Mae West strolled into a Hollywood that wasn’t ready for her.
This was a place that preferred women to be young, thin and quiet. She was none of those.
West (shown here) was 39, buxom and brassy. “I don’t allow myself any negative thinking,” she would explain later.
Now a documentary – “Mae West: Dirty Blonde” – debuts at 8 p.m. Tuesday (June 16), launching what Paula Kerger, the PBS president, calls an “effort to highlight trailblazing women this summer.”
There are shows focusing on Ann Richards (June 19), Toni Morrison (June 23), Gloria Steinem (June 26) and more, plus the two-night “The Vote,” July 6-7. All of that leads to Aug. 26 and the 100th anniversary of the women’s right to vote.
And Mae West? She was a potent force, writes movie historian Jeanine Basinger.
“She is credited with single-handedly saving Paramount Pictures from financial ruin,” Basinger wrote in “A Woman’s View” (Wesleyan University Press, 1993).
And one thing more, Basinger wrote in “American Cinema” (Rizzoli, 1994): West was “the force that most people think single-handedly brought on censorship.”
A little censorship perked her career. “I expect this will be the making of me,” West said, after a heavily publicized eight days in jail for “Sex,” the 1927 play she wrote and starred in.
And a lot of censorship shattered it. After five years of hugely successful West movies, the Production Code began to crack down. She soon retreated to theater, nightclubs and books.
In the aftermath, people have taken mixed views of her work.
Yes, Vito Russo wrote in “The Celluloid Closet” (Harper & Row, 1987), West was “one of the few performers of her time to acknowledge the existence of homosexuals.” But she also had “a quaintly sexist attitude” toward them.
Yes, the PBS film says, she always had likable black characters in her films. But they were mainly confined to being maids and housekeepers.
And yes, Basinger wrote in “A Woman’s View,” this was a strong female prototype: “Mae West and Marlene Dietrich are the two women who never suffer …. West makes others suffer, especially men.”
But that remained tied to the idea of women as objects of lust and love, Basinger wrote: “Mae West built a lifelong career out of making jokes about being a woman, about men chasing women, about sex …. Her image, highly complex and self-contradictory, was that of a woman freely acting like a man, preying on the opposite sex.”
That worked wonders, as the PBS film points out. Basinger grew up in Brooklyn, the daughter of a boxer and a model. She did talent shows at 8, did vaudeville as a teen, then wrote and starred in plays.
In 1932, she took a small role in a George Raft movie, promptly rewriting all her lines and stealing the picture. “She stole everything but the cameras,” Raft said later.
From then on, she would have full control. For her first two films, she specified the then-obscure Cary Grant as co-star; for the third, she insisted on Duke Ellington providing the music, on- and off-camera.
West didn’t smoke or drink or spend much time in nightclubs, the PBS film says. She liked muscular guys like her dad – boxers and weightlifters and such. “Men are my kind of people,” she said.
An early marriage (to a fellow vaudevillian) at 17 ended instantly, but remained a secret for decades; they officially divorced 32 years later.
At 61, West began a relationship with a bodybuilder (30 years her junior) in her nightclub act. They would remain together until her death in 1980.
By then she was 87, a key artifact of women’s history in Hollywood and beyond.