I’m No Angel - Meet Mae West (1893-1980), American actor, writer, singer, comedian
By Guest Contributor Felicia Carparelli
Felicia Carparelli is a retired teacher/librarian and avid film fan, particularly of Hollywood's Golden Era, from Chicago. She is also a published author of The Murder in the Library, young adult novels and Jane Austen-inspired stories.
“Come up and see me sometime.” Iconic words from a past master.
Mae West, do you know her? Born in 1893, in the Bowery in New York, Mae was a precocious child and debuted as a singing Baby Mae. The story goes she stamped her little foot and demanded a spotlight one evening at a talent show. Mae won.
She moved on to being a shake and shimmy dancer in less than glamorous theaters. Her five foot tall figure, endowed with a rather large bust and ample hips was a hit in turn of the century Gilded Age America. More was more and Mae had it.
She was an actress and a writer long before her film career began. In 1926 she wrote a play called Sex, about a prostitute which was banned and put her in jail for eight days. The judge overturned the closing and the play went on to great ticket sales if not critical success. Mae usually laughed all the way to the bank. Another play, Drag, was also a success with theater goers not used to such vivid, racy material.
Her film career began in 1931 when she took the Super Chief, “train of the stars,” from New York to Los Angeles. Her first movie role was a small part in Night After Night (Archie Mayo, 1932), a film starring George Raft. “Mae stole everything but the cameras,” the critics said. For Mae, in her satin gown, dripping with jewels, had the best line of the movie:
“Goodness, what diamonds!” The hatcheck girl says to Mae.
“Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie,” says Mae and she slowly walks up the circular staircase to fame and movie stardom.
In 1933 she shot her best known film, She Done Him Wrong (Lowell Sherman), a period piece set in 1890s Bowery New York, which co-starred a very young and gorgeous Cary Grant. Her role in the film was inspired by her “Diamond Lil” character whom she played for years on the New York stage. This signature role, also written and created by Mae, was a great hit with the public. This one movie alone saved Paramount Pictures from bankruptcy. Audiences in the sticks, the small town folk, were both shocked and titillated by her saucy ways and amazing figure and wardrobe.
“Come up and see me sometime,” she croons to Cary Grant. “Come up and I’ll tell your fortune. Ah, you can be had.” Heady stuff for depression era audiences who also relished her singing of “A Guy What Takes his Time” and “Frankie and Johnny.”
Another film with Cary Grant followed that same year. I’m No Angel (Wesley Ruggles; Mae co-wrote the script) is a romp with Mae as a carnival dancer turned lion tamer. I know, boggles the mind, but Mae pulled it off with panache. Watch it just to see her scintillate in a black and silver spider web gown as she makes wild eyes at a blueblood Cary Grant, who falls madly in love with her despite their opposite backgrounds. Her trio of maids, also a reflection on the times, sing to her while she gets dolled up for a night out.
A personal favorite of this writer is Goin’ to Town (Alexander Hall; Mae was the sole screenwriter) from 1935. Mae is a dance hall girl in the wild west who is left a small fortune from a cattle rustling beau who gets shot. She falls for a very proper Englishman and follows him all the way to “Bonus Aries” (as she said it) to race a horse named Cactus. You must watch her dress up and sing the role of “Delilah” in Saint-Saën’s “Samson and Delilah,” as she tries to impress the swank ladies and gents of the Hamptons in New York. Mae gets the last word and the guy - who happens to be the Earl of Carrington.
After her last hilarious picture with W.C. Fields, My Little Chickadee (Edward F. Cline, 1940), she embarked on a musical career, hitting the stages of major cities, including Las Vegas, singing and surrounded by muscle men to entice and amaze. This lasted for decades, as well as radio and TV appearances.
Mae West never hid her fondness for men and made a career of overt sexuality. Now she might appear a bit dated but at her peak she was dynamite. She was also fun. Her numerous comments about love and life are as pithy and memorable as any of Shakespeare’s. Check out one of her films today - you won’t be disappointed. You will laugh - a lot - in a good way and will want to rush out and buy a satin dress just to feel fabulous.
As Mae said, “When I’m good, I’m good, but when I’m bad I’m better.” Words to live by. Enjoy.
Bibliography and Recommended Reading
Tuska, John. The Complete Film of Mae West. Revised edition. Citadel Press, 1992.
West, Mae. Goodness had nothing to do with it. 1959. Belvedere Publishers, 1989.
