Sunday, June 14, 2020

American Masters: Mae West

Tom Cruise, Eddie Murphy, Robert Evans, and Sherry Lansing all owe Mae West a debt of gratitude, because she single-handedly saved Paramount Pictures from insolvency. In addition to starring in studio-saving hits like She Done Him Wrong, she wrote the screenplays and exerted more control over every aspect of their production than any other star of her era, regardless of gender or genre. As a result, she became an icon and a cliché in her own time. The classic sex symbol of golden age Hollywood gets the respectful TV profile treatment in Mae West: Dirty Blonde, directed by Julia Marchesi & Sally Rosenthal, which premieres Tuesday as part of the current season of American Masters.

It was vaudeville and Broadway where West first made her name. In West’s case, “making her name” also entailed serving eight days of not-very-hard prison time on an obscenity charge for her play Sex. Given her notoriety, signing West was a Hail Mary pass for the sinking Paramount studio, but she delivered. Unfortunately, her success also helped usher in the schoolmarm-ish Production Code (a.k.a. the “Hays Code”) that put a stop to much of the risqué fun.

West only has thirteen screen credits to her name, but she remains one of the most recognizable and imitated stars of her era. Frankly, many of her in/famous double-entendres still sound naughty. If anything, she is probably long overdue for an in-depth documentary for popular audiences.

Dirty Blonde mostly fits that bill. However, it is often unintentionally funny when its on-camera talking heads twist themselves into pretzels trying to position West as an early feminist paragon. In truth, West was a capitalist, God bless her. She figured out sex sells, especially when it is pitched by a confidently saucy persona.

Alas, most of West’s co-stars from the 1930s and 1940s are no longer with us and those who appeared in her two notorious 1970s films, Myra Breckenridge and Sextette, might understandably wish to forget them. However, the one exception is a legend in his own right, West’s co-star in the latter, Ringo Starr.
West’s ribald wit is still shamelessly entertaining ninety-some years later. Dirty Blonde will inspire fresh new respect for the classic sex symbol, especially when we learn West forced the reluctant Paramount to hire Duke Ellington and his orchestra for Belle of the Nineties. So, she had good taste when it came to music. As for her films, the black-and-white ones are good.

West herself would probably roll her eyes at some of the American Masters commentary, but it is still jolly good fun to watch West being West. Recommended for fans of pre-Code Hollywood, Mae West: Dirty Blonde airs this coming Tuesday (6/16), on PBS stations nationwide.