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08 September 2018

Mae West Pitches a Screwball: Go West Young Man

The term "screwball comedy" usually means a slightly fantastic romantic plot, a willful female lead, a sparring couple who resist their mutual attraction, farcical misunderstandings, and witty dialog. It's not what people expect from a Mae West picture, but it's certainly what she delivered in Go West Young Man

A film within a film -- "Drifting Lady"

Go West Young Man is an on-the-mark parody of Hollywood and its stars. Mae gives one of her funniest performances as Mavis Arden, the top romantic star of Superfine Pictures, Incorporated. The movie opens with a pretty extensive film within a film, showing an extended scene from her latest opus. Drifting Lady is a pretty sly dig at 1930's style femme fatale movies like Mata Hari or Blonde Venus that tended to feature Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich as women of compelling charms who drive men to desperation. It features an insanely over-the-top exotic South American setting (designed by Wiard Ihnen, who was Edith Head's husband and an Oscar winner in his own right). Mae also sings one of her best songs, with a hip-swiveling Latin twist, backed by Xavier Cugat. We see the glamorous star through the eyes of her devoted fans at the film premiere. As always, screenwriter Mae builds up her character by having others describe her and heap praise on her before she even appears,

Drifting Lady includes a trendy mirror shot

After the film, Mavis thrills her fans with a charming if disorganized talk including a dramatic speech from the film:

"Remember me kindly for just a brief moment. When April comes around again with blue skies and sudden showers, remember that April woman who drifted into your life as casually as a summer cloud drifts over a green field, and then moves on."

These words seem to be good for any occasion; Mavis trots them out several times throughout the film. The rest of her speech quotes from A.K. Greenfield, the head of Superfine Pictures Incorporated. She tells her public that they would be amazed if they knew what an unaffected person she is at heart, and how she longs for a simple country home, instead of being forced to live in an Italian villa with a swimming pool in Hollywood. Watching from the wings is her studio publicist, Morgan (Warren William), who views these remarks with a skeptical eye. Mavis hustles offstage to dress for a date with a former beau, Harrigan (Lyle Talbot), who's now a well-known politician. Changing for her date, she dons one of her most astoundingly risque negligees; I can't imagine how they got away with it.

How they got away with this revealing negligee I'll never know

Banter between Mavis and Morgan reveals that his main job is to keep the susceptible star away from entanglements with men, and also that, despite their sparring, they are definitely attracted to each other, "I could like that guy if he wasn't so hard to get along with," she says. When he compliments her, she almost purrs. But then they start to bicker again. Clearly jealous, Morgan breaks up her date with Harrigan by informing the press that they are willing to be interviewed. After finding out that Mavis has arranged to meet him again in Harrisburg, Morgan sabotages her limousine to ensure that she will miss this date, as well. She finds herself marooned in the country, where the only place to stay until the car is fixed is a small guest house.

Mavis isn't thrilled with country life

The guest house is run by Mrs. Struthers (Alice Brady), a genteel widow, and Kate Barnaby (Elizabeth Patterson), her spinster aunt. Mrs. Struthers' daughter Joyce (Margaret Perry) and their maid Gladys (Isabel Jewell, very funny here) help out, and both are huge fans of Mavis. The older ladies are torn between excitement at having a famous star in their midst and their natural sense of superiority to the nouveau riche. Patterson is particularly funny, parodying Mae's walk, and saying of Mavis, "In my day, women with hair like that didn't come out in daylight."

Mavis is not at all pleased at this development, and is suspicious of Morgan's part in the whole situation. She is somewhat mollified, however, when she discovers that an extremely handsome young man owns the nearby local gas station -- Bud Norton, played by Randolph Scott. The prospect of an entertaining interlude with a fellow possessing "large and sinewy muscles" does a lot to reconcile Mavis to her enforced rustic weekend. He turns out to be a serious minded engineer, who has invented a new motion picture sound synchronizer. Scott, too, is funny in these scenes, as a young man so wrapped up in science that he literally doesn't notice when an international sex symbol drops from the sky right in front of his nose. There are a few moments when he appears to struggle to keep a straight face, but generally he is admirably deadpan.

