Senryu : Deal me in, boys
purring double entendres
senryu by M. LaFreniere, photo by avi Kayla Woodrunner
Looks at my title. Huh. Mae West would have said something much funnier and sexier. Wish I had a tenth of her sense of comedy.
Mae West, confident and sexy at any age
Before Madonna and Marilyn Monroe, there was Mae West. F. Scott Fitzgerald once described her as “The only Hollywood actress with both an ironic edge and a comic spark.”
“I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.” (Mae West)
At age 14, West appeared in her first vaudeville show. Four years later, in 1911, she appeared on Broadway. Despite “A La Broadway” closing after eight performances, a New York Times writer spotted the “”girl named Mae West, hitherto unknown, pleased by her grotesquerie and snappy way of singing and dancing”.
“You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.”(Mae West)
In 1926, she wrote a provocative play named “Sex” under the pen name Jane Mast which gave her her first starring Broadway role. It also landed her in jail where she was sentenced for ten days for “corrupting the morals of youth.” In jail, she dined with the warden and his wife and was let out two days early for good behavior. Probably the last time anyone accused her of good behavior.
“I wrote the story myself. It’s about a girl who lost her reputation and never missed it.” (Mae West)
Mae West goes to Hollywood
She continued to write and perform in her controversial plays but her big hit came with Diamond Lil (1928) which led to a small role in Night after Night (1932) when George Raft suggested her. West pushed to rewrite her lines and it became one of her most famous quotes when the hat-check girl exclaimed, “Goodness, what beautiful diamonds!”, Mae West replied
“Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie.”
Her next film, She Done Him Wrong (1933) with Cary Grant reprised her Diamond Lil character as Lady Lou. The hit film saved a nearly bankrupty Paramount grossing more than $2 million during the Great Depression. Nowadays that would be $140 million. She was shortly to become the richest woman in the USA and #2 richest person after #1 William Hearst.
When women go wrong, men go right after them.
(Mae West in She Done Him Wrong,1933)
In 1934, the movie industry’s Production Code censored film scripts before they could be produced. For example the West’s film title “It Ain’t No Sin” was changed to “Belle of the Nineties” (1934) and her risque lines were heavily censored. This censorship would continue to affect her career. In that movie, though, she asked the producers for Duke Ellington and his orchestra and their collaboration introduced the public to My Old Flame (by Arthur Johnston and Sam Coslow) and other numbers.
Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, and Tucson’s own Linda Ronstadt were among the many singers who would later cover My Old Flame.
An appearance on a radio show in 1937 had conservative and religious groups writing in to the group’s sponsor with the result that NBC Radio banned West and even the use of her name from their stations. In the 1940s, Mae West left Hollywood to escape the censors because they would not let her write her own lines any more which killed her films popularity to pursue a successful career in nightclubs and theater where she could be herself. Las Vegas loved her.
“Between two evils, I generally like to pick the one I never tried before.”
(Mae West in Klondike, 1936)
Mae West returned to writing plays with Catherine was Great (1944), running for 191 performances. In the 1950s, she created a Las Vegas show surrounded by wall to wall male body builders which she laughed and said gave the women something to look at while their men came to watch her. Her recording started with 78s, then 45s and finished with two rock-and-roll albums (Way out West, 1966 and Great Balls of Fire, 1972). The counterculture youth loved her in the 1970s, admiring her for her sexual openness and fight against censorship and the students of the University of California-Los Angeles voted her Woman of the Century in 1971.
“A dame that knows the ropes isn’t likely to get tied up.” (Mae West)
She did go back to Hollywood in the 70s but both movies flopped. Sextette had an interesting cast that spanned pop culture history from the 1930s movie actor George Raft, to Tony Curtis, to Ringo Starr and Alice Cooper. Nearly blind by that time, Sextette was her final film at age 84. Still she broke more than a few stereotypes about age and sexuality performing on stage and in film throughout her sixties into her eighties.
“It’s not the men in your life that matters, it’s the life in your men.” (Mae West)
West passed away November 22, 1980 age 87 leaving behind a legacy that few could ever match.