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The Mae West test

She was five feet high and built like a gyrating, well-upholstered wingback

Belle of the Nineties: Mae West, making time with an hourglass figure.
  • Belle of the Nineties: Mae West, making time with an hourglass figure.

According to Mae West, she was the first liberated woman. “No guy was going to get the best of me,” she purred. “That’s what I wrote all my scripts about.” And what other actress can you name who had a flotation device named in her honor? It’s time to give other comedians a rest and put West to the test.

She Done Him Wrong (1933)

She Done Him Wrong trailer

She stood exactly five feet high and was built like a gyrating, well-upholstered wingback — she was sewn into her costumes — which is one reason contemporary audiences might be loath to see the sex appeal of Mae West. Another: most actresses don’t make it much past 38 in Hollywood years, but that’s precisely how old West was when Paramount signed her under contract in 1932. The censors forewarned the studio in no uncertain terms that West’s bawdy Broadway smash Diamond Lil would never make it to the screen. The actress/author changed the title, altered her character’s name from Lil to Lou, and stepped up the double entendres and sexual innuendo, leaving the blue-noses no choice but to let it pass. (Six months after its release, the languorously enforced code became law, with West and Betty Boop largely to blame.) Director Lowell Sherman, clearly not a guy who likes to take his time, shot the 66-minute film in three weeks, making it the shortest movie ever to receive a best picture nom. A hair-pulling match between Lou and Russian Rita (Rafaela Ottiano) is a standout moment.

Belle of the Nineties (1934)

Belle of the Nineties clip

Burlesque beauty Ruby Carter (West), “the most talked about woman in America,” kicks the crummy dust of St. Louis (and boorish boxer Tiger Kid) off her shoes and sets up stakes in New Orleans. (Ruby’s backed here by no less than Duke Ellington!) Much of the advance hype referred to the film by its smut-suggesting original name, It Ain’t No Sin, a title of which the Hays Office wanted no part. West and Leo McCarey, Hollywood’s matchless humanitarian and a man who worked with more great comedians than any other director, were indeed a mismatched pair. She was America’s reigning sex symbol; he was a deeply religious man who felt more comfortable around the chaste, less-libidinous likes of Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Bros., and W.C. Fields. Elegantly-appellated fashion designer Travis Banton swathed Ms. West in unforgettable frocks for this one, including a torch-bearing (as if she needed one) Miss Liberty.

My Little Chickadee (1940)

My Little Chickadee trailer

To help cultivate her tarnished reputation among the citizens of Greasewood City, Flower Bell Lee (Mae West) gives grifter Cuthbert J. Twilly (W.C. Fields) an even break by marrying the sucker. It’s been my experience that comedians and the old west don’t mix, with Blazing Saddles and Son of Paleface being two obvious exceptions that prove the rule. Perhaps in pre-code times (and on the Paramount backlot), the combination of Fields and West would have set off more sparks. When Universal finally got around to pairing the two in 1940, time and the censors had worked their awful magic, taking much of the blush off brick schtickhouse West and her gin-blossomed foil. (Who wants to contemplate romance between a snarling misanthrope and a female lead who many considered to be a hermaphrodite?) The two stars had very little regard for each other, so much so that Fields walked off the picture, never to return. Half of the fun is watching to see in which shots the comedian was doubled.

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