Mae West – The Statue of Libido

Day 102 of Colourisation Project – August 17

Challenge: to publish daily a colourised photo that has some significance around the day of publication.

Born this day August 17, 1893 in Brooklyn, New York, Mary Jane “Mae” West was an American Vaudeville performer, actress, singer, playwright, Broadway sensation, movie star, screenwriter and amongst other things an undisputed sex goddess.

Above all else she was an independent woman who became an icon simply for having the courage to be herself. West made a name for herself in vaudeville and on the stage in New York before moving to Hollywood to become a comedienne, actress and writer in the motion picture industry. Known for her ribald double entendres, her career spanned seven decades. Mae West was a Hollywood staple.

Mae West

Photo Paramount Studios Publicity Still  –  Mae West – Coloured by Loredana Crupi

She started in Vaudeville at the age of 14 under the name Baby Mae. Four years later she was performing on the Broadway stage in New York. In 1918 she starred in Arthur Hammerstein’s Sometime in which she introduced the Shimmy to Broadway. (For my Aussie readers, remember the Didak Shimmy?) The Shimmy requiring hardly any movement of the feet but continuous movement of the shoulders, torso and pelvis ensured that West was singled out by the New York Times.

After her early successes on the stage, West started writing her own ‘risque’ plays under the pen name Jane Mast. Her first starring role in Broadway was the lead in the play Sex, written, produced and directed by herself. Although critics hated the show, ticket sales were good. However city officials weren’t impressed either and so raided the theatre. West was prosecuted on indecency charges and sentenced to ten days in prison on 19 April 1927. This was cut short by two days for exemplary behaviour. During her prison time, West dined with the warden and his wife. With all the media attention she attracted, West had achieved her fame!

The Society for the Prevention of Vice prevented her next play The Drag from opening in New York because it dealt with homosexuality. West continued to write controversial plays, which ensured her continued presence in the media and packed out theatres. Her 1928 play Diamond Lil about a racy, ‘easygoing’ lady of the 1890s, became an instant  Broadway hit and was revived several times during her career.

In 1932 after wowing Broadway in Diamond Lil, West moved to Hollywood and kick started her film career at Paramount Studios with what has become a famous bit part in her first movie, In Night After Night (1932). Her scene in which a  coat check girl, after seeing West’s jewelry, exclaims, “Goodness! What lovely diamonds!”  West replies, “Goodness had nothing to do with it”. And so the Hollywood legend begins to sprout.

The two films, Night After Night (1932) and She Done Him Wrong (1933), the film adaptation of  Diamond Lil, broke all existing box-office records and are credited with single-handedly saving debt-ridden Paramount from financial crisis and the forced sell out to its rival, MGM.

West was one of the first women to consistently write the movies she starred in. These included I’m No Angel, (1933) Belle Of The Nineties (1934), and Klondike Annie (1936) Go West, Young Man (1936), Every Day’s a Holiday (1937), My Little Chickadee (1940) with W.C. Fields.

Dubbed ‘The Statue of Libido’ by drama critic, George Jean Nathan, her risqué 1930s comedies were ground-breaking, not only for their sexual content but for the portrayal of women on the big screen. West was always incurring the wrath and moral indignation from all quarters of society, but the biggest problem she had to contend with was ‘censorship’. Asked about the attempts by authorities to impede her career, West said, “I believe in censorship. I made a fortune out of it.”

It has been suggested that the Hays motion picture censorship code of 1934 came about because of the controversy surrounding West’s films. However, her roles after it was introduced were made a little tamer. This eventually led her to abandon Hollywood.

She continued to perform on stage, in Las Vegas, in the United Kingdom, on radio and television.  True to form West continued to offend the moral majority; she was effectively banned from radio for many years. West spent the rest of her life producing, writing, and starring in plays and musical revues.

The 1960s and 1970s finally caught up with West as the sexual revolution picked up the baton she had carried for more than 50 years. West was absent from the silver screen for decades, finally making a brief appearance in Myra Brenkenridge in 1970, where she enjoyed total creative control over her role. Her last film made at the age of 85, Sextette was released in 1978.

Her 1959 best-selling autobiography was titled Goodness Had Nothing To Do With It, after one of the first lines of her movie career. West has to be one of the most quoted women in history, some of her more famous quips include “When I’m good, I’m very good, but when I’m bad, I’m better”; “I used to be Snow White but I drifted”; “It’s not the men in my life, but the life in my men that count”; “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful”; “Come up and see me sometime”; “Peel me a grape.”

In consideration of her contributions to American cinema, the American Film Institute named West 15th among the 50 Greatest Screen Legends.  West also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1560 Vine Street in Hollywood, California.

Mae West, America’s original sex symbol, who never shied away from taboo-breaking paradigms, died of natural causes on 22 November 1980 at the age of 87.  As critic Kevin Thomas said in the eulogy delivered at her funeral in 1980, “the woman and the legend had long since become one.”

Some interesting tidbits about the amazing Mae West.

According to actor Tony Curtis, her famous gait originated when she was a stage actress. Special six-inch platforms were attached to her shoes to increase her height. Her walk literally was ‘one foot at a time.’  She was 5 foot tall. (1.52cm)

During World War II, United States Navy and Army named their inflatable life vests after her, supposedly because of her buxom stature. The term ‘Mae West’ for a life-jacket continues to this day.

A ‘Mae West’ is also a slang term for a type of the parachute malfunction called a ‘lineover’ in which the suspension lines divide the main canopy into two sections, giving the appearance of a huge brassiere.

The graph depicting the probability of uranium or other fissionable materials producing specific fission products has two peaks with a ‘valley’ in the middle, and is known as the Mae West curve.

West is the subject of Cole Porter’s songs, Anything Goes and You’re the Tops in the Broadway musical Anything Goes.

One of Salvador Dalí’s most iconic works, Mae West’s Lips Sofa in 1937 was clearly influenced by her.

Her image appeared on the cover of the Beatles’ album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

It has been suggested that Mae West’s figure was the inspiration for the Coca-Cola bottle.

And from Mae West herself….

“I was in the office at Paramount, and they gave me a large book with a lot of photographs of different leading men, and I was sitting at a table or a desk right near the window and the door, and uh, after I looked at a few I kind of glanced out the window and I saw this good-looking guy walk across the street. So, I said, “That’s about the best-looking thing in Hollywood: who is he?” So they looked, and they said, “Oh, that’s Cary Grant. We haven’t used him in a picture as yet, but we made tests of him with some of the starlets.” I said, “Well, if this guy can talk, I’ll take him.” So they called him in, and we met, and he said, “How d’ya do?” and I said, “OK.” And they said, “What part?” and I said, “The lead, of course.” So he got the lead.


“I freely chose the kind of life I led because I was convinced that a woman has as much right as a man to live the way she does if she does no actual harm to society.”  –   Mae West

This entry was posted in Black & White, Colorization, Colourisation, Film, Photography, USA, Women, Women in Film & TV, Women writers and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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