.

She seemed a little less bold.

And that, along with censorship, hurts her career.

[ Piano playing 'On The Good Ship Lollipop' ] Doherty: In 1933, Mae West is the biggest star that Hollywood has.

In 1934, who's the biggest star?

Shirley Temple.

The difference between pre-code and post-code: Mae West, Shirley Temple.

♪♪ Doherty: And if you can make a lot of money with Shirley Temple, and nobody's calling you a smut merchant, and you're not getting a lot of hassle from the Legion of Decency, and Mae West is controversial, and has her own vision of what film should be... West: Well, what are you gonna do about it?

Doherty: You're going to pick Shirley Temple every time.

Why disrupt things with Mae West, who's being neutered by the Production Code.

Brother Bowser: Welcome, Sister Annie!

I'm Brother Bowser, superintendent of our settlement house.

Hamilton: 'Klondike Annie' was going to be the film that would allow West to be entirely inoffensive.

West: What is that, a boarding school?

Brother Bowser: No, that's a dance hall, patronized by the rough-minded.

Hamilton: She was going to be playing a woman who had seen the errors of her ways who stepped into this role as a missionary.

Brother Bowser: This, dear sister, is our little haven of brotherly love.

Hamilton: But West getting religion struck people as blasphemous.

She really is just not goingto be able to do anything right.

Wojcik: if Mae West goes Pollyanna, she's ruined!

Because what we want from Mae West is not good girl.

We want Mae West to be a bad girl, and to make being a bad girl fun.

And Mae West reformed is not particularly fun -- or interesting.

Watts: All along the road,she's pushing, pushing, pushing, and I think to some degree she likes the battle.

Because she fights and fights and fights, and she does her thing anyway.

Announcer: We're all very happy to have as our guest one of the greatest personalities on the screen today, Miss Mae West.

Bergen: She was on my father's radio show.

My father, Edgar Bergen, was a ventriloquist, and Mae West came on to Charlie, which was my father's dummy.

She said, 'Charlie, come up and see me sometime.

I'll let you play in my woodpile.'

[ Laughter ] Watts: The first skit was 'Adam and Eve,' with Mae West playing Eve.

And she's flirting with Adam in a -- in a -- in a definitely sexual way in the Garden of Eden.

West: Listen, long, lazy and lukewarm.

[ Laughter ] You think I want to stay in this place all my life?

Ameche: Well, then, what do you want, trouble?

West: Trouble. Listen, if trouble means something that makes you catch your breath, if trouble means something that makes your blood run through your veins like seltzer water, mmm, Adam, my man, give me trouble!

Cho: Her parodying that, and being this temptress, that's a very offensive thing to, you know, people who live and die by what the Bible says about women.

Watts: The switchboard at NBC just lit up with complaints.

Man: Mae West is a danger to the morals and sanctity of our homes... Woman: Decidedly unfit for the ears of any children... Woman: ...vulgar, profane, and indecent... Man: God's laws cannot be transgressed without a befitting punishment... Man: ...unwarranted and inexcusable... Man: ...violation of decency should not go... Woman: ...she should be ruled off the air!

Leider: It was on a Sunday, was part of the problem.

There were people who thought that just to have Mae West on the air at all on a Sunday was insulting.

♪♪ Bergen: It was a big drama.

She was banned from NBC.

Couldn't ever appear on that network again.

But nothing could intimidate her.

She just was not afraid to go out and poke a bear with a stick.

Leider: But her goose was cooked at that point and her Paramount contract was not renewed.

♪♪ ♪♪ West: What a man.

Fields: You must come up and see me sometime.

Malachosky: Universal came to her and said, 'We want you to do this movie.'

And she said, 'Out of all the films I made, that's the one that is most remembered and probably my least favorite.'

Fields: May I present my card?

West: 'Novelties and notions.'

What kind of notions you got?

Fields: You'd be surprised.

Some are old, some are new.

Pierpont: 'My Little Chickadee,' things are frozen in place.

Her act is a little bit stale -- so is W.C. Fields' act by then.

Desrochers: She's moving into her 50s.

It's no longer a youthful woman who's talking about sex and sexual innuendo.

Doherty: She's really trapped in the Mae West persona.

Barbara Stanwyck or Joan Crawford or Katharine Hepburn -- they can go into all other kinds of genres.

They've got a range, because their persona's not in amber the ways hers is.

Wojcik: She had one thing she did, and she did it very well, but it was getting harder and harder for her.

And she wasn't gonna slide into a grandmother role.

She wasn't gonna play somebody's mom.

So she took the act to Vegas.

♪♪ Man: ♪ I'm just a gigolo ♪ And everywhere I go ♪ People know the part I'm playing ♪ ♪ Paid for every dance Selling each romance ♪ ♪ Oh, what they're saying West: I realized there was nothing there inducing the women.

The main thing that kept them out was the nude women, nudity.

And I thought, 'Gee, this is it.

I'll bring nude men out there, for the women.'

I says, 'I can't go wrong!'

And it really worked, these women screamed out there.

