Mae West’s best films
Born either 100 or 101 years ago this week (on Aug. 17), depending on what source you believe, Mae West is still the most contemporary of female stars — a knowing embodiment of both Hollywood power (she wrote or cowrote most of her films) and sexual liberation long before the latter term came into use. West’s ability to make fun of sex — and effectively tap into subconscious fears of it — made her, by 1935, the nation’s highest-paid woman in any field. Though some of her films seem makeshift, West herself is never less than irresistibly entertaining.
In celebration of West’s birthday, the first 9 of the 12 films she made are being released by MCA/Universal in an ”Ultimate Mae West Collection” (all in their original unrated versions, priced at $14.98 apiece, 7 of them on video for the first time). Though many fans are partial to the classic My Little Chickadee (1940), her essence is most concentrated in She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel (both 1933). Increasingly vigilant censors restricted her actions in subsequent films.
The problem for the guardians of public morality — such as newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, who editorialized that Congress should take action against West — was not just that she flaunted sexual conventions, but that she appeared so happy doing so. In I’m No Angel, in which she cavalierly said her attitude toward men was ”find ‘em, fool ‘em, and forget ‘em,” she not only suffered no punishment, she wound up winning Cary Grant. And no actress ever appeared more radiantly fulfilled than West when she sang to Grant, ”I Want You, I Need You.”
Musically, the best West film is Belle of the Nineties (1934), for which she fought successfully for the inclusion of Duke Ellington’s orchestra. Never before had a white singer shared the screen so democratically with black musicians. But West was ahead of her time in racial, as well as sexual, matters — having written plays dealing with everything from interracial love to homosexuality.
Even her lesser movies offer plenty of rewards. As she promised to the suitor in the society farce Goin’ to Town (1935) who vowed he would give up half of his life for just one kiss: ”See me tomorrow. I’ll kiss you twice.”
She Done Him Wrong: B+
My Little Chickadee: B+
I’m No Angel: A-
Belle of the Nineties: B-
Goin’ to Town: C