Everything about Mae West was disproportionately and wondrously overblown–something of a comic-strip blonde sprung gloriously to life, her buxom form, brash-to-vulgar wit, assertive sexuality, and comedic genius made her one of the most unforgettable figures in entertainment history. Director-screenwriter Ado Kyrou accurately summed up the appeal of the ribald performer: “She is an earthquake, a tornado, an admirable scourge, a sky-rocket, a liberating explosion.”
The daughter of a boxer, West began performing at the age of five, and within a few years, moved into burlesque under the billing of “The Baby Vamp.” In her teenage years, she worked in vaudeville and in Broadway revues; in the extreme, she appeared occasionally as a male impersonator, which probably contributed to speculation that she was actually a man – or something else entirely – under all those feathers and pearls.
West fancied herself a playwright, and she wrote, produced, and directed her first revue, Sex, on Broadway, and wound up serving a jail sentence for obscenity charges on Welfare Island for her trouble. Her second play, Drag, was about homosexuality, and though it was a big hit in Jersey, she wisely avoided bringing the production to the Great White Way. Broadway success was finally hers with a 1928 production of Diamond Lil, and after creating two more grand-scale theatrical productions, West made a grand entrance into Hollywood in her screenwriting and film acting debut vehicle, Night After Night (1932). She was forty years old.
Despite persistent backlash from censors, the provocative West still managed to imbue her string of hit movies – among the most memorable, She Done Him Wrong, I’m No Angel (both in 1933), Belle of the Nineties (1934), and My Little Chickadee (1940) – with her signature sexual innuendo and double-entendres – no one could put the “hither” in come-hither better than Mae West. She made a point of collaborating on all of her scripts, often writing her own lines and witticisms, many of which are still quoted today (“Peel me a grape, will ya?”).
Such was West’s appeal that She Done Him Wrong is credited for single-handedly saving Paramount from bankruptcy because it garnered a butt-saving $2 million in box office receipts in its first three months in release. Throughout the thirties, West’s films ignited nationwide fervor, but by decade’s end, her popularity had flagged due to the diligent efforts of the censors and an increasing climate of Puritanism sweeping across the country. But no matter – the irrepressible Mae returned to Broadway and the international nightclub circuit, where she became a legend in her own lifetime.