♪♪ Pierpont: Vegas is vaudeville, renewed and rewrit.

♪♪ West: Mmm, Havana.

All those tropical nights.

Oh, what was his name?

Ah, yes, I remember now.

Lyonne: She's a businesswoman.

And she's seeing the men as kind of the props of Mae West Enterprises.

[ Cheering and applause ] There's got to be something really fulfilling about feeling like you're washed up on one side of town and then seeing that connection is still alive.

Schlatter: The guys had lubrication on their body.

They were oiled up and they were massive muscles, piles of them.

And she looked at them like she had known each of them in a biblical sense.

[ Cheering and applause ] ♪♪ [ Cheering and applause ] Hamilton: She had a new audience who had rediscovered her films through their being shown on TV.

Because by then televisions were in every home.

Collingwood: Good evening Miss West.

West: Good evening.

Collingwood: It's good of you to let us all come up to see you.

Watts: In the fall of 1959, Mae West is scheduled to appear on 'Person To Person' which was a show hosted by Charles Collingwood, who was a pretty conservative, straight up reporter.

She takes him on a tour of her two-bedroom apartment.

Collingwood: You seem to have a lot of mirrors around.

West: Oh, yes, for personal observation.

I always like to know how I'm doing.

Malachosky: Well, the censors, pbbt!

That show never got aired.

It's never been seen to this day.

West: I like all types of men.

In fact the man I don't like doesn't exist.

Doherty: Mae West being Mae West in whatever medium -- Broadway, film, radio, television, is going to be a challenge for mainstream moral guardians.

She was censored in virtuallyevery form of mass entertainment of the 20th century.

Interviewer: Before we go any further, Miss West, may I feel free to ask you any question at all?

West: Of course, but please use a little discretion.

I understand the censor has a weak heart.

Watts: She made an appearance on 'The Red Skelton Show,' which was a family show.

Interviewer: We'd like to hear about some of the unusual men, the men who were offbeat.

West: Well, a smart girl never beats off any man.

Watts: The network censors let it go past I think because I don't think they got what she was doing.

Schlatter: I'm not an expert on the art form, but I believe that beating off is the same now as it was at the turn of the century.

♪♪ Russell: ♪ Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh Von Teese: Mae West is one of those people that drag queens immediately wanted to imitate.

Russell: Ooh. One at a time!

Bailey: Just a bad girl being good to the rest of the Navy.

Von Teese: You can put on Mae West.

Lady Bunny: Her wigs are draggy.

The rings on every finger, she is a total look, conceived of from picture hat to platform shoe.

You know, there's lines, I mean, you can almost hear the rim shots after the jokes.

I mean, 'Oh!'

Pierce: I love Las Vegas.

I went up to the gambling tables a few weeks ago, and there was a tall, dark, and handsome croupier.

He said, 'Miss West,I'd love to lay you ten to one.'

I said, 'An odd time, but I'll be there.'

Najimy: if you look at the traditional femme fatales that the gay community is a fan of, it's all women who have broken the rules.

-Oh, oh!

One more time.

Hamilton: But she becomes a kind of object of camp humor.

-I'll see you around, and I'll see you around.

Hamilton: Somebody who seems kind of comically overblown and unsexual.

So it works her in that it gives her an audience.

It also kind of diminishes her.

Cantone: She thought of herself as a great comedienne.

And when she saw people do impressions of her it was a parody of.

Meanwhile, she was a parody of.

Watts: There were rumors that spread at a certain point that she was actually a man.

That's part of the Mae West legend.

Chauncey: People who thought Mae West was a man saw someone who didn't seem to naturally inhabit femininity but who was performing femininity.

♪♪ ♪♪ Barrett: I was sort of a friend of Mae's.

She was a funny lady.

It wasn't that she was funny-funny, you know, like, telling jokes.

She was witty.

One day, I received a phone call from the vice president of 20th Century Fox, and he said, 'Rona, tell me about her.

Does she still have it up there?'

And I said, 'Boy, does she ever.'

He said, 'Well, I've got a movie, and I think she would be so perfect for this particular part.

Announcer: The book that couldn't be written is now the motion picture that couldn't be made.

'Myra Breckinridge'! West: I'll be right with you boys.

Get your resumes out.

Cantone: Myra Breckinridge was like a cult camp classic that was accidentally really so bad it was good.

So that's why gay men love it.

West: Mmm. Hi, cowboy.

How tall are you without your horse?

Cowboy: Well, ma'am, I'm six feet, seven inches.

West: Well, never mind about the six feet.

Let's talk about the seven inches.

Basinger: How the heck can you make the thing you were in 1934 still work in the 1970s?

This is how strong it was.

This is how original and unique it was.

And this is how much she owned it, knew what it was, and could deliver it.

♪♪ ♪♪ Lyonne: Here's the plot: I'm going to be 87 years old, I've got an idea for a picture.

It's called 'Sextette,' I'm going to play a 28 year old woman.

I'm going to be married to Timothy Dalton.

Dalton: I wanted to carry you across the threshold.

Lyonne: My exes are going to include Tony Curtis... Curtis: Tonight, we relive the past!

