Sunday, December 12, 2010

Mae West: Hell and Helen

On December 12th — — the date of the old "Chase and Sanborn Hour" tempest — — what often comes to mind is how much was political and how much MAE WEST was merely a pawn in a Catholic reformers game. It's ironic that a skit set in the Garden of Eden could lead to Eve's banishment from the airwaves, an expulsion by the lords of the Legion of Decency.
• • For a well-researched analysis of this, Steve Craig's article — — "Out of Eden: The Legion of Decency, the FCC, and Mae West's 1937 Appearance on The Chase & Sanborn Hour" — — in The Journal of Radio Studies [November 2006] is most enlightening.
• • Helen Menken's birthday is December 12th • •
• • How many performers could say they were arrested with Mae West?
• • It was on 9 February 1927 that Mae — — along with the cast of "Sex," and the cast of "The Captive," and the cast of "The Virgin Man" — — was cuffed and dragged in to Night Court.
• • Broadway ingenue Dorothy Hall [1906 — 1953] was the youngest actress to face the judge after the raid; Hall was 21 years old. Helen Menken was 26 and Mae was 33 at the time of this arrest.
• • Native New Yorker Helen Menken [12 December 1901 — 27 March 1966] was born Helen Meinken to a German-French father, Frederick Meinken, and an Irish-born mother, Mary Madden. She was still a newly-wed, having married Humphrey Bogart in May 1926, when discussions started about an American version of a French sensation called "The Captive" (a controversial new drama about a lesbian who leaves her husband for a woman).
• • Perhaps the prestige this play enjoyed in Paris persuaded Helen Menken to accept the leading role. "The Captive" was produced at the Empire Theatre, opening on 29 September 1926.
• • During December 1926 both "The Captive" and "Sex" were doing brisk business at the box office. While Mae did everything possible to get more publicity to attract men to see her show, Helen Menken reached out to women theatre-goers.
• • Unknown to her fans (nor revealed to reporters) was this alarming coincidence. Though Helen appeared so confident onstage in her role as the unconventional heroine Irene De Montcel, at home her alcoholic husband was getting drunk and beating her. Not long after the police padlocked the play on 9 February 1927 [after 160 performances], Helen would divorce the brutish Bogart.
• • The police stopped the play during a scene between Basil Rathbone and Helen Menken.
• • Playing the role of Mr. Clean, attempting to disinfect the sewer Broadway had become, New York City's Acting Mayor Joseph V. McKee made sure the news men were informed the evening before.
• • After 10:00 PM, Helen Menken, Dorothy Hall, and Mae West were charged with "contributing to a common nuisance" and "obscene exhibition" and found themselves shoulder to shoulder with each other and answerable to Magistrate John Flood Wells, who set bail at $1,000 each.
• • On February 10th, the local newspapers focused more on Miss Hall and Miss Menken than on Mae West. All three producers sought restraining orders permitting them to reopen. Under fire, Dorothy Hall immediately quit the play — — and Lucille Lortel replaced her.
• • Helen Menken continued her Broadway career, starring in a number of plays until the mid-1930s. One of her greatest stage triumphs was "The Old Maid," the Pulitzer Prize-winning play that starred Menken and Judith Anderson from January — September 1935. [Bette Davis would recreate Menken's role as the spinster with a secret in the 1939 film version.] Menken's final Broadway appearance was in an unsuccessful piece named "The Laughing Woman," which closed after a few weeks in 1937. She was active on radio in the 1940s (notably recreating her performance opposite Judith Anderson in a 1946 radio adaption of "The Old Maid") and a major presence behind the scenes in the theater world, especially at the American Theatre Wing. She received a special Tony Award posthumously in 1966 for her work.
• • Don't you wish you could have been there when the door to the police paddy wagon opened on 9 February 1927 and the 26-year-old Helen Menken came face to face with Mae West for the first time?

• • Come up and see Mae every day online:
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• • Photo: • • Mae West • • Broadway rivals in 1927 Menken with Rathbone • •
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