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29 July 2016

How Mae West Saved Paramount Pictures

This is the story of how Mae West saved Paramount Pictures, one of the founding motion picture studios in Hollywood. It’s the story of artists and executives, though they’re sometimes the same person.
In 1913, Adolph Zukor was a successful businessman and immigrant from Hungary who had been a partner in a chain of movie houses for several years. Expanding his business, he set up the Famous Players Film Company. This company was first intended to distribute European films — since they were all silent, this was a lot easier then — but very soon began production in New York. The studio joined with producer Jesse Lasky to become Famous Players-Lasky, and Zukor’s business acumen led to the acquisition of many smaller production companies and theaters around the country.
Adolph Zukor circa 1913

Renamed Paramount, the company continued to expand throughout the twenties; but with the depression, the distribution business could not support the cost of production, and after decades of success Paramount was essentially broke.
Zukor was not willing to give up. He decided on one last throw of the dice. Broadway star and playwright Mae West had appeared in a “supporting” role in a George Raft vehicle, Night After Night, to sensational effect. Dissatisfied with the script, Mae would only agree to appear if she could write her own scenes (and be paid $5,000 a week!) — which not only display her to great advantage but clearly stand out as the best written, sharpest scenes in the whole movie, funny, sexy, and original.
Zukor knew that Mae West was a big name on Broadway and had been a successful playwright for years, reliably creating for herself, and performing in, vehicles that were popular with the public. Her hit play, Diamond Lil, was considered extremely racy but drew crowds. Paramount Pictures announced its intention to produce it as a major motion picture, sparing no expense in the production of a film set in the 1890’s, with elaborate sets and beautiful costumes.

Frankie and Johnny-- how shocking!
This did not sit well with the Hays Office, which was responsible for enforcement of censorship regulations. Eventually a compromise was worked out that changed the names of the play and the main characters, leaving the setting and plot largely intact. The heroine, Diamond Lil, was renamed Lady Lou (which seems like a pretty thin disguise), and the innocent young girl she rescues has been shanghaied into petty thievery, not prostitution. But that’s about it. If the censors thought that would make people forget about Diamond Lil, why enlighten them?
The story was retitled She Done Him Wrong. (This title was slightly racy in itself, since it paraphrased a line from the song Frankie and Johnny, which at that time was considered very shocking, for some mysterious reason. Just seeing it or saying it would have caused a slight feeling of naughtiness in the ultra-respectable.) Mae’s contract said that everything must be done “to her satisfaction” — a clause never seen before or since in any artist’s contract. It meant Mae had the final say on everything, from casting to music to costumes.
The director was Lowell Sherman, a director and actor of taste and vast experience (he was the villainous cad who betrayed Lillian Gish in D. W. Griffith’s 1920 Way Down East). The sumptuous, entirely original gowns were by Travis Banton’s studio, which in this case meant that they were designed — in close consultation with Mae — by Banton’s chief assistant, Edith Head. Often, no screen credit was given to art direction at this point, but an excellent job was done by Robert Usher, who went on to be Art Director on many important films — for credit — including This Gun for Hire and The Road to Morocco.

This was a class-A production. The film opens with an elaborate recreation of New York’s Bowery in the 1890’s, with horse-drawn carriages clip-clopping up and down the street. The audience was swept from the Depression-torn world of 1933 and enticed into a melodramatic (but sexy) story of glamorous, diamond-bedecked Lady Lou and the handsome undercover policeman known as The Hawk (played by an attractive young Cary Grant). It was funny, spicy, nostalgic, and culminated in quick action and dangerous doings.

A typical early 1930s gown worn by Norma Shearer
Mae’s gowns were spectacularly gorgeous and also completely unrelated to the fashions of 1933, which had evolved from the flat-fronted, short, straight look of the 1920’s into a slender, small-breasted, slim-hipped silhouette, and low-backed, unstructured silk and satin for evening. Mae’s hourglass figure, tight waists, full (to say the least) bosom, wide-brimmed, feathered hats, and sweeping skirts, created in glittering, sequined silks and velvets, added up to a look that blasted through the fashion world like a hurricane.

She Done Him Wrong was a tremendous success. It cost a whopping (for the time) $200,000 to produce, and brought in almost 2.5 million, more than ten time its cost. And it also received critical acclaim, receiving an Academy Award nomination for Outstanding Production (now Best Picture), and was named one of the best pictures of the year by the New York Times. The infusion of cash was a godsend to Paramount, which was pulled from the brink of dissolution and was able to re-structure and carry on into the future.

Lady Lou
In filmmaking, and especially in Hollywood, there is an inevitable tug-of-war between art and profit, dream and reality. Every now and then, however, a momentous decision will be based on simple belief in a creative artist. The enormous cost of movie making, even in 1932, made every production a gamble, but a big success could also pay off big. An executive with the imagination to take a chance on an unusual prospect was pretty rare — but it happened. Adolf Zukor bet that a relatively inexperienced (in movies), 38-year-old actress who in no way fit the mold of other female stars (whose value generally was supposed to decline every year after their 25th birthdays), would connect with the audience. And he was right.
And that’s how Mae saved Paramount.

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