Back to Life - Rediscovering Alice Guy Blaché (1873-1968)
By Marina Brafa
Have you ever heard of Alice Guy Blaché? Guy Blaché was one of the first female directors ever, starting her work as early as 1896. By 1914 - just 18 years later - she had either directed, overseen or produced roughly 1000 films of various length and genre, which makes her not only one of the few women in the early film business (besides actresses) but also a very productive one indeed.
Just two years before kicking off her film career in 1894, the twenty-year-old Mademoiselle Alice Guy had to earn a living for herself and her mother. She started as Léon Gaumont’s secretary at Le Comptoir general de photographie, the famous French camera manufacturer (Gaumont later became head of the company). Ambitious and willing to invest in her work and future, Guy learnt not only to be an efficient secretary but observed her environment and noticed how business in the male-dominated world of the late 19th century worked. She was there on 22 March 1895 when the Lumière brothers projected their famous film of workers leaving a factory (see Lumière brothers: "Workers leaving the factory" on Youtube). But Guy was not satisfied. She thought she could do better than this and tell a real story through images and asked her boss Gaumont for permission to shoot a film. He agreed and, at the age of only 23, Guy made her first film: La Fée aux choux (The Cabbage Fairy).  How did such a young, inexperienced woman get, seemingly, the chance of a lifetime? The most probable answer seems paradoxical: Because film had not yet been viewed as a serious means of storytelling or money-making, and (financial) stakes were low, Gaumont saw no threat in having his secretary trying it out – as long as it would not interfere with her secretarial duties. We do not know whether Guy had envisioned the future development of filmmaking into a serious art form, but she used moving pictures not to advertise products or showcase scientific observations but as an aesthetic object in themselves.
In 1907, Alice Guy married Gaumont employee Herbert Blaché. Taking on his last name signaled a turning point in her life and career. After having worked mainly as a director in France, Blaché and her husband moved to the U.S. where they would establish their own production studio, Solax, in 1910. By then, Madame Blaché was a technically and artistically acclaimed director, owner of a production company and a mother (the couple had a daughter). Four years later, however, her career in the film business would end as abruptly as her marriage. Initially, Herbert Blaché had taken care of sales decisions at Gaumont and continued to do so at Solax. But he also learnt how to make films with the help of his wife (who was nine years his senior). Although the couple tried to maintain a private and work life based on equality and collaboration it became more and more difficult for Alice Blaché to ignore her husband’s escapades. His poor business decisions as well as his amorous relationships with American actresses cooled down her love and finally led her to divorce Herbert.
Once again her last name would signal the new turn her life was about to take. In 1922, freshly divorced Mmd Blaché re-adopted her maiden name and becomes Alice Guy Blaché. This is the name that she kept for the rest of her life. She returned to France and tried to restart her abandoned film career. An endeavor that failed: “As Mr B. [Blaché] himself said, I am old, and people don’t care to take white haired woman when there are so many young people unemployed. Besides, after 16 years in America, I am absolutely forgotten, an unknown in France.” In the end, this exceptional woman’s cosmopolitanism turned out to be a pitfall.
Guy Blaché continued to work as an author of articles and her memoirs until her death in 1968 (at the age of 95!). From early on, her films mirrored the times in which she lived and depicted the challenges women encountered back then. Not all her movies contained (obvious) critical content but she always had an eye and a heart for the stories of ordinary people. It is perhaps more than ironic that Guy Blaché’s own life lends itself to a biopic that could finally bring her back into the minds of today’s audiences and to the most important place of her life: the silver screen. Any takers?
So there already were some takers! Since the launch of their Kickstarter campaign in 2013, Pamela Green and Jarik van Sluijs have been working on a documentary about the female filmmaker called Be Natural - The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché. According to the project's website the film will be released soon.
 Cf. McMahan, Alison: “Alice Guy Blaché.” In: Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. Center for Digital Research and Scholarship. New York, NY: Columbia university Libraries, 2013.
 Simon, Joan: The Great Adventure, in: Simon, Joan (ed.): Alice Guy Blaché. Cinema Pioneer. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009. S.4f
 Musser, Charles: “The Wages of Feminism: Alice Guy Blaché and Her Last Feature Films,” in: Simon, Joan (ed.): Alice Guy Blaché. Cinema Pioneer. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009. S. 84.
 Simon, Joan: The Great Adventure, in: Simon, Joan (ed.): Alice Guy Blaché. Cinema Pioneer. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009. S. 21.
 Cit. after: ebd. S.19.
Bibliography and Recommended Reading