Lyonne: George Hamilton... West: Mmm, is that a gun in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?

Lyonne: Ringo Starr... Starr: And you'll always have a place in my heart.

Lyonne: Really, there's going to be this obscure cameo by Keith Moon playing my stylist... Moon: Wild silk. Wild silk!

West: Oh, it's beautiful.

Lyonne: Alice Cooper is coming over... This movie's going to make little to no sense.

It's going to be clearly from the first frame insane.

There's going to be a scene where I'm sort of talking to a bunch of Olympic athletes... West: Wow, I've never seen that position before!

Lyonne: She's 87 doing these numbers, it's a radical, radical power move.

Very very rare.

Starr: Oh, it was great.

Oscar nominated, it should have been, yes, please.

Sir, I am Laslo Karolny.

West: Husband number six, meet husband number four.

Starr: A pleasure.

I just thought it would be great to hang out with Mae.

The most difficult thing was while we were working, the director would give her her lines into the earpiece and then she would say her lines.

But still, she was Mae.

And that was that.

She invited us to dinner, and she went all the time to this restaurant she knew.

But she gets there an hour earlier than you to do the lights, so she's got all the lights on her as you walk in the restaurant.

We heard later she does that wherever she goes.

Basinger: Mae West, in doing these films, skirted the edge of disaster.

And for many people, she was a disaster.

They were embarrassed, they were shocked.

But she didn't care.

Pierpont: Why is it horrifying that she's out there being sexual?

I mean she's parading it in the same delirious, over-exaggerated way she always paraded sexuality.

Why aren't we with her anymore?

West: The British are coming. Mmm!

Barreca: She was allowed to break every taboo except the sexualized older woman, that became too scary.

West: Hi!

Dalton: Well, I certainly take my hat off to you.

West: Mmm, you'll have to take off more than that, honey.

Barreca: As a woman in her 60s, I can say I have no problem with her staying with this character.

An idea of a woman with an appetite of all kinds.

♪♪ Basinger: If the idea of a woman standing up and saying, as an old woman, I can still be attractive, I can still have a sex life, this may look dumb to you, but this is who I am -- if that's sad, it's sad.

But, you know, there's a kind of wonderful courage and defiance to it.

And there's the one thing that she always had: self-confidence.

Women need more self-confidence.

And she's the role model for that more than for anything else.

Atta girl, Mae, go get 'em.

[ Applause ] ♪♪ ♪♪ Watts: I think her one true love came late in life.

I think it's Paul Novak.

He was devoted to her and her to him.

♪♪ Malachosky: When she was doing her nightclub act in the 1950s, he was one of the muscle men in the show.

She trusted him.

He looked after her.

It just grew into a great relationship.

And he stayed with her all those years.

Nussbaum: There are worse situations than having an extremely devoted bodybuilder be your lifetime companion for the last 30 years of your life.

That's not something to look askance at.

Thomas: He said, 'I believe that God put me on this Earth to take care of Miss West,' and he did.

He was loyal to Mae to her last breath.

Savitch: Mae West, Hollywood's most enduring sex symbol died today.

Man: Mae West died alone in her elegant Hollywood apartment at the age of 88.

Man: Mae West will be buried alongside her mother and father in her hometown of Brooklyn, New York.

Pierpont: What a trajectory. What a woman.

She wasn't a product of her time, she was a product of her own imagination.

♪♪ West: ♪ Aww ♪ Oh, oh Lyonne: I don't think that Mae West is one of our great heroes in the way, you know,Gloria Steinem or Jane Fonda is.

But she is unquestionably a feminist.

She actually is like, 'Right, but why would you get paid more than me?

Why would I get married if I don't want to?'

That is hugely empowering and rebellious when we think about the era in which it was happening and also the fact that even still today we're having these conversations.

Announcer: The one, the only, Miss Mae West, ladies and gentlemen!

[ Cheering and applause ] West: ♪ A guy what takes his time ♪ I'll go for any time ♪ I'm a fast movin' gal ♪ I'd like some slow ♪ I can spot an amateur ♪ Appreciate a connoisseur at his trade ♪ ♪ Who would qualify, no alibi ♪ ♪ To be the guy what takes his time ♪ ♪ Oh West: ♪ It's so nice to have a man around the house ♪ ♪ Oh, so nice to have a man around the house ♪ ♪ Someone tall and dark and dreamy ♪ ♪ With a face that's soft and creamy ♪ ♪ Who may just come up and see me ♪ ♪ It's so nice ♪ I may add an extra fellow here and there ♪ Announcer: To order 'American Masters -- Mae West: Dirty Blonde' on DVD, visit Shop PBS or call 1-800-PLAY-PBS.

This program is also available on Amazon Prime Video.

West: ♪ With a couple or a dozen ♪ Till I find out who's a man and who's a mouse ♪ ♪ It's so nice to have a man around the house ♪ Men: ♪ We love her dearly West: ♪ I'd just die ♪ Without a guy ♪ Around the ho-o-ouse [ Applause ] ♪♪

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