"I believe in censorship. After all, I made a fortune out of it."
The name Mae West immediately calls to mind a witty sex symbol with an endless supply of bon mots, but she was much more than that. West was funny, smart, and driven to succeed. She was a champion of women’s sexual expression, and she spent her life testing the limits of what could be acceptable in entertainment.
Mary Jane West began a career in Vaudeville in 1907 at the age of 14. She worked in any kind of production she could find, and even wrote her own plays. Her first starring role on Broadway was at age 33 in a 1926 production called Sex, which West wrote under the name Jane Mast. The show ran for more than 300 performances before police raided a performance in February 1927 and arrested the cast on charges of obscenity. West garnered salacious headlines from the seven-day trial and was sentenced to 10 days incarceration, during which she dined with the warden and his wife while serving just eight days (she was released early on good behavior, although you can guess what West herself would say about that).
West gained more in acclaim than she lost from the incident, and the other play she had in the works kept the conversations about sex and sexuality in the limelight. The Drag dealt with homosexuality, and though West didn't write herself a role, the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice launched a campaign against the play based on an out-of-town preview. Their protest was taken seriously, and The Drag never opened in New York. A look back at the play shows that it was hardly prurient, but it did have liberal overtones and included a debate on the nature of homosexuality between a sympathetic doctor and a judgmental judge.
The experience of having her shows shut down based on their content steeled West for a lifetime of fighting censorship. West’s subsequent plays (and later movies) walked a fine line in order to draw publicity and ticket sales without being closed down.
Mae West landed her first Hollywood film in 1932, when she was almost 39 years old. That was considered over the hill even in the early days of Hollywood, but West was already famous, and she kept her age to herself for as long as possible. When she was given a small role in Night After Night, she rewrote her lines and blew audiences away. There would be no more small roles after that. In fact, West was soon writing her own films for Paramount Pictures. Four popular movies later and the Hays Code, Hollywood’s self-censoring rules which had existed for a few years, was finally starting to be enforced in Hollywood. Although there had previously been no penalties for breaking the code, suddenly theater owners were organized enough to refuse booking any movie that did. The fine line that West’s screenplays walked grew thinner. She still filled her screenplays with double entendres, but they were more obtuse—designed to be understood only by those who looked for them.
In March 1936, a congressional hearing was called to discuss “compulsory block booking” and “blind selling” in the motion picture industry. Opinions were offered as to the deleterious effects of motion pictures on youth. Many film titles were discussed, but Mae West’s name came to be the shorthand for referring to sexy films. It very clear that “Mae West films” were more in demand than the more wholesome fare, but the writing was on the wall: if Hollywood didn’t clean up its act, the government would get involved sooner or later.
West’s answer to the Hays Code was the 1936 movie Klondike Annie. West played Rose, a kept woman who commits murder to escape, and meets a Salvation Army missionary, Sister Annie Alden, as she sails to Alaska. When Alden dies, Rose takes her identity and continues to Alaska, where she cleans up the town, fills the church, and falls in love. The themes of religion and hypocrisy were a change for West, but the movie was still subject to censorship and eight minutes were cut. William Randolph Hearst, the only person in the country making as much money as West, was so incensed at a Mae West movie about religion that he forbade his newspapers to ever mention her name or her movies again. Klondike Annie was a hit anyway, but Paramount had decided she was more trouble than she was worth at that point. Scripts that followed the Hays Code weren’t nearly as funny as West’s earlier movies.
Radio was a battleground for West, too. In 1937, she appeared on The Chase and Sanborn Hour in a farcical play as Eve in the Garden of Eden, along with Don Ameche playing Adam, and in a later skit, with a ventriloquist dummy named Charlie McCarthy. The script played up West’s sexy demeanor, including her interactions with McCarthy, who was supposed to be an adolescent. The broadcast, unsurprisingly, brought complaints to the FCC from the Legion of Decency and other religious groups. The FCC launched an investigation and NBC blamed West, claiming that her tone of voice made the innocent script sound more bawdy and suggestive than intended. West was banned from the network, while the other (male) participants suffered no sanctions.
By 1938, when The Hollywood Reporter published an ad from the Independent Theatre Owners Association labeling her “box office poison,” West got caught up in a campaign to rid Hollywood of its most expensive stars along with Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, and Katharine Hepburn. But as someone who had spent her entire life testing boundaries, she wasn't about to stop because her studio wanted to dump her. West went on to make a few more movies for other studios, most notably My Little Chickadee with W.C. Fields in 1940. She returned to the Broadway stage, and in the 1950s, she took her innuendo-laden act to Las Vegas. West continued acting in TV and various motion pictures until her death in 1980, at age 87, when The New York Times called her "the epitome of playfully vulgar sex." Mae West had spent her entire life pushing the limits, even as they were pushing back.