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Mae Days [Mark Steyn on Mae West]
Steyn Online, originally The New Criterion ^ | March 2000 | Mark Steyn

Posted on 06/20/2004 8:14:54 PM PDT by NovemberCharlie

I've always found that a little of Mae West goes a long way, which sounds like the sort of thing she should have said about Errol Flynn. But quite a lot of Mae West is going quite a long way on the New York stage these days. It's been twenty years since her death, almost seventy since her career peaked, and, on a random sample, I find most people today have no very clear idea who she was. Yet she's out there, the phrases she planted in the language still in common currency-"Come up and see me ... ," "A hard man is good to find," "I used to be snow white but I drifted," "Find 'em, fool 'em, forget 'em," "Peel me a grape," "Goodness had nothing to do with it," "Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?" That's not a bad tally for an occasional writer. By way of comparison, Dorothy Parker may still be beloved by the dictionary of quotations compilers, but most of her lines have faded from view. They're clever-"House Beautiful is play lousy," etc.-but they're of limited general application and they lack the sheer human vitality of West's cracks. Some of us may still hear them in Mae's own voice, a strange cross-fertilization of Eva Tanguay and sassy black mama. But many more know them through newspaper headlines, parodies, the endless variations of TV comedy shows. (It occurs to me that anyone who doesn't know Mae West certainly won't know Eva Tanguay: she predated Mae, and was known as the "I Don't Care" girl; her signature song went: "So let down the gangway/ Here comes Eva Tanguay.") But suddenly Mae West is back and, whether or not they've a gun in their pocket, most people are just pleased to see her. Her films have been issued on video, three of her plays have been republished, one's been revived for the first time in three-quarters of a century, and the lady herself is the subject of a new biodrama at the New York Theatre Workshop.

She was, on the one hand, decades ahead of her time, and, on the other, absolutely archaic. As to the former, the revival of Sex (at the Gershwin Hotel) hails West as an anti-censorship crusader. For a relatively minor figure, she was at the center of celebrated cases in almost every medium. In 1939, guesting on Edgar Bergen's radio show, she told his dummy, Charlie McCarthy, "Come up and play in my woodpile," and was to all intents permanently banned from the airwaves. As a double entendre, it doesn't really work and it's certainly not the dirtiest thing you could say to a young boy entirely made of wood. But, by then, virtually any utterance by West was assumed to be a sexual innuendo, and the less obvious it seemed, the filthier it was assumed to be.

Her first films, Night After Night (1932), She Done Him Wrong (1933), and I'm No Angel (1933), had wider consequences. The last two made so much money and provoked such consternation that they were directly responsible for the restricted Production Code of 1933. That died with the studio system, but it lasted long enough to ensure that, when it finally went, the pendulum would swing long and hard. Today, the ugliness of Hollywood is a wonder to behold: in my experience, for what it's worth, the average American movie is fouler-mouthed than American life by some degree. But, every time you mention what even Democrats call the "toxic culture," Hollywood's "artistic community" indignantly accuses you of wanting to go back to the Code days when married couples could only be shown in twin beds and if the husband wanted even to wander over and chat to his wife in her bunk he had to be careful to keep one leg on the floor. There's no getting over it, it was ridiculous: you could show a double-bed in a Sears Roebuck catalogue, but not in a Warner Brothers motion picture. The conservative overreaction to Mae West gave Hollywood a grievance it still won't let us forget.

Before the films, there was Sex, now back on stage, though as a play within a play and somewhat subordinate to the greater drama surrounding it. In Elyse Singer's new production, both acts of the 1926 drama are bracketed with excerpts from the 1927 obscenity trial that closed the production down. In other words, as with the recent reenactment of the Oscar Wilde case, the artist is now a cause. If you're wondering why the trial didn't get going until the year after the play opened, that's because New York's Mayor, Jimmy Walker, was a great fan of Miss West. But, forty-one weeks into a sellout run, Walker happened to be out of town and the acting Hizzoner, Joseph V. McKee, decided to send in the cops. West wound up convicted of "corrupting the morals of youth" and sentenced to ten days in the Women's Workhouse on Welfare Island. "I expect it will be the making of me," she told reporters, and it was: it made her a household name. With time off for good behavior, she emerged after eight days, having written a poem about the scratchy prison underwear and dedicated it to the warden.

