In 1927, when Mae West was arrested for the first Broadway show she wrote and starred in, called “Sex,” and in 1937, when she appeared on an NBC comedy sketch and the FCC inveighed her performance as “vulgar and indecent,” Mae West pretty much told everyone to “Kiss my sass!”
Mae West blazed a torrid trail of explicit sexuality and controversial innuendo that spit sutures from the constrictive moral codes of her day and established her unapologetically as Hollywood’s most brazen and brash superstar. Not only were women at the turn of the century still manacled under the weight of Victorian sensibilities, expecting a woman to be seen and not heard, they were certainly not supposed to be re-writing scripts to include more risqué one-liners for her character, which she did in certain roles where cultural taboos and propriety were eclipsing the bawdy genius at the heart of Mae West’s persona.
Ms. West was born in Brooklyn in 1893 and began her career on the vaudeville and burlesque circuit, satirizing Victorian innocence and maudlin ethos. She entertained various affairs with headlining vaudeville actors, relationships usually riddled with flaring tempers and patent displays of jealousy. She even consented to a short-lived marriage to one up and coming song-and-dance man, Frank Wallace. In 1918, in a revue she starred in, she became famous for dancing the shimmy where shoulders are shaken and the chest is thrust out, in suggestive tantalization. The role of buxom harlot was sealed. Ms. West was on her way to perfecting the salacious art of eyebrow-raising and inciting the moral indignation of a sexually repressive culture which gave birth to an insouciant little chickadee they could not keep in a cage, though censors gave it their best.
Even, in My Little Chickadee, when her character, Flower Belle Lee, is literally thrown in a cage (jail) for her assignations with the town’s Masked Bandit, her incantatory charm hoodwinks the hillbilly jailer and she takes back control by stealing his gun and escaping from her cell. She is irrepressible on screen and off.
By 1935, Ms. West was reportedly the second highest paid person in the United States. In 1940, when the comedy/western, My Little Chickadee, came out, starring and written almost entirely by West with contributions by co-star W.C. Fields (West eventually wrote all of her own screenplays and demanded creative control of her films), it was a box-office success, out-grossing Fields’ previous two films. True to the tempting seductress roles Ms. West portrays masterfully in many of her films, she plays Flower Belle Lee, an erotically irresistible, opportunistic gold digger who always gets her man and always leaves him in the dust, too, never to be pinned down like a fragile butterfly pinned to a static corkboard. Fields plays endearing huckster, Cuthbert J. Twillie, who is pudding in the hands of the va va va voom of Ms. Flower Belle Lee. However, their courtship is fleeting, once Flower Belle realizes his seeming wealth is a sham. She spies wads of money notes in his portmanteau that are later revealed to be coupons, and discovers that Twillie’s more bluster than big bucks, more con than artist. Fields’ hapless character — whose adorable follies and chivalrous quips are as unforgettable as we expect from the comic legend — runs the gamut from being made sheriff of Greasewood City to being sent to the guillotine. He is saved at the last minute since any of his forays into criminal activity are more ruse and comic relief than ill-intentioned. The entire rubber band ball of plot lines in My Little Chickadee serves as mere excuse to witness two mega stars team up for this one-time-only silver screen exhibition of farce and fabulousness!
Ms. West was wildly revolutionary in terms of redefining femininity and empowering women as sexual subjects and not objects. However, she didn’t exactly break the gender mold or crash through the glass ceiling entirely. Most of her cinematic roles involve exploiting (seemingly) rich men to plunder their loot. Though often she does play successful entertainers or chanteuses, financially successfully in their own right. Still, the idea of landing a man (usually many!) tends to dominate her roles, instead of shedding this customary feminine desire. In her 1933 film, I’m No Angel, starring Cary Grant, her character, Tira, visits a fortune teller who presages, “I see a man in your future” to which Tira quips, “What, only one?” (Or another favorite among her trove of sassy quotes for which she is beloved: “Ten men waiting for me at the door? Send one of them home, I’m tired.”) Nevertheless, the way in which West portrayed sexuality was thoroughly unconventional. She deconstructed and reexamined the way in which women were capable of being viewed within a patriarchically-defined culture, where women always had to be married for respectability and saved by a man. West’s characters may have had lust for men, but she exploded the concept of being rescued by a powerful male savior. She generally gave the men she erotically conquered the heave ho, cementing not one but two violations of the feminine status quo: the female pursuing and triumphing over the man (not the opposite where the female is man’s libidinal prey); and the woman proving she doesn’t need him for validation and comfortable acceptance in a society heavily driven by and oppressed under the rules of gender conformity.
As Flower Belle Lee, in My Little Chickadee, one of her more well-known double-entendre zingers flies when she announces that she “generally (tries) to avoid temptation, unless (she) can’t resist it.” Or another memorably hilarious sequence where Flower Belle assumes the role of substitute school teacher (of hormonally-roaring adolescent boys) for a stint. In a lesson on arithmetic, she predictably (yet never tiresomely!) inflects innuendo: “I was always pretty good at figures … Two and two makes for and five will give you ten if you know how to work it … Subtraction: A man has a hundred dollars and you leave him with two. That’s subtraction.”
There is always a wink and nod to sexual undertones and objectification of men in West’s repartee … culminating in the film’s closing scene, where Flower Belle is the figurative rope suspended in a tug-of-war between the two men dueling for her permanent affections. Perched seductively at the foot of a classically angled, wild west staircase with carved railings, Flower Belle rejects both men’s overtures for matrimony but not without the rejoinder where she leaves the door open for their continued pursuit of this elusive vixen: “Anytime you’ve got nothing to do and lots of time to do it, come up” … and, with her signature, exaggerated, coy rolling of the eyes that soundlessly spells, “Don’t you wish you could have me?” she dramatically ascends the staircase, kind of the feminine sexy substitute for riding into the sunset. She stopped short of saying something I read on a perverse Christmas card once – “If my left leg were Christmas and my right leg were New Years, why don’t you come up and see me between the holidays?” – but the open-jawed shock and adoration in which she leaves her audiences couldn’t be any more explicit.