I knew from Complicated Women, TCM’s documentary on films before the production code, that early movies challenged men’s ownership of women’s bodies, minds, and souls. Many of these pre-code movies (1929-34) were so shockingly liberal in content that they make today’s look prudish by comparison (nudity in a Tarzan movie, anyone?) After the code, of course, sexuality and feminist portrayals of women were both toned down to please potential censors. But Mae West, who wrote and starred in her films, managed to sidestep this “sanitation” to an extent because she was so gifted at double entendres.
I’d heard of West, of course, knew a couple famous sayings, thought of her vaguely as ahead of her time. But to know of West and to watch her? Not the same. Mae West’s pre- and post-code films were in their own plane, and not only because of her undeniable sensuality and eagerness to express it. And “ahead of her time” is a gross understatement in West’s case. The play she wrote that got her thrown in jail on morals charges in 1927? Titled Sex. Madonna would be attacked for giving a book that title almost seventy years later.
And West’s next play? Drag (as in queen), which the vice folks managed to squash entirely. Luckily, we can still watch West on screen. Here are just four reasons why you will embrace this voluptuous rebel:
1. Half of the suggestive one liners you know originated with her.
This is just a small sampling of lines written and delivered by West (mostly from her films):
- “When I’m good, I’m very good, but when I’m bad, I’m better.”
- “It takes two to get one in trouble.”
- “Is that a pistol in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?”
- “A hard man is good to find.”
- “When I’m caught between two evils, I generally like to take the one I never tried.”
- “When women go wrong, men go right after them.”
It’s not just the cleverness of West’s expressions that make her movies so entertaining; it’s the sheer number of them she manages to squeeze in. She Done Him Wrong (1933), which is just over an hour,has more funny lines in a few minutes than most current rom-coms in their bloated two-hour running times.
2. You need to see a woman born in the 1890s shimmying like West does.
She’s dancing, she’s walking—it doesn’t matter. You have never seen a woman strut like this one.
3. 1930s Hollywood actually portrayed young men smitten—in droves—by a 40ish woman
Mae West’s films are irrefutable proof that everything does not improve with time, including Hollywood’s treatment of women past the age of 30. Today we are delighted to see the occasional rom-com with a 40-year-old woman; that’s when West got started. And being who she was, West was never content with just one man in her thrall.
4. Her films are wonderfully ludicrous.
My favorite plot: A woman makes a living as a lion tamer, which men find so attractive they start sending her diamonds (I’m No Angel). The court scene near the close of the film is even more breathtaking. West annihilates the lawyers and slays the judge and jury with her smarts and that amazing walk. Is this whole film absurd? Absolutely. Is it hilarious? Oh yes.
Luckily, you can find a plot almost as ridiculous (and funny) in She Done Him Wrong, which is on Netflix streaming right now. What are you waiting for?