Revisiting Mae West

(Above source: Wikimedia)

No one could put the inimitable Mae West in a corner – or a category. Big screen actress. Playwright. Night club act. Vaudevillian. Comedian. Camp icon. Sex symbol. Feminist.

The 90-minute film Mae West: Dirty Blonde premieres Tuesday, June 16, on PBS stations (check local listings for exact day/time in your area). Part of the American Masters series, it purports to be the first major documentary about the entertainment legend.

It will then be available the next day, June 17, on Amazon Prime’s PBS Living add-on channel. PBS Living costs $2.99/month after a seven-day free trial. You’ll also be able to stream the film via PBS.org and PBS apps.

Born in 1893 in Queens, New York, West’s stage debut was an amateur competition in 1901. Later she wrote and starred in the Broadway play Sex, which was shut down in 1927 on obscenity charges. West spent 10 days in jail.

Mae West and WC Fields
(Above: ‘My Little Chicadee.’ Source: Wikimedia)

West made about a dozen films, starting with Night After Night in 1932. She might best be remembered for her pairing with another comedian who didn’t mind offending polite company – WC Fields – in the 1940 comedy-western My Little Chickadee. She played the saucy Flower Belle Lee, and he, a con artist, Cutherbert J. Twille. Their scenes were a courtship/duel of the double-entendres for which they were both famous. Despite their memorable movie repartee, West reportedly despised Fields for his drunken behavior and an unduly bestowed screenwriting credit, among other issues.

West later made a 1964 TV appearance – playing herself opposite Alan Young and the famous American Saddlebred in Mister Ed. You can watch that episode on Vimeo or right here:

West’s final movie role was as Marlo Manners in Sextette, a 1977 comedy-musical based on her 1961 stage production. In it, the octogenarian West played a big-screen icon who marries her sixth husband, played by a 30-something pre-James Bond Timothy Dalton, and becomes entangled in the (sexual) politics of an international conference. The film’s eclectic cast included Dom DeLuise, Tony Curtis, George Hamilton, Ringo Starr, Alice Cooper, Regis Philbin, George Raft, and Walter Pidgeon and Keith Moon (both in their last onscreen appearances).

West was “one of the funniest women who ever lived,” said Bette Midler, executive producer of the new documentary. “She made fun of sex at a time when the word was never uttered in polite society, and wrote plays that were so scandalous, she was arrested and sent to jail… A woman who believed she was the equal of any man, if not their superior, she continues to inspire with her humor, her glamour, and her brassy, sassy ways.”

Interested in streaming the films discussed in this article?

My Little Chickadee (1940) – You can rent it from $3.99 via Amazon, Vudu or other providers.

Sextette (1977) – You can stream it with a BroadwayHD subscription; or rent it for $3.99 from Google Play, iTunes or other services.

Night After Night (1932) – The film is currently unavailable to stream. You can purchase it on DVD, packaged with four other West films, for $3.96 from Amazon.

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About Larry Greenberg

A former local beat reporter and film critic, co-founder Lawrence Greenberg has more than 25 years’ experience as a writer and public relations executive.

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