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Mae West and How the Production Code Affected Her Career
“Virtue has its own reward, but has no sale at the box office”. Those are the words of the famous movie actress named Mae West. She was known for her sassy and sexy behavior on and off screen.
Mary Jane West was born August 17, 1893 in Brooklyn, New York. Her parents were involved in prize fighting and vaudeville. Mae worked on the stage and was in vaudeville from the time when she was five years of age. She was so into the entertainment world that she never really focused on education. She studied dance as a child and when she was 14 years old, she was billed as “The Baby Vamp”.
The year was 1926 and she was definitely shocking to most people during that time period. Though the critics reportedly hated the show, the ticket sales were good. The theater was raided and Ms. West was arrested along with the rest of the cast.
While incarcerated on Roosevelt Island, she was allowed to wear her silk underwear instead of the scratchy prison issue. The warden reportedly took her to dinner every night.
She served eight days, with two days off for good behavior. The media attention only managed to enhance her case.
Her next play was racy in content as well. It was entitled “The Drag” and was about homosexuality alluding to the work of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs. It also was a box office success, but it had to be played in New Jersey because it had been banned from Broadway.
Mae caught the attention of Hollywood and was given her first small movie role working with George Raft in “Night after Night”. The film debuted in 1932 and even though her performance was a minor part in the movie, she was able to display enough of her quick wit that made her famous.
At first she was unhappy with her small role in “Night After Night”, but was satisfied when she was allowed to rewrite her scenes. In West’s first scene, a hatcheck girl exclaimed, “Goodness, what lovely diamonds”.
Mae responded with her quick and racy wit by saying, “Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie”.
Upon her arrival in Hollywood, she moved into an apartment not far from the studio on Melrose. She maintained a residence there at Ravenswood, even though she owned a beach house and a ranch in the San Fernando Valley.
The public fell in love with the first woman to make racy comments on film. She became a box office smash with the film breaking attendance records.
Her second film was based on her earlier and popular play that was written by West entitled “She Done Him Wrong” starring Cary Grant. The film was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Picture.
Her third film, entitled “I’m No Angel” also displayed her quick racy wit and she was paired with Cary Grant once again. It was a financial success. This film, along with “She Done Him Wrong” were projects that saved Paramount from bankruptcy. They were highly criticized by some because of the content and the guidelines found in the Motion Picture Production Code.
The Production Code (also known as the Hays Code) was a set of guidelines that movies created between the years of 1930 and 1968 were governed by.
The name “Hays Office” is definitely recognized as being synonymous with Hollywood’s self –censorship body even though its namesake ceased to be involved in the daily operations prior to the period of its most remembered conflicts with filmmakers. Will H. Hays was the first president of MPPDA. He was installed as the leader because studio heads were looking for a man with a background in the federal government to assure the nation that Hollywood films would not corrupt the country’s citizens.
During the period that the Production Code existed, the enforcement was the responsibility of Jason Joy (1930-1932), James Wingate (1932-1934), Joseph Breen who was the chief censor for the longest period of time between the years of 1934 – 1954. Geoffrey Shurlock then took his place from 1954-1968.
Eric Johnston replaced Will Hays as head administrator in 1945 and remained in this office until his death in 1963. Jack Valenti took his place in 1966.
By then the organization had become the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Each of these three men served more in the role of ambassador, lobbyist and as salesmen for the movie industry and not so much as a “shaper of content”.
The Production Code was developed because the owners of major Hollywood studios were attempting to avoid a national government-run censorship operation.
They also wanted to assure the concerned civic leaders that Hollywood would deliver only wholesome movies eliminating the need for further editing that could possible be required by the state and local censorship boards. These type boards sprang up during the decade preceding the Code.
The Studio Relations Committee was organized by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) in 1930. This committee was given the responsibility for the administration of industry self-censorship. The Studio Relations Committee was reconstituted as the Production Code Administration in 1934. It was more effective at this time.
This organization felt “if motion pictures present stories that will affect lives for the better, they can become the most powerful force for the improvement of mankind”. They recognized their responsibility to the public and because of this trust and also because in their views, entertainment and art were the most important influences in the life of a nation.
During the rapid transition from silent to talking pictures they realized the necessity of creating some type of guidelines that should be in place. Even though motion pictures were considered primarily as entertainment, they also felt that film could be directly responsible for spiritual or moral progress.
