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Archive for August 11th, 2011

Happy Birthday, Mae

Mae WestMae West’s birthday is August 17, and those of us in the romance business need to wish her a happy one. She was born 118 years ago. So you might ask, why should we appreciate Mae? Because she was one of those women who paved the way—she wrote plays about sex and about gay men that got her thrown in the clink. She wrote movies about strong, sexual women who didn’t take any crap and who got the guy in the end even though they didn’t take any crap. And she had a wicked way with a quip.

West was on Broadway for around twenty years before she headed to Hollywood. During that time she wrote several plays, including a notorious one called Sex that got her thrown in the slammer for ten days in 1927 for corrupting minors (who apparently wouldn’t have learned about sex on their own). While she served out her sentence (eight days with two days off for good behavior), she wore her own silk underwear, took her meals with the warden and his wife, and gave lots of interviews. Eat your heart out, Lindsey Lohan!

Her next play after that was called The Drag, a tragi-comic portrait of gay life. That one didn’t even make it to Broadway since it was closed down by the Society For the Prevention of Vice.

West headed to Hollywood in 1932 at the height of the Great Depression. She was 40 years old and, as they say, “well-nourished.” It didn’t matter. She became one of the most popular stars of the Depression Era, and the kind of sex symbol who sent people like Mary Pickford and other guardians of morality into a tizzy.

But what’s been lost in the picture of West as a sort of early version of Marilyn Monroe is how really revolutionary her female characters are. Where Marilyn’s characters tended to be childlike, Mae’s were always very much adults and very capable of taking care of themselves. Where Monroe traded on innocence, West’s characters gloried in knowing the score. Mae never chased men in her movies: they chased her. And when she finally gave in to their pleas, it was always on her own terms. Even in My Little Chickadee (which she hated because of her battles with W.C. Fields), West comes out on top in the end, after playing the most knowing schoolmarm of all time. When she sees a blackboard with the sentences “I am a good boy I am a good man I am a good girl” she mutters “What is this, propaganda?”

In fact, it’s the nature of Mae’s characters that got her in trouble with the censors. It wasn’t just that her characters had sex, it was that they were in charge of that sex. Female characters who played around in the movies of the thirties and forties generally were punished for it—with babies, bad reputations, and broken relationships. But Mae’s characters behaved like men, taking responsibility for their own pleasure and reveling in it. Scandal! Mae being Mae, she got away with it.

And, of course, there are the quotes. Mae is undoubtedly one of the most quotable figures in the Golden Age of Hollywood. So here goes—most of these are from her movies and most of them were written by Mae herself.

“When I’m good, I’m good. When I’m bad, I’m better.”

“Goodness, what beautiful diamonds!” “Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie.”

“When choosing between two evils, I always choose the one I’ve never tried before.”

“Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.”

“Why don’t you come up and see me sometime—when I’ve got nothing on but the radio?”

“I generally avoid temptation, unless I can’t resist it.”

“Are you showing contempt for this court?” “No, I’m doing my best to hide it.”

“Good sex is like good bridge. If you don’t have a good partner, you’d better have a good hand.”

“His mother should have thrown him away and kept the stork.”

“I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.”

“Those who are easily shocked should be shocked more often.”

“Can I hold your hand?” “It ain’t heavy. I can hold it myself.”

And the most famous, “Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just glad to see me,” supposedly delivered off the cuff to an LA cop.

Happy birthday, Mae. And thanks.

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