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.