As a result of these codes, May began to use double talk so that a person could take a word or phrase anyway they wished. She also developed her works this way as a method to get her work past the censors; and it worked.
She really felt she had a vested interest because it was her written work that was being scrutinized. West had already written and performed these plays on stage and now they were being exposed to a whole new audience in film.
Mae West was the largest box office draw in the United States at the time. The frank sexuality and seamy settings of her films caught the attention of the moralists.
On July 1, 1934, the censorship of the Production Code began to be seriously and meticulously enforced. Mae’s scripts began to be heavily edited. Her answer was to increase the number of double entendres in her films. Her expectation was that the censors would delete the obvious lines and overlook the subtle ones.
Her next film was “Belle of the Nineties” which was made in 1934 and it was another hit. The movie was originally titled “It Ain’t No Sin”, but the title was changed due to the censor’s objection. By 1936, after filming “Klondike Annie” and “Go West Young Man” she was, at that time, the highest paid woman in the United States.
After the 1937 film, “Everyday’s a Holiday”, she didn’t make another film until she starred with W. C. Fields in another Mae West written movie entitled “My Little Chickadee” in 1940.
It was a well-known fact that Ms. West had ill feelings toward Fields because his ways were too crude even for her. She didn’t get along with Fields at all. She would not tolerate his drinking and since they were both accustomed to working with supporting players and not co-stars conflict ensued.
“My Little Chickadee” was a box office success and was more successful than all other W. C. Fields’ movies. It is said that the only way Fields and West could be in the same scene together was to film them separately; and then splice the film together.
Universal was so delighted with the success of the film and offered West two more movies to star with Fields. She refused citing the difficulty of working with Fields.
Her film “The Heat’s On” which was filmed in 1943, was her last film for a bit. Mae decided to take a break from the movie industry because the censors were getting stricter. It was harder to create her movies, even with the double talk to get past the stricter codes.
It was general practice in films of the 1930’s and 1940’s to skirt the issue of sex and hide violence behind foreground or within shadows. In addition, they never really treated serious subjects that were dealt with in the best-regarded novels of that era.
In so many instances, the Production Code Administration had their way against the wishes of filmmakers. They scuttled, weakened or diluted several scenes proposed by writers and directors of Hollywood film projects from 1934 to 1968.
When the Code went into effect all movies from the major studios were required to show an approved MPPDA logo.
There were three general principles:
1.No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.
2.Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented, and
3.Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.
In addition there was another section that was entitled Crimes Against the Law. There were several crimes listed that should never be presented in such a way as to throw sympathy with the crime as against law and justice, or to inspire others with a desire for imitation.
Some of the crimes included Murder, Theft, Arson, and the use of firearms were to be restricted to the essentials.
Also, methods of smuggling could not be presented and illegal drug traffic was never to be presented.
The use of liquor in American life, when not required by the plot or should be shown in proper context, otherwise it could not be shown.
Ms. West was known for her racy lines and sexy innuendo so there were a few portions mentioned throughout this code that Mae had to alter her movies for compliance. There was a complete section of the code dedicated to sex.
According to the code, the sanctity of the institution of marriage and home had to be upheld. Pictures could not infer that low forms of sexual relationships are accepted or a common thing. For example, the issue of adultery sometimes could be considered necessary to the plot, however it could not be explicitly treated, or justified, or presented in a positive light.
The code even had guidelines of “Scenes of Passion”. They could not be introduced if they weren’t essential to the plot. In addition, excessive and lustful kissing, lustful embraces, suggestive postures and gestures could not be shown.
In general passion had to be treated so that these scenes could not stimulate the lower and baser element. Mae West oozed sensuality. This category no doubt was stifling to many of Mae’s intentions on film.
Even before she had matured, the slinky, then dark haired Mae was performing a lascivious “shimmy” dance in 1913 and was photographed for a song sheet for the song “Everybody Shimmies Now”.
Her famous walk was said to have originated in her early years as a stage actress. West had special eight-inch platforms attached to her shoes to increase her height and enhance her stage presence.
Mae’s leave from film back to plays proved to be successful. When censors began to let up, she returned to film work in 1970 in Myra Breckinridge. She appeared in the role as Leticia Van Allen, which was a small role. The film failed miserably at the box-office but still was a racy film due to the sex change theme.
West regarded talking about sex as a basic human rights issue. She was also an early advocate of gay and transgender rights. She was reported as telling policemen who were raiding a gay bar, “Don’t you know you’re hitting a woman in a man’s body”.