Mae West and her friends called their operation the Morals Production Company. Which begs the question: what moral ought we to draw from her travails? In some ways, the obscenity trial segments are the least contemporary aspect of the current production of Sex. They may make you pine for the racier days of Jazz Age New York, for shyster mayors and Irish cops and lippy broads, but, as an attempt to position Mae West as a prototype Karen Finley or an experimental piece of elephant dung, it's woefully unpersuasive. Only The New York Times could seriously think that audiences will "experience a shock of recognition" when the Giuliani of his day declares that Sex should be censored because it's "calculated to excite in the spectator impure imagination." The problem with enlisting Sex to the fecal-stained banner of the Brooklyn Museum is that it's the wrong vehicle for the message. The defining attribute of Mae West is not that she's against censorship but that, in every respect, she stands for self-reliance. She's a trouper in the truest sense: She climbed the ladder of success wrong by wrong, as she later said, but, by God, she climbed it herself. She began writing material because the lame lines the pros wrote for her vaudeville skits didn't work. She became a playwright because the star vehicle she needed never turned up. She became a producer because the Main Stem boys ran scared. If you were to construct the exact negative of today's bigtime NEA trough-feeders, it would look exactly like Mae West.

The point is reinforced by the play itself. Sex, the first of West's plays to make it to the stage, is a crude, raucous, vulgar melo-comedy about Margy LaMont, a Montreal hooker who climbs her way up to a Connecticut mansion. As The New Criterion's resident Quebecker, I confess I'm not entirely persuaded by the idea that Montreal-to-Connecticut represents upward mobility, but let that pass: all Montreal hookers (about 68 percent of the population, I'd estimate) will take a quiet pride in West's characterization of Margy. For one reason, all the other characters are forgettable cutouts. But that doesn't matter because West made Margy one of those chippy, brash, tough-as-nails purpose gals whose lines crackle across the footlights. As she tells the snooty socialite Clara, "the only difference between us is that you could afford to give it away." The only contemporary relevance to all this is its irrelevance: the difference between Margy and Karen Finley is that Karen expects the taxpayer to give it away to her. Indeed, Margy shares with every Mae West character an overwhelming revulsion against dependence. A few years later, when Paramount attempted to change the title of She Done Him Wrong to He Done Her Wrong, West put her foot down, disdaining the clichés of victim drama. A few years further on, the studio tried, unsuccessfully, to get the rights to Mrs. Warren's Profession for West. It's hard to imagine Shaw's lines in that accent, but this time Paramount was on surer ground: evidently someone at the studio had spotted the two as soulmates. There were other "exploitation plays" around in the Twenties, but Sex is distinguished by Margy's uninterest in salvation. It's a rowdier, frontline confirmation of the Shavian view-that such creatures are a logical consequence of a society that makes other forms of economic independence all but impossible for women.

Still, in less brazen guise, gals like Margy were a dime a dozen on the Broadway stage in the Twenties, and it's taken the intervening seventy-five years to make a mouthy Montreal hooker seem like a breath of fresh air. In the most irritating aspect of this revival, Elyse Singer's direction, out of some strange failure of nerve, hams up the melodramatic conventions and gets the cast to deliver much of the dialogue at machine-gun pace. This not so subtle distancing from the material is unnecessary. The material is fresh; it's the contemporary point of view on it that's stale.

