Mae West Lives
By Susan Doll
As a film history instructor at an arts college, I battle a number of erroneous assumptions about classic film. I have had to accept the fact that most students do not watch classic movies on their own, and it is only in courses like mine that they are exposed to them on a long-term basis. One misconception that has become increasingly common among students is that female stars of the past—and the characters they play—have nothing to offer today’s young women. The assumption is that female characters in classic movies are generally passive supporters of the male protagonists or damsels in distress that need to be rescued. “Damsels in distress” is a phrase I hear a lot when I challenge students, who insist that the women depicted in films from the Golden Age are stereotypes.
And, then I introduce them to Mae West in I’m No Angel.
I’m No Angel, which is arguably her best film, includes everything we expect to see in a Mae West role. She stars as Tira, a confident, mature woman in charge of her sexuality. She enjoys men, disdains marriage, and revels in her career as an entertainer. At first, Tira is a carnival dancer who inspires men to shower her with expensive gifts. When a date with a married man goes wrong, her crooked lawyer buys her way out of a legal jam. She moves out of the carnival life into the circus big top as a lion tamer. Tira becomes the toast of New York, where she is pursued by a higher class of men. She sets her sights on Cary Grant, which lands her in more legal trouble. But, Tira maneuvers the justice system to her advantage. In addition to dominating a film that was created as a vehicle for her persona, West also wrote most of her lines as well as those of others. She added lines to the scenes with the African American actresses who played her maids. More than mere servants, they became her confidants and gal pals, giggling about the men in their lives.
Students were amazed that a film from 1933 could feature a female protagonist who was so confident, independent, and self-assured. They were stunned when Tira called marriage “a last resort,” pursued men on her own terms, and snubbed her nose at a justice system rigged against working class stiffs, women, and others outside the status quo.
Mae West’s career spanned vaudeville, Broadway, Hollywood, radio, and Vegas. By way of introduction, I told students that West had written and performed in Broadway plays designed to poke holes in America’s hypocritical attitudes toward sex, especially in regard to women. They were impressed when I revealed that West had been jailed for her art. In 1926, complaints from religious and reform groups pressured city officials to raid a performance of her play Sex. West was sentenced to 10 days for corrupting the morals of youth. She made the most of her stint in the cooler by milking it for publicity. They released her after 8 days.
By the time West signed her contract with Paramount in 1932, she was a full-figured 40 years old, a detail that did not go unnoticed by the young women in my class. As Almendra wrote in the last assignment for the semester, “I was surprised that she became so famous and successful at 40 years old, when in today’s Hollywood, actresses find it hard to land a protagonist role, or any role at all, at this age.” Daniela concurred: “The biggest thing I enjoyed was she didn’t let her age define her. Older women in the film industry to this day continue to struggle finding roles that give them depth or are not just the grandmother. I saw a commercial for a movie in which Octavia Spencer plays a grandmother to an eleven-year-old. She is 50 years old... This shows just how Hollywood sees women.”
Seeing classic films and Golden Age stars through the eyes of students is like experiencing them anew. It was fascinating to read which aspects of West’s persona and career spoke to this generation. Matthew declared, “She was committed to her craft and stories. Mae West even spent some time in jail for her provocative work, but that did not stop her. Furthermore, she is a badass. There is no other way to put it.” Annie observed, “Her character was unabashedly outspoken, stood up for herself, and was not disliked because of it.” Lindsay noticed, “She is opposed to marriage, and she has a personality stronger than any man in the movie... women needed to see they did not have to be placed so tightly in a box.” What caught Allison’s attention “was how Mae West didn’t really fit the beauty standards of the time, both in regards to age and body type, and yet the way she played her characters still made her very attractive.”
I included I’m No Angel in the course because I wanted to counter student misconceptions about women in classic films; Mae West helped me succeed. As Annie wrote, “To see a woman act so bold and brash in a black and white movie completely challenged my previous assumptions about films during this era.”
A graduate of Northwestern University’s film program, Susan has been an instructor of film studies at several universities and colleges. She currently teaches at Ringling College of Art and Design. Parallel with her teaching career, she has worked as a researcher and writer in pop culture-related topics for Encyclopedia Britannica, Publications International, Facets Multi-Media, Field Museum of Chicago, and Turner Classic Movies. She is the author of Elvis for Dummies, Understanding Elvis, The Films of Elvis Presley, Marilyn: Her Life and Legend, an interactive children’s book titled I Love Lucy, and Films in Florida (co-authored).