Friday, February 13, 2009

Mae West: Friday the 13th

Vincent Canby looked back on the career of MAE WEST in an article published in mid-February in The New York Times [Sunday 13 February 2000] and focused on her sexpot image in a film released in the USA on 15 March 1940.
• • Did you see "My Little Chickadee"?
• • Vincent Canby writes: When Mae went to Hollywood, her good humor and bold assumption of sexual authority, coupled with her raunchy aphorisms of Wildean balance, transformed her into one of the world's biggest box-office attractions. She was also the reason Hollywood overhauled the Production Code, the apparatus by which the industry censored its own material, in this way to combat the new licentiousness represented by little Mae.
• • Her first three movies, ''Night After Night'' (1932), ''She Done Him Wrong'' (1933), and ''I'm No Angel'' (1933), are stuffed with the grand doubles-entendres that she never tired of recycling for the rest of her life.
• • It's in ''I'm No Angel'' that she plays Tira, a tyro at lion taming who sticks her head into the big cat's mouth, prompting an admirer to say significantly, ''She's safer in that cage than she is in bed.'' This is the same movie in which she enunciated as her dictum about men: ''Find 'em, fool 'em, 'n forget 'em.'' Which, in 1933, was her variation on what men, especially the sort whom Mae admired most, were supposed to say about women.
• • Yet by the end of the 1930's, Mae West's movies were no longer sure-fire box-office hits. It wasn't only because the Production Code was sanitizing her material. Her range was limited and she was repeating herself. She might have gone on forever as the supporting character actress she was in ''Night After Night,'' but she couldn't resist playing the star. When she hogs the screen a certain monotony creeps into her work; it soon seems as if she is imitating herself.
• • A further problem was her age. Mae started late in Hollywood; she had her 40th birthday while shooting ''I'm No Angel.'' Her ample figure was less easily disguised in contemporary clothes than in the sort of gowns worn by Lillian Russell, but she couldn't confine her films to tales set in the Gay Nineties.
• • Mae West isn't forgotten today, but she is probably best remembered in oblique ways, in association with other things, like the busty life jackets that World War II servicemen nicknamed for her. She is still recalled by occasional impersonators, some of whom are more bizarre than others. Following the murder of Jon-Benet Ramsey, there was a news photograph of the child wearing the sort of feather boa and cartwheel hat that Mae sported in ''She Done Him Wrong.''
• • Mae's films still can be found in video rental shops, of course. Yet I suspect that the one rented most frequently is ''My Little Chickadee.'' This 1940 comedy-western about a hooker and a card shark is not, strictly speaking, a true Mae West movie, having been stolen by the nimble, white-gloved digits of W. C. Fields, her larcenous co-star.
• • Mae made three films after ''My Little Chickadee,'' but she might as well have retired then and there. W.C. Fields — — no gallant gentleman he (as Mae well knew) — — damaged her reputation in subtle ways that, for lethal effect, equaled the destruction wreaked on her pictures by the Production Code.
• • Fields didn't try to clean up her act; he did something far worse: he made Mae, the laid-back, self-mocking good-time girl of ''She Done Him Wrong'' and ''I'm No Angel,'' look not only humorless but mean and spiteful. Though Mae, playing Flower Belle, sets up the elaborate gag that transforms ''My Little Chickadee'' into one of the funniest movies ever made, the way the gag works out demolishes Mae's public persona.
• • To escape Cuthbert J. Twillie (Fields), who believes he has conjugal rights, Flower Belle puts a goat in the bed of their bridal suite, blows out the lamps and leaves the room in darkness. Twillie enters from the bathroom and climbs into bed, noting, after a decent pause, that Flower Belle seems to be sleeping in her caracul coat. ''Better take it off, dear,'' says Twillie with concern, ''you won't feel the good of it when you go out. . . .'' When the goat lets out a long ''m-a-a-a-a!,'' Twillie is sent into paroxysms of bliss. ''The sweet little dear,'' he says, ''is calling for her mama. Such blind innocence. . . .''
• • The sequence is priceless, but it also has the effect of making Mae West appear to be frosty and completely out of touch with her co-star, which she was. Mae was not a team player. But then she knew enough to realize that the character she always played, Superhooker, couldn't stand too much realism. When actual joy, passion or even humiliation are evident, the Superhooker appears ridiculous, like Miss Piggy in an otherwise conventional adaptation of ''Little Women.'' Mae took top billing in ''My Little Chickadee'' but she wound up sandbagged by Fields.
• • Chicago native Vincent Canby [27 July 1924 — 15 September 2000] was a longtime film critic.
— — excerpt — —
• • Article by Vincent Canby
• • Published in The New York Times
• • Published on: 13 February 2000
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• • Come up and see Mae every day online:
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• • Photo: • • Mae West • • none • •
Mae West.

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