For all that, Miss Singer is at pains to keep Mae West at the heart of the production. George Xenos's set, for example, is an extension of Salvador Dalí's "Face Of Mae West Which Mae Be Used As An Apartment," in which West's eyes are picture frames and her lips are the sofa. In effect, both the play and the trial are being restored to their original tryout venue, inside the star's head. Yet, oddly enough, the least Westian aspect of the production is the central performance. As Margy, Carolyn Bauemler has the garb and a couple of the mannerisms (the swagger) but she looks nothing like the originator of the role. Though this revival is being mounted by the Hourglass Group, if there's an hourglass in sight it's not Miss Bauemler: blonde, young, svelte, she has the same sustaining regal dignity as West but is otherwise closer to Joan Blondell, Una Merkel, Jean Harlow, the young Ginger Rogers, and Lucille Ball, and the other gum-chewing wise-cracking Warner Bros. gold diggers who came after. But that's OK: all those ballsy blondes are descendants of Mae West, increasingly sleeker and streamlined until they all dwindle down to that faintest of xeroxed composites, Madonna.

Carolyn Bauemler's performance is enjoyable, though she could certainly afford to slow up a little. But the contrast with Margy's creator is instructive. Mae West became a twentieth-century sex symbol by remaking herself as a nineteenth-century period piece. As lushly upholstered as Lillian Russell, dripping diamonds, her fleshy curves squeezed into skintight gowns, sashaying across a Broadway stage as if it was a last-chance saloon in the Yukon, she was about as far removed as you could get from prohibition-era notions of sex-the skinny, leggy, slim-hipped, flat-chested flappers who were the Kate Mosses of the day. She was, in every sense, a throwback. She played gals called Diamond Lil and Klondike Annie; she starred in vehicles called Belle of the Nineties; for her forays into song, she steered clear of Rodgers and Hart, Gershwin, Berlin and stuck to oldtime warhorses like "Frankie And Johnny." The proposition that the sexually liberated Mae West was ahead of her time runs up against the awkward fact that she was so determinedly way behind it. Then as now, if you decline to endorse the envelope-pushing cutting edge, the usual response is that it's so radical some people are bound not to get it. But West's entire persona cocks a snook at the fake sophistication of her time and ours. To the pseuds' suggestion that some people won't get it, Mae West scoffs: Honey, we've always got it.

On the face of it, it's perplexing that, in the Havelockian heyday, the most enduring twentieth-century sex symbol should be a nineteenth-century sex symbol. "I did not perhaps treat the subject as seriously as Havelock Ellis, or as deeply as Freud, Adler, Jung, or Dr. Kinsey," she wrote in later life, "but I think if we all could have sat down and discussed the subject fully, my ideas would have been listened to with some sense of awe." In fact, her "ideas," such as they are, boil down to little more than a healthy skepticism of ideas. While Philip Barry and the other upscale dramatists fretted over the subtleties of Freudian subtext, Mae West simply took a relaxed attitude to reality. The black characters in her plays and films are, by the standards of the day, remarkably human. Physical abuse, prostitution, and abortion occur matter-of-factly. Sex is freighted with the shadow of venereal disease, which was incurable in those days but which, unlike the lethal sexual calling cards of our age, Miss West declines to make a cause for general weeping and assertions of martyrdom.

With Sex, it's generally agreed that the NYPD were belatedly sent in because the city feared the play West was working on as a sequel-The Drag, as in queen. But, even if in only vague atmospheric ways, homosexuality is often present in West's work. After Sex was closed down, she started writing Diamond Lil and Pleasure Man. The latter's concerns are aptly conveyed by Jack Conway's column in Variety after the tryout at the Bronx Opera House:

It's the queerest show you've ever seen. All of the Queens are in it. ... The party scene is the payoff. If you see those hussies [he continued, referring to gay actors] being introduced to do their specialties, you'd pass out. ... The host sang a couple of parodies, one going, "When I go out I look for the moon." Now I ask you. Another guest very appropriately sang, "Banquets, Parties, and Balls," and I ask you again.

But you had to be quick to see Pleasure Man. On October 1, 1928, opening night on Broadway, the play was raided by the vice squad and closed down. Mae West moved on to Hollywood and became one of the biggest box-office draws in the world, but she was already pushing forty and saddled with a persona the new Production Code effectively made non grata. By the time the movie business had loosened up sufficiently to let her do her thing, the thing she wanted to do was Gore Vidal's Myra Breckenridge, God help us.

