AMERICAN MASTERS: Mae West: Dirty Blonde
Now streaming on the PBS Video App
Wednesday, June 17, 2020
Credit: Courtesy of Alamy Stock Photo
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This program is part of PBS’ summer-long celebration of women trailblazers!
AMERICAN MASTERS “Mae West: Dirty Blonde” is the first major documentary film to explore Mae West’s life and career as she “climbed the ladder of success wrong by wrong” to become a writer, performer and subversive agitator for social change. West achieved great acclaim in every entertainment medium that existed during her lifetime, spanning eight decades of the 20th century.
A full-time actress at seven, a vaudevillian at 14, a dancing sensation at 25, a Broadway playwright at 33, a silver screen ingénue at 40, a Vegas nightclub act at 62, a recording artist at 73, a camp icon at 85 – West left no format unconquered. She possessed creative and economic powers unheard of for a female entertainer in the 1930s and still rare today.
Though she was a comedian, West grappled with some of the more complex social issues of the 20th century, including race and class tensions, and imbued even her most salacious plotlines with commentary about gender conformity, societal restrictions and what she perceived as moral hypocrisy.
"I've loved Mae West since the moment I saw her sashay across the screen in ‘Night After Night,’ a movie in which she stole everything but the cameras. She created a persona she completely believed in, and never wavered from publicly or privately. One of the funniest women who ever lived, she made fun of sex at a time when the word was never uttered in polite society, and wrote plays that were so scandalous, she was arrested and sent to jail. A breath of fresh air on the Broadway stage, she singlehandedly saved Paramount Studios from bankruptcy, had legions of fans, and still does. A woman who believed she was the equal of any man, if not their superior, she continues to inspire with her humor, her glamour, and her brassy, sassy ways,” said executive producer Bette Midler.
- West’s unique style was evident even at her first amateur show: a seven-year-old-girl in a sweet pink satin dress and large picture hat, wriggling suggestively while growling men’s vaudeville songs in a deep, rough voice.
- Doted on by her mother, a onetime corset model from Bavaria, hardened by her father, a former bare-knuckles brawler, “Baby Mae,” as she billed herself, soon left school to join a local theater troupe, playing nightly on the 10-cent stages that dotted working-class Brooklyn.
Rise to fame
- West garnered attention as one of the best known performers of the shimmy dance, a sexually charged dance craze where she would “shake her chemise” to the delight of the audience.
- When West started performing on Broadway she rewrote the dialogue in her small roles to be funnier, sexier, bawdier – truer to the persona she had been cultivating.
- West’s 1926 play “Sex” resulted in the arrest of her and 20 other cast members. Following a highly publicized trial, she was convicted of “corrupting the morals of youth and others,” and was sentenced to 10 days in jail. West recognized the value of the publicity, commenting to a reporter, “I expect this will be the making of me.”
- After the success of her critical and commercial hit play “Diamond Lil,” Paramount Pictures offered West a contract and she became a movie star at age 39.
- West was given her own production unit, with wide leeway to rewrite her lines, redefine her roles and cast her leading men – an unheard-of degree of power at a time when female stars had little say in what parts they played or how their image was molded.
- West made five films in four years. Her screenplay heroines were all essentially a variation of Diamond Lil, the former prostitute made good. These movies set attendance records at theaters across the country and made her one of the most famous women in America.
- When the Motion Picture Production Code began to be enforced in 1934, censors edited her screenplays, removing saucy dialogue and rendering jokes senseless. The films grew dull and her popularity waned.
- In 1954, West became a Vegas act at the Sahara Hotel. She sang her old songs, recited her old lines and some new, raunchier ones with a coterie of oiled-up bodybuilders in loincloths as her backup men.
- After a hiatus, West made two more films, “Myra Breckinridge” (1970) and “Sextette” (1978), under the condition that she have creative control and could rewrite her lines as she saw fit. Both films flopped.
A CELEBRATION OF TRAILBLAZING WOMEN
Join KPBS’s summer-long celebration of women trailblazers in honor of the women’s vote centennial, featuring special programming commemorating U.S. women’s suffrage, the feminist movement and modern-day changemakers.
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