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19 March 2017

Bighearted Beauty: Mae West's First Appearance in Night After Night

Mae West’s first screen appearance in the vaguely Damon Runyon-esque George Raft vehicle Night After Night, 1932 (actually from a story by the prolific Louis Bromfield) sets the pattern for her own eight features. Her role in the film, like her other films and plays, is self-penned; she only agreed to do it if she could write her own scenes. And the freshness and vigor of these scenes electrify the whole movie, which is otherwise a pretty conventional tough guy/classy girl romance. Though I must say Raft is at his best here, in a very appealing performance as Joe Antone, a former gangster turned nightclub proprietor who’s trying to better himself. He owns a speakeasy housed in an old New York mansion, which turns out to be the childhood home of a society girl, Jerry Healy (Constance Cummings), who has lost her fortune. Out of nostalgia, she visits the club alone, and Joe falls for her.

Mae’s character, Maudie Triplett, an old flame of Joe's, doesn’t even appear until the film is half over. When she does appear, she’s pursued by such a crowd of admirers that she can hardly be seen; sending them about their business, she enters the ritzy nightclub where all the action takes place and sets the tone for the future with one of her most famous wisecracks. As she drops her gorgeous pale velvet white fox trimmed wrap off with the cloakroom attendant, the dazzled girl exclaims, “Goodness, what beautiful diamonds!”
Maudie arrives with panache

“Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie,” Mae replies cheerfully, sashaying in her glittering splendor towards the stairs leading to the main room. There is nothing crass or snappish about her reply; on the contrary, she wears a happy smile, proud of her successes as symbolized by the array of diamonds.

She looks almost like the Mae of her own vehicles; she had finalized her golden blonde look in this, her first major movie appearance, but her hair and makeup are not as becoming as they would be in later films where she had total control. And instead of an 1890s hourglass gown, here she wears a typical evening gown of the period, of heavy white satin, beaded, low cut and low backed, with wrists loaded with sparkling diamond bracelets, a sequined evening bag, and white kid gloves to carry. She strides — as much as a lady as tiny as she was can stride — across the crowded room with perfect self assurance, greeting her old flame with every expectation of a warm welcome.

The following scenes display the basic mores of her character. After some reminiscent chit chat between Maudie and Joe, the star-crossed couple go off to tour the house, throbbing with mutual angst, and Maudie is left to make friends with Miss Mabel Jellyman, the upper-crust lady Joe has hired to teach him culture. Maudie determines that Miss Jellyman needs to loosen up and learn to enjoy herself.

"You've been buried, dearie," she says. After a few more glasses of champagne, the two ladies seem to bond, with Maudie encouraging Mabel to live a little. She's never been offered all the champagne she can drink before.
"Maudie and I have a great deal in common," Mabel tells Joe sentimentally, on his return.
"You said it, baby," Maudie says.
"Maudie, do you really think I could get rid of my inhibitions?"
"Why, sure, I've got an old trunk you can put 'em in."
"Hotcha!" Mabel downs another glass of bubbly.
Mabel and Maudie bond over champagne

Now the boring romantic plot intervenes; Joe runs into trouble with another old flame (Wynne Gibson) -- this one none too friendly -- and some rival gangsters looking to take over his place. But in the next scene written by Mae, we see Mabel lying miserably in bed, clad in a slip, moaning, next to Maudie, who seems to be as perky as ever. It is apparently the next day. Maudie arises and, in a helpful spirit, brings her friend a hangover cure and an ice bag for her head.
"Conscious now, dearie?" she says.
Mabel sits up, horrified. "I've got to teach a class this morning!" she exclaims.
"Not this morning, dearie," Maudie says. "It's 4:30 in the afternoon."
Mabel is even more distressed. "What will Miss Prinny say? It's my livlihood."

Maudie, clad only in an extremely revealing satin nightgown, and showing a great deal of perfect, fair skin (Mae's back is beautiful), encourages Mabel to make this the turning point in her constricted life — and offers her a job. Somewhat to Maudie’s surprise, Mabel — who has been bemoaning her boring teaching job since the night before -- hesitates.
Miss Jellyman tries to refuse politely

There follows a marvelous exchange, funny, original, and probably a real headache for the censors, because it becomes clear that Mabel assumes Maudie is a prostitute or at least a madam, and nervously tries to refuse this surprising offer without offending her new friend.

"Why, a gal with your poise and class would make thousands in my business," Maudie declares.
"Your business? Are you asking me to come into your business?"