She came back to Broadway in 1944 with a play she'd written about Catherine the Great. Mike Todd agreed to produce it because he figured Mae West in a nympho comedy couldn't miss. At the first preview, he discovered, to his horror, that West thought she'd written a serious historical drama, and he was so embarrassed he wired his backers refunding their money on the grounds that he'd taken it under false pretences. It made no difference. Whatever her intentions, the critics took it as, in George Jean Nathan's words, "a dirty-minded little girl's essay on the Russian Empress."

Dirty Blonde (at the New York Theatre Workshop) dwells (though never too gloomily) on the star's persona as a kind of jail cell, far more confining than that on Welfare Island. It begins the story at Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn, where Mae West was laid to rest in 1980. At her idol's mausoleum, one West fan-Jo, a full-figured femme and aspiring actress played by Claudia Shear-meets another-Charlie, a film librarian and closet crossdresser played by Kevin Chamberlin. Both find freedom in the gowns and millinery of the 1890s, as Mae once did. As their friendship deepens, West meets West in a Mae/Mae relationship: the star was a magnificent narcissist and the notion of one Mae West making out with another Mae West would greatly appeal to her. After all, as she herself once noted, she liked to play both heroine and hero, the woman who finds her happy ending with herself.

I'm not sure how much else of Dirty Blonde would appeal to her, however. "Mae West was never devastated by a man," Miss Shear, the star, author and co-conceiver of Dirty Blonde, told The New York Times. "She never looked in a mirror and said, ‘I'm fat.'" True, but, in putting it that way, Miss Shear is doing what Elyse Singer and the gay acolytes and everyone else does: looking for her own reflection in Mae. They're the same height-five feet-though West seems taller and Miss Shear wider: the latter once weighed over two-hundred pounds, as she told us in her autobiodrama Blown Sideways Through Life (1993). The passivity of that title, versus Mae West climbing her ladder "wrong by wrong," is striking. But Dirty Blonde is in part a meditation on the vicissitudes of celebrity: though the star is trapped by her persona, the fans are liberated by it.

If that doesn't seem much of an insight, it's apparently enough for Miss Shear. The rest of the play is selected highlights from the West oeuvre, with Miss Shear recreating the star engagingly enough and the remaining member of this three-hander, Bob Stillman, taking care of the music. The twin strands of the play show little desire to entwine, save for the fact that Chamberlin's character got to know West in later life and spent many hours contentedly sitting in her apartment watching her leaf through his souvenir scrapbooks. "She never saw Paris," says Jo, "but she could have"-one of several lines which Miss Shear seems to have positioned as a forlorn counterweight to the star's good-humoured quotable quips. The director (and co-conceiver) is James Lapine, who stages the piece with his customary stylized sterility. Even more than in the passionless Passion couple of years back, it seems bizarrely at odds with the subject and with the innocently abandoned approach to acting of his leading lady. You'll have a good time in the company of Shear's West, but that very fact seems to embarrass Lapine.

Dirty Blonde is set to transfer to Broadway and likely to keep this mini-West revival trundling along. Personally, I'd rather see a first-class production of Sex or Diamond Lil that imbibed the spirit of Mae West in her own time. The young pre-Vidal Mae would be amazed at the way sexual identity has become a central societal categorization, and I'd hazard a guess that she'd think it was absurd. The capering queens of Pleasure Man have little in common with their nominal brethren in Vermont agitating for same-sex marriage and domestic-partner benefits. It is perhaps the peculiar genius of the modern liberal establishment to have made even such exotic pleasures as male anal sex a matter of tedious government regulation and classification. Far from lighting the way to a world obsessed with the need for validation, Mae West harked back to the good old days of Victorian repression, where, if you knew what was right, you also knew, by definition, what was wrong. She celebrated illicit pleasures and, in a world where everything (at least in the sexual field) is licit, she would be lost. Her cheery leers and shoulder rolls were already archaic in the faux decadence of the Twenties, and, in the moral blankness of our own time, they're even more so.

TOPICS: Culture/Society; Editorial
KEYWORDS: maewest; marksteyn; marksteynlist; steyn
Steyn on Mae West, and on West's modern imitators.
1 posted on 06/20/2004 8:14:55 PM PDT by NovemberCharlie
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To: *Mark Steyn list; Pokey78

One from the archives; ping to the Steyn List, and to yours.

