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Summary Article: West, Mae (1893–1980)
from The Great Depression and the New Deal: A Thematic Encyclopedia

Mae West began her acting career as a child performer in Vaudeville shows in Brooklyn. In the 1920s, West began to write and star in her own Broadway shows. She was arrested for public obscenity in 1927 for writing and starring in the play titled Sex about a wandering prostitute. Her next effort was Diamond Lil, a smash hit based on the 1890s saloon culture of New York’s Bowery district. This was the role in which West would develop into an icon—the sultry saloon-keeper who spouted memorable sexual innuendos and one-liners with unmatched wit.

In 1932 West headed to Hollywood to start her contract with Paramount Studios. From the beginning, West felt like an outsider in the movie business. Although her public persona would indicate otherwise, she usually spent every night at home working on scripts rather than out socializing with Hollywood stars. Her first movie, Night After Night, was lukewarm, but in 1933 she starred in two movies that revitalized the flagging Paramount Studios: She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel, both with Cary Grant. The former was a doctored version of Diamond Lil, which was supposed to have been too risqué to ever reach the big screen. While conservatives were outraged with West’s blatant sexual come-ons, both movies ran successfully for weeks across the nation. Other movies West starred in during the Depression include Belle of the Nineties (1934), Goin’ to Town (1935), Klondike Annie (1935), Go West, Young Man (1936), and My Little Chickadee (1940).

West came to symbolize a new era of Hollywood during the Great Depression. While stars like Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo had popularized the masculine, svelte look, West’s voluptuous curves represented health and bounty in an era of depravity. She also created bold female characters that openly enjoyed sex with no apologies or victimhood. The coming repeal of prohibition also made West’s barroom scenes with a drink in hand appealing to audiences.

On the other hand, West’s movies provoked outrage among censors. The Production Code (also known as the Hays Code) was created in 1930 with the aim of regulating offensive material in the motion picture business. The code was not enforced until Mae West created such a stir with both She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel. Her next movie, Belle of the Nineties, was targeted by the Hays Office to prove that they could enforce the Production Code. Even though the movie was drastically edited in order to be approved by the Hays Office and appeared on banned list anyway, it still was very successful. After a dispute with Paramount, West worked at Universal for one film, but left the movie business in the early 1940s. In the 1960s and 1970s she recorded several albums and wrote an autobiography. She made a brief comeback in the 1970s by appearing on television shows and a few movies, capitalizing on her well-known diva personality.

References and Further Reading
  • Erens, Patricia, ed. 1979. Sexual stratagems: The World of Women in Film. Horizon Press New York.
  • Leider, Emily Wortis. 1997. Becoming Mae West. Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York.
  • Louvish, Simon. 2005. Mae West: “It Ain’t No Sin.” Thomas Dunne Books New York.
  • Watts, Jill. 2001. Mae West: An Icon in Black and White. Oxford University Press Oxford.
  • Stewart, Kate
    Copyright 2010 by ABC-CLIO, LLC

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