"Why, of course, why not? It's one of the best paying rackets in the world."

"Well ... I realize that your business has been a great factor in the building of civilization... and of course it has protected our good women, and thereby preserved the sanctity of the home. And there were such women as Cleopatra .. and France owes a great deal to DuBarry. But me, dear," Mabel falters, "Don't you think I'm just a little old?"

"Say, " Maudie says, "what kind of a business do you think I'm in?"

"Oh, please, don't lets say any more about it."

Maudie finally realizes what the problem is, and reveals that she’s the owner of a chain of beauty parlors. She thinks Mabel would be an excellent choice for a refined and classy hostess for her new salon in Manhattan (the Institute de Beaute), at one hundred dollars a week plus a percentage. Mabel is incoherent with joy, and has to hug the forgiving Maudie. And notice that this whole misunderstanding is cleverly structured so that the person mentioning the unmentionable is the innocent, high-class lady, not the sexy entrepeneuse.

All is forgiven
In fact, none of Maudie’s dialog classifies as double-entendre; she’s simply an irresistibly attractive woman of the world, and glad to be one. She likes men, and men like her. What’s the problem?

The rest of the plot resolves itself rather unconvincingly with Joe evading the gangsters and, despite some harsh words and turmoil, winning the girl. But it's hard to care very much, though, again, Raft is very good in this one.

But most people, it turned out, would rather see Maudie. This character and these scenes, though not as developed as her later work — Maudie is a little more raucous than her later characters — define Mae’s vision. They show the three pillars of her iconic status, her entirely original view of what a hero is, and what life should be. An artist puts what is most important to her in her art, not necessarily in interviews or biographies. I don’t know if Mae was ever quoted as saying what she believed; I just know what her body of work says.

"I know just how you feel, honey!" As Tira in I'm No Angel
First — and this is perhaps what remains so refreshing about Mae West, nearly 100 years later  — sex makes her happy. There is no guilt or shame or self-denial or self-hatred in her approach to sex; it is not a cause for hand-wringing or recrimination. It’s joyous. It’s as if she’s saying, Wow, isn’t it great that we can do this? Think of the fun we can have! It’s something of a sad commentary that after all the liberation of the last century we still need to see this.

Next is her approach to self development. Mae always has supreme confidence in herself. If she wants to learn how to do something, she does, whether it’s riding an elephant, singing an aria from grand opera in French, speaking Chinese, preaching a sermon, or singing a torch song with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. You'll never see her standing around waiting to be rescued; she's the hero, and she does the rescuing. The problems that come up in the story she's telling are solved by her actions. You can achieve what you want to achieve — believe in yourself. That’s her advice to everyone.
Klondike Annie: Rose chats with Fah Wong -- in Chinese

And the third of Mae’s great values is her willingness to help other people, male and female. She is not the type of femme fatale that hates other women; on the contrary, she wants to help everyone be all that they can be. She helps the Mission next door in She Done Him Wrong, talks her friend Thelma through her man troubles and freely gives walking around money to her ex-con ex-boyfriend in I’m No Angel, rescues her Chinese maid, cares tenderly for her friend Annie when she becomes ill, and helps out a pitiful drunk at the mission she has established in Klondike Annie. She’s always kind and encouraging. She’s friendly to scrubwomen, chauffeurs, waiters, stage extras, messengers, and especially to her maids, with whom she always has a special, confidential relationship, which carried over into real life.These actresses are playing maids, it's true; but they had screen time, lines, and screen credit.

Tira and the girls do a spontaneous song and dance in I'm No Angel
Mae West’s continuing fame today, thirty years after her death is partly because all of these things are so positive, so loving, and so eternally valuable to all of us. Some contemporary critics remarked that she seemed to have a special relationship with her audience — that they loved her, and she loved them. I don’t think Mae was, and is, loved because she was outrageous, titillating, or shocking, but because of her joy at being human. She’s not a femme “fatale” at all, but a femme “vitale.” Her humor is not mean; her double entendres are not degrading. Because she was ultimately responsible for her films more than any other star, her voice and message are more consistent, without interference from studio, screenwriter, or director. The viewer could be sure a Mae West film would not be denigrating to people of any sex, race, ethnic group, or class, but would instead celebrate life, and turn out to be, in her inimitable way, uplifting.

(Note: Here is a link to a wonderful 1940 letter from Mae regarding a contribution she gave to the Jewish Home for the Aged posted on the terrific blog:
Mae West Letter to JHA )

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