2 posted on 06/20/2004 8:15:49 PM PDT by NovemberCharlie
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To: NovemberCharlie
I have watched some of those old Mae West movies and for the life of me I can't see what the public saw in her back in the 1930's.
I do know that because of her and the success of her movies that she helped save Paramount Studios from going bankrupt.
3 posted on 06/20/2004 8:20:09 PM PDT by Captain Peter Blood
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To: NovemberCharlie

4 posted on 06/20/2004 8:38:12 PM PDT by Ichneumon
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To: NovemberCharlie

When I'm good, I'm very good. But when I'm bad I'm better. - Mae West

5 posted on 06/20/2004 9:12:52 PM PDT by higgmeister
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To: Captain Peter Blood

And she helped Archibald Leach become a houshold name....

6 posted on 06/20/2004 9:28:39 PM PDT by AFreeBird (your mileage may vary)
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To: mtngrl@vrwc; azGOPgal; ohioWfan

cary grant related PING! Cary was the one to whom Mae uttered her most famous line "why don't you come up sometime..see me?" in SHE DONE HIM WRONG. One of my other favorite lines of hers in a Cary movie was "when women go wrong, men go right after them." I LOVE IT!

7 posted on 06/20/2004 9:34:17 PM PDT by lawgirl (God to womankind: "Here's Cary Grant. Now don't tell me I never gave you anything.")
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To: AFreeBird

...but under an assumed name.

8 posted on 06/20/2004 9:35:21 PM PDT by higgmeister
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To: AFreeBird

See my tagline. And my profile. ;-)

9 posted on 06/20/2004 9:38:07 PM PDT by lawgirl (God to womankind: "Here's Cary Grant. Now don't tell me I never gave you anything.")
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To: higgmeister
If you were to construct the exact negative of today's bigtime NEA trough-feeders, it would look exactly like Mae West.

I always liked Mae West and could never figure out exactly why until just now.

10 posted on 06/20/2004 10:14:39 PM PDT by Vigilanteman (crime would drop like a sprung trapdoor if we brought back good old-fashioned hangings)
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To: AFreeBird
Very True. I just saw that special on Cary Grant on TCM the other night and it really was pretty good.

But lets be truthful Mae wasn't the best looking babe in the world and she got into the movies when she almost 40.
I just looked her up on the IMDB and I find she only made, really, in her prime, 9 movies.

I am not including Myra Breckinridge and Sextette as they were late in her life.

Her last movie was made when she was 50.
But she was a legend and did make movie history.
11 posted on 06/20/2004 10:15:47 PM PDT by Captain Peter Blood
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To: AFreeBird

You know I almost forgot the she was in a picture with the great W.C. Fields, "My Little Chickadee".
Now that was a screen team!!!!!!!!!!!

12 posted on 06/20/2004 10:20:39 PM PDT by Captain Peter Blood
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To: Captain Peter Blood
Actually, the line "Why don't you come up and see me sometime," first appeared in THIS movie. It was first spoken to Mae West by W.C Fields at the end of the movie. The line later migrated to Mae West and was used by her in later movies. But that's where it began.

Congressman Billybob

Latest column, "The Value of Death -- Civilian, 'Senseless," and Combat Deaths."

If you haven't already joined the anti-CFR effort, please click here.

13 posted on 06/20/2004 10:49:23 PM PDT by Congressman Billybob ( Visit. Join. Help. Please.)
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To: NovemberCharlie
There are only three magazines to which I subscibe for which I save all the old issues. The New Criterion is one of them. Mark Steyn is a regular in it. The man understands our culture like on one else. That, among other things, is what makes him a conservative.
14 posted on 06/21/2004 12:21:26 AM PDT by Malesherbes
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To: lawgirl

Well, I guess there was no fooling you by using his real name. :-)

15 posted on 06/21/2004 5:29:14 AM PDT by AFreeBird (your mileage may vary)
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