Mae West: The Iconic Trailblazer of Hollywood

Mary Jane “Mae” West, born on August 17, 1893, was a trailblazer in the entertainment industry, renowned for her distinctive contralto voice, sharp wit, and bold persona. A sex symbol of her era, she was famed for her breezy sexual independence and clever double entendres​​.

Early Life and Background

Born in either the Greenpoint or Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, Mae West was the eldest surviving child of a corset and fashion model mother and a prizefighter father who later worked in private investigations. Growing up in various parts of Brooklyn, her exposure to the entertainment world began at Neir’s Social Hall in Woodhaven, where she is believed to have first performed professionally​​.

Mae West
Mae West

Career Beginnings

West’s entertainment career started early. At five, she entertained at a church social, and by seven, she was appearing in amateur shows, often winning local talent contests. By 14, she had begun her professional journey in vaudeville with the Hal Clarendon Stock Company​​​​.

Rise to Fame

West’s rise to prominence was marked by her entry into Broadway. Her first starring role on Broadway was in her own play, “Sex” (1926), which, despite critical panning, sold well. Her portrayal of a prostitute led to her arrest and a 10-day sentence for “corrupting the morals of youth,” a move that only enhanced her reputation as the daring “bad girl” of the era​​​​.

Hollywood Success and Challenges

In 1932, West moved to Hollywood, debuting in “Night After Night” (1932). Her film “She Done Him Wrong” (1933), which catapulted Cary Grant to fame, was a major success, earning an Academy Award nomination and saving Paramount from bankruptcy. By 1933, she was one of the top box-office draws in the U.S., and by 1935, she was the highest-paid woman in the nation. Her films often faced censorship, leading her to cleverly insert risqué lines she knew would be cut to protect others​​.

Iconic Roles and Performances

West’s most successful film was “I’m No Angel” (1933), where she again starred with Grant. The film’s success solidified her status as a cultural icon, influencing artists across various fields. She was recognized for her unique blend of irony and comic spark​​.

Contributions to Theater and Screenwriting

In addition to her acting, West was an accomplished playwright and screenwriter. She penned several plays, such as “Diamond Lil” (1928) and “The Constant Sinner” (1931), where her own personality and social critiques, particularly on sex, shone through​​.

Personal Life

West’s personal life was as colorful as her career. She married fellow vaudevillian Frank Wallace at 17 but kept the marriage a secret until 1937. Her relationships included an affair with Italian-born vaudevillian Guido Deiro and a long-term relationship with attorney James Timony. She also had a notable relationship with Chester Rybinski, aka Paul Novak, who was 30 years her junior. West remained close to her family throughout her life and was known for her strong familial ties​​.

Later Years and Death

West’s later years saw a revival of her films in the 1960s and appearances in movies like “Myra Breckinridge” (1970) and “Sextette” (1978). Her autobiography, “Goodness Had Nothing to Do with It” (1959), encapsulates her bold style. She suffered a stroke in 1980 and passed away on November 22 of the same year at the age of 87.

Legacy

Mae West’s legacy is profound. She challenged social norms, especially regarding female sexuality and independence, leaving an indelible mark on the entertainment industry. Her influence extended beyond the screen, affecting culture, fashion, and even language, with her famous quips and one-liners.

Mae West Movies

Mae West’s filmography showcases her versatility and creative control in Hollywood. Here’s a detailed list of her major films:

  • “Night After Night” (1932): Mae West plays Maudie Triplett, with additional dialogue by her. Co-starring George Raft, Constance Cummings, and Wynne Gibson. Directed by Archie Mayo for Paramount Pictures.
  • “She Done Him Wrong” (1933): Portraying Lady Lou, based on her play “Diamond Lil”. The screenplay by Harvey F. Thew and John Bright featured Cary Grant, Owen Moore, and Gilbert Roland. Directed by Lowell Sherman.
  • “I’m No Angel” (1933): West stars as Tira, also responsible for the story, screenplay, and all dialogue. Cary Grant, Gregory Ratoff, and Edward Arnold co-starred. Directed by Wesley Ruggles.
  • “Belle of the Nineties” (1934): Featuring West as Ruby Carter. Roger Pryor, Johnny Mack Brown, and Katherine DeMille co-starred. Directed by Leo McCarey.
  • “Goin’ to Town” (1935): West plays Cleo Borden, and also worked on the screenplay. Co-stars included Paul Cavanagh, Gilbert Emery, and Marjorie Gateson. Directed by Alexander Hall.
  • “Klondike Annie” (1936): Starring as The Frisco Doll/Rose Carlton/Sister Annie Alden. Victor McLaglen, Phillip Reed, and Helen Jerome Eddy co-starred. Directed by Raoul Walsh.
  • “Go West, Young Man” (1936): Featuring West as Mavis Arden. Co-stars included Warren William, Randolph Scott, and Alice Brady. Directed by Henry Hathaway.
  • “Every Day’s a Holiday” (1937): West plays Peaches O’Day and contributed to the screenplay. Edmund Lowe, Charles Butterworth, and Charles Winninger co-starred. Directed by A. Edward Sutherland.
  • “My Little Chickadee” (1940): Starring as Flower Belle Lee, co-written with W. C. Fields. Fields, Joseph Calleia, and Dick Foran also starred. Directed by Edward F. Cline for Universal Pictures.
  • “The Heat’s On” (1943): West plays Fay Lawrence. Co-stars Victor Moore, William Gaxton, and Lester Allen. Directed by Gregory Ratoff for Columbia Pictures.
  • “Myra Breckinridge” (1970): Portraying Leticia Van Allen, based on Gore Vidal’s novel. Co-starring Raquel Welch, John Huston, and Farrah Fawcett. Directed by Michael Sarne for 20th Century Fox.
  • “Sextette” (1978): Playing Marlo Manners/Lady Barrington, based on her play. Co-stars included Timothy Dalton, Dom DeLuise, and Tony Curtis. Directed by Ken Hughes for Crown International Pictures​​.

Mae West’s career demonstrates not only her talent as an actress but also her significant contributions as a writer and a trailblazer in the film industry.

Conclusion

Mae West’s journey from a Brooklyn neighborhood to Hollywood stardom is a testament to her talent, determination, and unique personality. She not only entertained but also broke barriers and paved the way for future generations of women in entertainment. Her legacy continues to inspire and resonate in modern culture.

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