24 April 2016

Mae West: Visionary in Satin and Lace

Watch the nine feature films in the new DVD collection Mae West:
The Essential Collection and you might notice something unusual. Look past the glamor, the humor, the sexiness, the gowns, the diamonds, the stories of personal triumph, and you will also find something that is conspicuous by it’s absence in some classic films — people of all genders and ethnicities being treated with respect.
Mae's philosophy, as it is found in her screenplays, was that it mattered what you did, not what color you were, what language you spoke, what your job was, or how rich or poor you were. Her heroic persona -- and she is always the hero of he films, never a damsel in distress waiting for someone else to rescue her -- is based on being fair and honest with everyone, male or female, native-born or immigrant, white or non-white. (At least emotionally honest -- true, she is a con artist in Every Day's a Holiday, but she does after all reform!) If you were a fair-minded person who kept your word, you were all right with Mae.

Mae is friendly and helpful to a remarkable variety of people throughout these films, from her series of devoted maids (one of whom was her devoted maid, Libby Taylor), including the Chinese maid (Soo Young) she rescues in Klondike Annie, and the humble little missionary, Annie herself (Helen Jerome Eddy), her Native American henchman (Tito Coral) and her cowboy friends in Goin' to Town, to her lawyer pal Benny Pinkowitz (Gregory Ratoff) and assorted muscular acrobats (including Nat Pendleton) in I’m No Angel, to the innocent upper class lady (Alison Skipworth) she befriends in Night After Night. If she can do somebody a good turn, she will.
Mae befriends a society lady

She’s always willing to give people a chance to atone for their mistakes and start over. She never holds a grudge, and is always willing to forgive and forget. She gives Slick (Ralf Harolde), her former boyfriend who is now an ex-con, money to help him get a new start in I’m No Angel; she’s happy to reminisce over old times with Joe (George Raft) in Night After Night, but she doesn’t begrudge him a new love affair. Friends and those in need can rely on her generosity; the frightened, suicidal “ruined” girl (Rochelle Hudson) in She Done Him Wrong, her friend Thelma (Dorothy Peterson) in the carnival in I’m No Angel, Annie the missionary, who Mae (as Rose Carlton) cares for when she becomes ill, and indeed the whole city of New York in Every Day’s a Holiday, are all recipients of her benevolence.
The roots of this tolerance and respect might have stemmed from her own position in society as a “bad woman” (as my grandmother termed it), which must have caused her some discomfort some time. But to Mae, what mattered wasn’t conformity to some stodgy social convention, but being a stand-up gal (or guy). 

It’s hard for us to remember now that this was actually a fresh viewpoint in 1932; but even during the depths of the Depression and the upheaval it
Discussing a gentleman's attributes with the girls

caused, the social order appeared unscathed in many movies (Dinner At Eight, Jewel Robbery, or A Bill of Divorcement, to name a few). But in Mae’s world, what makes you important isn’t money — it’s character.
A special word should be said about Mae’s relations with the black people in her movies. She speaks to her maids like a friend and confidante, joking with them about her gentleman friends —
Tira and Beulah share a joke
and theirs — and praises them to others, like the wealthy Jack Clayton (Cary Grant) in I’m No Angel. She went out of her way to insist that musicians like Duke Ellington and his Orchestra in Belle of the Nineties and Louis Armstrong (leading a parade of city workers and dancing up a storm) in Every Day’s a Holiday appear  on screen. This was not always done in Hollywood then;  the studio executives didn’t see why they shouldn’t hire actors to impersonate musicians for the camera, and then hire some anonymous
Mae sings after-hours with the Duke Ellington Orchestra
instrumentalists to play the soundtrack. Mae wasn’t having this.  It’s amazing to realize this now, but Mae’s numbers with the Ellington band are the first time a white person performed with black musicians on screen. And they did so with an implied background of social intimacy. Besides accompanying her onstage, they are ready after hours to back her in numbers they have obviously all enjoyed doing together before.
The world has changed so much that it is difficult to grasp what a challenge to the accepted social order these things were. But they were. A hero is a role model. And the statement being made was that an irresistibly attractive, witty, accomplished hero like Mae felt that it was right to treat everyone equally, without regard to labels. So in her own way she pulled some bricks out of the wall.