Mae West: An Icon In Black And White – Jill Watts (OUP 2001)- A Real Life Review



“It isn’t what I do, but how I do it.  It isn’t what I say but how I say it, and how I look when I do it and say it.”

This, in her own words sums up perfectly the Hollywood legend, Mae West (1893-1981).  It explains why she was successful and also why she encountered problems, particularly with censorship, throughout her career.  It also connects her with, in Jill Watts’ words her links to “African-American tricksterism and signification” (more of this later, although as a British reader of this book I’m still a little vague on the details).


Mae West began on stage at a very young age and alternated between Vaudeville (fairly respectable) and Burlesque (less so).  She created the character of “Mae West”, which cemented herself into American and European culture.  She wrote plays.  “Sex” (1926) landed her in prison for obscenity (after it had been playing for a year).  “Diamond Lil” (1928) established her as a major star.  At one point she was reputed to be the second wealthiest American after William Randolph Hearst.  Hollywood (eventually) beckoned (when she was nearly 40) when old pal George Raft pushed for her to be in his “Night After Night”.  In what must have been one of the rarest and earliest examples of Hollywood reverse inequality Raft starred in the movie for $191 a week whilst West co-starred for $4,000 a week.


Hollywood, initially nervous of her controversial reputation began to see her potential and began greenlighting a series of films which began with “She Done Him Wrong” (1933) her biggest and best during which she wielded extraordinary power for a woman in the Hollywood studio system.


Cary Grant and Mae West in “She Done Him Wrong”

Nowadays we would find little sexually outrageous in West’s output but she regularly overstepped the boundaries of the Hays Code of censorship, brought in to return respectability to the movie world.  We might, however, express surprise at the existence of her much raided and closed down theatrical show about homosexuality featuring a  cast of drag queens in 1927, as it probably seems at least five decades ahead of its time.  Much of the obscenity was implied (cue much reading of scripts in courtrooms to spot the implications) and was indeed mainly because (back to my opening quote) to how things were said by Mae and what she was doing when she said them.

This is the second book about Mae West I’ve ever read.  Mary Beth Hamilton’s “The Queen Of Camp” didn’t really bring the star to life for me in the way I thought it would.  I enjoyed this more but again have reservations.

Watts begins her very thorough and quite academic study of West’s life and career by citing two rumours that were commonplace during West’s lifetime.  Firstly, that she was actually a man and secondly that she had African-American heritage and was in the terms of the time “passing as white”.  The first rumour was firmly disproved at the time of her death and has probably much to say about how a powerful woman was viewed.  The second hinges on, and this is not known definitively, whether she had an African-American grandfather.  Immaterial of this, Watts argues, is the performer’s  heavy borrowing for her character “Mae West” from African-American traditions and the quips and the use of language for which she became famous is a form of “signification” and that the character is based upon “the trickster” of African-American folk tales.  West’s famous “shimmy dance”, her walk and love of blues were adapted from her experiences in black nightclubs.  Her total acceptance of African-American friends and lovers was unusual at the time and she carried this consistently through her private and professional life.  Her play about mixed relationships even began a tour of the South and led to a lynch mob after her leading male.

True, nowadays, we can cite racism in her films which cast African-American actresses as her maids but their relationship was different to most films and something bordering on equality was often implied if not explicitly stated and she was known to be adamant in her support for casting even within the limits which mainstream Hollywood set.  There’s also the issue that for a time in her early career she performed in “blackface” in an act termed as a “coon shouter”.


Mae West, Gertrude Howard and Hattie McDaniel

It is these issues which makes up the “Icon In Black And White”of Watts’  subtitle and provides the focus for her work.  It is all very interesting but perhaps I should have read a more general biography first.  Watts, however, does not stint on biographical detail.  We end up knowing as much about West’s private life as she chose to reveal (actually very little despite her continual sexual witticisms and bravado), there’s quite thorough break-d0wn of the plot of her films and we get a good sense of Mae West the person, the character and the star.

This was one extraordinary lady and I think perhaps over the last generation her star has waned a little.  “She Done Him Wrong” is a superb movie and at the other end of her career there’s much entertainment to be had (most of it unintentional, or was it?) in her last film, the pretty disastrous “Sextette” (1979) with Mae’s final outing as an 86 year old sex goddess.  I want to read more about her thanks to Watt’s depiction of a woman born both decades ahead of her time and yet very much part of it.


Mae West and friends in “Sextette”


Mae West: An Icon In Black And White was published by Oxford University Press in 2001.