|Mae's New Year's Eve gown|
This was a momentous event that Mae,who was seven years old at the time, would have remembered, as would many of the cast and crew, including director Eddie Sutherland, and actors Edmund Lowe, Charles Winninger, Walter Catlett, and Herman Bing. Perhaps this explains the aura of authenticity and real excitement in the opening scenes. The story begins with Mae, as beautiful crook Peaches O'Day, a wildly successful con artist, selling the Brooklyn Bridge to an unsuspecting mark. Then she meets up with a handsome police detective, Captain McCarey (Lowe), who warns her that the crooked Police Commissioner "Honest John" Quade (wonderful Lloyd Nolan) has it in for her and is looking for any excuse to arrest her. It's pretty obvious he's in love with her, but she says she could never go for a cop.
Wending her way homeward, she encounters another likely mark, Graves (Butterworth), whom she mistakes for a rich society swell -- but he turns out to be not a millionaire, as she hoped, but the butler of a millionaire, the irascible and eccentric Mr. Van Doon (Winninger). Though a straight-laced recluse, on being introduced to Peaches his whole outlook changes, and he too is ready for a night on the town. After a brief stop to burgle a department store, they all go out together to celebrate the new century.
They end up at Rector's, one of the most famous of New York's historic restaurants. The set is spectacular, with multi-level dining areas, mirrored walls, and glittering chandeliers. Rector's was a true marvel among restaurants, at once glamorous, since it was patronized by the stars of both the legitimate and the vaudeville stage, fashionable, as the haunt of the wealthy upper-crust, and also elite, a home for true gourmet fare.
The multi-level dining room became famous for its luxury and beauty, with green silk wallcoverings and hangings, marble staircase, pristine white damask linens, and unique monogrammed dishes, glassware, and tableware.
|A menu from Rector's|
The menu gives an idea of the lavishness the New Year's celebration must have offered.
Mr Rector, the proprietor, is played by his son, George Rector. Upper-crust New Yorkers pack the place, dressed to the nines, but no one can equal Mae, in a gorgeous sequined Schiaparelli gown. Everyone has a whale of a time.Van Doon introduces her as his niece, who has been away at finishing school in France.
"When did you get back, dear?" a society lady inquires.
"I just finished," Peaches replies sweetly.
Peaches meets an old friend, Nifty (Walter Catlett) a theatrical producer who has the perfect show for her -- but the heat is on, and the Police Commissioner would certainly not allow Peaches to star in a show without trying to arrest her. But Nifty, Peaches has an idea. He knows just how she can be a major star and not get caught. She'll be somebody else! Peaches approves of this plan; "With one more brain, you'd be a genius," she tells him approvingly.
|Edmund Lowe as Capt, McCarey, Mae West as Peaches|
In furtherance of this plan, she even pretends to take a ship for Boston, leaving New York -- and Captain McCarey -- for good.
A few months later, a fabulous new musical comedy star arrives in town -- from France. It's Mademoiselle Fifi, "ze dark-haired woman of mystery." This is a cheerful and sly parody of various popular French chanteuses, particularly Irene Bordoni, who had made a hit in sophisticated New York with heavily accented but naughty songs like "Don't Look at Me That Way," written for her by Cole Porter. Fifi's wardrobe also seems to reference the elaborate costumes of turn-of-the-century Ziegfeld star (and spouse) Anna Held, who was not actually French but everyone thought she was.
|Anna Held. Some hat!|
Whatever Mae's actual fluency (I can only point out that she was fluent enough to sing an aria from the opera Samson et Delilah in French in her film Goin' to Town), Peaches' French accent is good enough to fool the New York audience of 1900.
I am particularly fond of the hilarious show-within-a-show that introduces Mademoiselle Fifi, which is a wonderful combination of Mae's shrewd self promotion and parody of the show business shorthand of ethnic cliche.
The show opens with a scene of Paris, complete with Eiffel Tower, Moulin Rouge, gendarmes, flower sellers, top-hatted boulevardiers, and, of course, artists wearing berets, pointed mustachios, and smocks. Each group proclaims devotion to the beautiful Fifi, building up her entrance with a song that begins with the artists:
"We paint ze picture, We paint Fifi
We paint ze eyes, We paint ze hair,
We paint her here, We paint her there
And everywhere we paint Fifi!"
Then they are all overcome with Gallic enthusiasm as Fifi's carriage, pulled by two white ponies, approaches, and they all sing:
"She comes! She comes! Oh la la la la la!
Fifi! Tres jolie! Speak to me, Fifi!"
This whole scene is at once spectacular and endlessly funny, a very affectionate burlesque of the many wildly overproduced shows that were so popular around the turn of the century. Mae must have seen many of them, enjoying the extravagance while seeing the humorous side.
Capt. McCarey, who is in the audience, guesses who she is but has no intention of giving her away. Naturally, Mlle. Fifi becomes the toast of New York, and the Police Commissioner becomes enamored of her. In fact, he threatens to close the show if she doesn't look on more favorably. Peaches, not one to let an opening slip by, visits him in his office -- with an entourage including two wolfhounds, who she hands over to an assistant saying grandly, "Take the babies out for some air -- have some yourself." There follows another hilarious scene between Fifi and the Commissioner (Lloyd Nolan is priceless here) whom she whips into shape with a display of exotic French temperament, while behind his back she neatly lifts the criminal file on Peaches O'Day, so he can't lay a finger on her in any persona
|Fifi: "I'm so temperamental I even annoy myself!"|
A word should also be said about Edmund Lowe, one of her best leading men. For one thing, he looks absolutely perfect in the role of a police detective of 1899. And he views the Peaches/Fifi character with a sort of humorous affection that is very charming.
|Louis Armstrong sings, dances, and plays|
Peaches calls out all her show business friends for a political rally, ending up with a big parade and, finally, a performance by guest star Louis Armstrong. Armstrong loved parades, and dances and plays up a storm -- accompanied by Mae on drums. In fact, I believe he had quite a hit record with the song written for him, "Jubilee." It was originally planned that Armstrong have a speaking role, but he later explained that he knew Mae so well (mainly from the Cotton Club) that he kept calling her "Mae" instead of Peaches that they decided to dispense with the lines.
|A ladylike little drum kit|
This movie starts and ends with a celebration; maybe that's one reason it's so thoroughly jolly. It's a flat out comedy, and when you think about it, there's nothing particularly risque about it. Sure, Peaches depends on her beauty and sex appeal, but nothing actually happens, even with eventual boyfriend McCarey. I suppose this could be disconcerting to those who only think of Mae West as a sex goddess; but she was so much more than that. In this movie she shows an expert hand both as screenwriter and star, and the result is happy, good-humored fun -- with lots of feathers, lace, and sequins!
New Year's Eve, 1899, was a big event all around the world. Here are some other souvenirs:
|Piccadilly Circus, London, 12/31/1899|
|12/31/1899, Vienna, Austria|
|A New Year's Card, 1899|