Wild Wild West

#15 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

The studios were running wild, flaunting the production code by glorifying criminals, adulterers, fornicators, and gold diggers.  

And the men and women who’d demanded the code were taking notice.

The clashes between Hollywood and the Catholic priests and Women’s Groups who wanted them to clean up their act were growing in frequency and intensity.

Catholic priests labeled certain films sinful and threatened boycotts.

Martin Quigley, one of the original authors of the code, was incensed that Hollywood had no intention of honoring their end of the bargain.

Hollywood may have tried harder to work within the confines of the code but for two inescapable facts—first, the country was in the throes of the Depression and most of the Hollywood studios were struggling for survival.

Second, and most important— audiences loved sexy, violent, and naughty films.

Despite what they told their priests, they plunked down their increasingly limited dollars to watch them.

The oncoming censorship war was likely inevitable.

But the match that lit the fire and turned the Catholic opposition into a full blown crusade?

It wasn’t James Cagney’s gangster films.  Or the beautiful young starlets over at MGM running around committing adultery and demanding divorcees.

It wasn’t even Jean Harlow’s gleeful home-wrecking.

It was a forty-year old playwright from Brooklyn.

Mae West made the would-be censors positively apoplectic.

Mae West—like her character Lou in She Done Him Wrong—was a woman in charge.  She made her own money and decisions, spoke her mind, and used her sexuality wherever and however she could.

She was a quadruple threat—actress, writer, singer, businesswoman.

She’d been a successful playwright in New York, and adapted her plays for the screen.

Her plays had previously been passed over by Hollywood for being too racy.  But in 1933, Paramount was on the verge of going belly up and decided to go for broke.

Her films She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel were so successful they literally pulled Paramount out of bankruptcy.

We remember her today—and audiences loved her then—for the wry sexual innuendo in her films.  She wrote and spoke all the movie’s famous lines.

Lines like:

Woman: Ah, Lady Lou, you’re a fine gal, a fine woman.

Lou: One of the finest women ever walked the streets.

Or the famous, “Why don’t you come up some time and see me?” said in her come-hither way to an impossibly young (and unknown) Cary Grant.

Or my favorite:

Captain Cummings: Haven’t you ever met a man that could make you happy?

Lou: Sure, lots of times.

I could go on and on.  In fact, She Done Him Wrong is little more than a vehicle for Mae West to strut around and be, well, Mae West.

She sings, she zings, she has all the good lines, and rules every scene.

Even Cary Grant can’t steal a scene from her.

Mae West knew exactly what her audience wanted from her, and gave it to them both on and off the screen.  In a time when stars were much more reserved with the press, Mae West could always be counted on for a colorful interview.

I love the myth of Mae West.  I love the fact that she stormed Hollywood in her forties and made her mark as a sexpot.  I loved that she wrote her own films.  I love that she was shrewd businesswoman.  I love that she was always playing the character of “Mae West.”  I love that while people thought she was selling sex, she was actually selling wit.

But I can’t honestly say I love her movies.  I fell asleep repeatedly through She Done Him Wrong, and would recommend that if you want a taste of Mae West, you’re better off watching a compilation video of all her best lines on You Tube rather than one of her films.

Despite the huge box office success of She Done Him Wrong, and I’m No Angel, Mae West faded quickly from the Hollywood scene.  Once the production code was enforced, Hollywood could no longer make the exaggerated, bawdy films that were West’s forte.  

But her impact went far beyond her movies, for they led to a nationwide mobilization of Catholics and other groups who were fed up with Hollywood’s supposed filth.

And as we’ll see next week, they won a battle that would give the censors control of films and change the face of Hollywood for decades.

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