Mae West is often remembered as someone who pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable in early Hollywood and American society at large. Not only was she an actress and singer, but she was also a comedian, playwright, and screenwriter. She began her entertainment career as a child and in vaudeville, but her first brush with notoriety, if not fame, came from her first major role on Broadway in 1926. It was in a piece titled Sex; and as the name suggests, it was a risqué play written, directed, and produced by West herself. The play did not garner her much critical attention, but the spectacle that it created did. On April 19, 1927 West was sentenced to ten days in jail for being a morally corrupting influence on American youth. This scandal jump-started West’s popular culture image as a star with a penchant for scandalous sexuality and a sharp, yet provocative comedic style.
Her career in movies really only lasted through the 1930s—she has a handful of credits sprinkled throughout the 1940s, 1960s, and 1970s. Her first film, Night After Night, was released in 1932, and her second, She Done Him Wrong, in 1933. The latter was based on another Broadway play of West’s titled Diamond Lil. It was released a year after Sex, and unlike the previous play it fared well with critics. She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel, West’s other film released in 1933, both proved successful, and established West’s film image. However, they also became a part of a larger controversy over self-censorship of industry content. About halfway through the 1930s, and as a result of films like West’s, the Motion Picture Production Code forced a change in West’s style.
Although it was released in 1930, the American motion picture industry began to strictly enforce the Code in 1934 due to outcry against sexual and moral “depravity” by religious and community groups. Mae could no longer perform her sexually-laced comedy with such a heavy hand. The innuendo evident in films like She Done Him Wrong became even more subdued, but certainly did not disappear. Rather, West’s sexuality, still often written by West herself, was expressed through double entendres and language that could arguably be understood in numerous ways. Ambiguity made for plausible deniability on West’s part (it was a tactic that many filmmakers used during the period)—she could always argue that she never meant things to be taken sexually if she did not explicitly say it was so, although most knew exactly what she meant. Despite Hollywood’s more intense focus on good, clean storytelling, an emphasis on sexuality and the desire to push boundaries was still a part of West’s style. In fact, she reportedly pushed back against the Code by increasing her use of ambiguity and sexual innuendo.
West may not have starred in as many films as a lot of her contemporaries, but her career was one that has shaped film history. Many remember her in 1936’s Klondike Annie, 1940’s My Little Chickadee, and 1970’s Myra Breckinridge. At five feet tall, the bawdy woman was certainly more than just a risqué actress. She not only starred in several classic pre-Code and early Code films, but the films in which she acted also often pushed against societal mores. Even more significant is that fact that many of these films that prompted controversy were written by West herself. Whether writing additional dialogue, as she did for Night After Night and others, or adapting her own plays for film (She Done Him Wrong, for instance), West had a good amount of creative control during the majority of her career, even while struggling against Hollywood’s Production Code.
West’s impact has lasted far beyond her career as a prominent female figure in early Hollywood. To this day she is seen as a sex symbol and an important figure for the camp tradition. West is hard to forget for the defiant nature that still clings to her image; but she is also so often forgotten for the other creative and brave things that she did during her career. A woman with creative liberties like hers, who pushed back against the Production Code in the 1930s through her storytelling and dialogue, was something quite unique. She was more than met the eye, and I’d argue she still is.
For more on West see Biography’s piece on the actress, comedian, and writer.
A PhD Candidate in Communication and Culture, Katherine studies film and media, genre (particularly the Western), gender, and performance. She has a BA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an MA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, and has been fascinated with film since she could remember.