Bud arouses Mavis' interest

This leads to some hilarious scenes of Mavis pretending to be interested in electronics as Bud earnestly explains the mechanics of his system, while she does her best to distract him into a little dalliance. She even sings another good song, "I Was Talking to the Moon."

She practically has to hit him with a brick to get his attention. This challenge piques her interest even more. In fact, she takes such a fancy to him that she plans to take him back to Hollywood. much to Morgan's chagrin.

Mavis finally gets Bud's attention and they dance all night

Meanwhile, through a series of farcical misunderstandings, the newspapers get the idea that Mavis has been kidnapped. The car is fixed, and Mavis and Morgan are ready to head back to Hollywood. Morgan has been able to detach Bud from Mavis' clutches by showing her some baby clothes Joyce has been knitting, deceiving her into believing that Bud has gotten Joyce "in trouble," and must do the honorable thing and stay and marry the girl. Mavis is outraged at this evidence of rural sin.

A baby sweater tells the story

"Fine goings on around here!"
"We haven't the right to cast the first stone," Morgan intones.
"Maybe you haven't, but I've got the right to cast the Rock of Gibralter if I want to. I thought she was a simple country girl," Mavis says.
"She was," Morgan says. "That was her undoing. A complete babe in the woods."
"Yeah, well, she should have kept out of the woods."
He further reminds her of a character she played who was in a similar situation in one of her biggest hits ("held over for ten weeks"), Purity and the Maiden. "I was marvelous in that part," she says reminiscently. Morgan sees that he has convinced her when she says dramatically that he must leave her alone to "commute with" herself.

"Just think of me as an April, uh, October woman..."

When she's ready to leave, she has an interview with Bud to tell him he can't come with her to Hollywood, asking him to remember her as " April -- an October woman, who drifted into his life." He seems puzzled by this, but Mavis is satisfied. But as she prepares to leave the house, she discovers that the baby clothes the ladies have been making are for Gladys' sister's baby -- not Joyce.

She may be tiny, but her right cross packs quite a wallop

Learning of Morgan's trick, Mavis' wrath is awesome, and she exacts justice with a solid right to the jaw (Mae was notoriously very strong.). She prepares to storm back to Hollywood and demand that he be fired. Only when a fleet of police cars arrive and Morgan is blamed for her kidnapping and arrested does Mavis realize that he's really the man for her, after all. She rescues him from the law, and they head back to Hollywood together in her limousine -- with the shades drawn.

Alone at last

Mavis is a slightly different character for Mae; for one thing. she's a little less focused and more easily distracted than, say, Rose Carleton, Flowerbelle Lee, or Tira. But she's basically good natured, honest, and does the right thing in the end. She attributes her frequent flare-ups to her "tragic, tragic temprament," but you get the feeling that this is something she feels she ought to have, as a bona fide movie queen, rather than something that comes naturally to her.

The supporting cast is excellent; they are all funny in themselves, but Elizabeth Patterson, as Kate Barnaby, the wise and tart-tongued spinster, is a standout, as usual. Her imitation of Mae's walk is a treat. Warren William must have been the sexiest man in Hollywood, which is sort of cute considering that in real life he was a devoted homebody. But there was apparently no actress he could not strike sparks with, and Mae is no exception. He shows Morgan's ironic appreciation of Mavis' spirit, as well as support for her based on real affection.

This is a really fun movie, but you shouldn't expect another She Done Him Wrong or I'm No Angel. Mavis Arden is not a wisecracker; it's her whole world view that's funny. This is Mae's take on one of the most popular forms of the day. The term "screwball" has its origin in sports that depend on pitching a ball, cricket and baseball; it basically means that the ball is thrown so that it travels in the opposite direction than it seems to, confusing the batter. In Go West Young Man Mae takes possession of the ball, and she spins it in her own unique direction.

Elizabeth Patterson has the last word