This was definitely a daring statement since she spoke it in a time period when homosexuality was not accepted.
Her last film was in 1978 called Sextette which was a film that was based on the
successful play West wrote back in 1926. This film could have been a silent movie but instead fifty years later was developed. Even in the late seventies, the times where not liberal enough to accept the original title, “Sex” as they called it Sextette instead.
Allowances had to be made for a few things, such as her wig and slightly bizarre makeup and her slow movement from time to time but she obviously had taken care of herself and is able to show herself off in a series of beautiful gowns.
The film is set up so she can consistently deliver the one-liners that made her famous.
There was something different about Mae West, beginning with her appearance. It set her apart from the other actresses of the day. Mae has been described as a rather large billowing superblonde that talked through her nostrils. In addition it has been said that she was a Gay Nineties gal that was plunked down in the Flapper Age.
According to Simon Louvish, the author of her biography entitled “Mae West: It Ain’t No Sin”, it wasn’t the Production Code that affected her career but rather “ her inability to relate to anyone in any intimately persuasive way – that so quickly destroyed her screen career”.
The character that she created was completely of her on devise. Somehow this Brooklyn born woman who was sketchily educated at best made herself into a playwright as she would scribble her one-liners and develop primitive narratives around them.
The Code may have been able to tone down some of the personality of Mae West but she was a woman who would not be silenced. Her somewhat mannish ways in her blunt innuendo that continually spoke of the unmentionable sexual needs of a female.
Ms. West’s remarks were quick and veiled suggestion. They were not dirty and often playfully remarked dripping with sensual undertones.
Historians, however, suggest that her movie career declined so quickly because of the Production Code and their rather strict guidelines.
Mae West is unique in the history of “sex stars” in the movies because she was somehow able to play both the role of a sex goddess and simultaneously parody that same role. In addition, she was one of the first women to consistently write the movies she starred in.
In addition to her screen and stage career, Ms. West also could be heard on the radio. On December 12, 1937, she appeared on two separate sketches on Edger Bergen’s radio show that shocked both the listening and NBC executives. She appeared as herself, and was flirting heavily with Charlie McCarthy, Bergen’s dummy, speaking with her usual brand of sexy wit and risque sexual references.
She appeared even more risque in a sketch earlier in the show that was written by Arch Oboler. This sketch starred West and Don Ameche as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The conversation between the two was considered so risque and bordered on being blasphemous. She was banned from being featured, or even mentioned on the NBC network. Mae West didn’t appear on radio for another 31 years.
She also starred in her own Las Vegas stage show. She would sing and was surrounded by handsome body builders while she performed on stage. Many celebrities attended West’s shows including Judy Garland, Ethel Merman, Louis Armstrong, Liberace, and Jayne Mansfield. Jayne met and later married one of West’s muscle men, Mickey Hargitay. Mr. Hargitay was fired for that action.
Billy Wilder offered West the role of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. She refused and pronounced herself offended at being asked to play a “has-been” similar to the responses he received from Mary Pickford, Greta Garbo and Pola Negri. Ultimately, Gloria Swanson was cast in the role, which became immortal on celluloid.
In 1958, West appeared at the Academy Awards and performed the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” playfully with Rock Hudson.
In 1959, her autobiography was published by Prentice-Hall entitled, “Goodness Had Nothing to Do With It”.
West made some rare appearances on television where viewers reported astonishment at her youthful appearance and energy. In order to appeal to younger generations, she recorded two rock and roll albums which were received with financial success mainly due to her single “Treat Him Right” on the “Way Out West” album.
Near the end of her life, she was known for maintaining her surprisingly youthful appearance. West continued to surround herself with virile men for the rest of her life, employing companions, bodyguards and chauffeurs.
In the late summer of 1980, she suffered a stroke at her apartment and fell out of her bed. She rallied after being rushed to the hospital but suffered another stroke in November. She was sent home but her prognosis wasn’t good. She died in her apartment on North Rossmore Avenue in Hollywood at the age of 87.
Mae West will forever be remembered as the sexy vamp notorious for sexy her one-liners.
Bynum, Matt. (2006) The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 (Hays Code).
Received on December 12, 2006
Jackson, Denny. (1998). Mae West – The Actress Who Was Way Ahead of Her Time!
Received on December 12, 2006
Schickel, Richard. International Herald Tribune. (2006) Mae West. New York City.