Today, August 17, is Mae West’s birthday. “Mae West: Advice,” the song that closes out my upcoming recording Dynamic Maximum Tension, is dedicated to her. It features the divine Cécile McLorin Salvant on vocals and the incomparable Ingrid Jensen on trumpet.
Mae West is a fascinating figure who deftly navigated multiple eras of American popular entertainment. She began her career as a teenager on the vaudeville circuit in the 1900s, transitioned to Broadway in the 1910s, and by the 1920s was writing, producing, and starring in her own plays. The first of these, called (forthrightly) Sex, was raided by the NYPD’s Vice Squad and earned West a 10-day jail sentence for obscenity and “corrupting the morals of youth” — a sentence she accepted with aplomb. At her indictment, she quipped, “I expect this will be the making of me.”
In 1932, at age 39, West arrived in Hollywood. Her small role in Night After Night was an instant sensation — as the film’s star, George Raft, said, “she stole everything but the cameras.” Box office revenues had plummeted during the Great Depression and many film studios stood on the verge of bankruptcy. West’s popularity single-handedly saved Paramount Pictures, and so she was able to command an extraordinary amount of creative control: she wrote her own screenplays, selected her own co-stars — she’s the one who put Cary Grant on the map as a leading man — and had final approval over her costumes and lighting. When negotiating her contract with Paramount head Adolph Zukor, she asked him how much he made, then told him “I want a dollar more.” She got it, and by the mid-thirties was not just the highest-paid woman in Hollywood, but (reportedly) the second-highest paid person in America after William Randolph Hearst.
West’s persona couldn’t have been more different from the typical willowy, doe-eyed innocent starlet. She was smart, razor-tongued, and insatiable in every way — in I’m No Angel, she shows off a trunk full of jewels, decorated with photos of all the men who gave them to her — and audiences loved her for it. She played an autobiographical persona of her own creation: a woman who came up from nothing on the strength of her wits, and wouldn’t be taken advantage of by high society swells and bucks. Her films are primarily vehicles for her one-liners, which she delivered in her signature, oft-imitated purr:
“Tira, I changed my mind.”
“Yeah, does it work any better?”
“Young lady, are you trying to show contempt for this court?“
“No, I’m doing my best to hide it.”
“His mother should’ve thrown him away and kept the stork.”
As on Broadway, anxiety about the sexual innuendo in West’s films resulted in another moral panic. Early Hollywood films were theoretically governed by a set of self-imposed content guidelines, more honored in the breach than the observance. All that changed in 1934, when organizations like Catholic Legion of Decency pressured the studios into creating the Production Code Administration, the final arbiter of what could be shown on screen. The PCA’s censor-in-chief, an officious, virulently anti-Semitic figure named Joseph Breen, pledged: “The vulgar, the cheap, and the tawdry is out. There is no room on the screen at any time for pictures which offend against common decency.” This included prohibitions against the depiction of drug use, “suggestive dances,” and interracial romance.
Breen was determined to crack down on Mae West in particular. Her first film to be made under the new production code was supposed to be called It Ain’t No Sin — West was forced to change the title to Belle of the Nineties. West’s character, Ruby Carter, was originally written as a prostitute — that part of her backstory had to be dropped. One song from the film, “Creole Man,” has lyrics about smoking dope with a lover who has “warm high brown skin” — that tune was inevitably cut.
However, West did succeed in getting Duke Ellington and his orchestra attached to the picture, over Paramount’s objections, giving Duke & co their feature film debut. They back her on “My Old Flame,” a song originally written for the movie, and get some screen time on “Memphis Blues,”including a fun bit of business where drummer Sonny Greer tosses a stick to Duke, and he flips it right back to Sonny behind his back. Belle of the Nineties also includes an incredibly striking scene depicting a Black revival meeting in New Orleans, in a montage cross-cut with West watching from her balcony and singing “Troubled Waters.” West was deeply influenced by Black vaudeville performers like Bert Williams and blues singers like Bessie Smith, and was always careful to note that her signature shimmy came from watching Black dancers. Like any white artist engaging seriously with Black music and culture — then and now — there are a lot of fraught issues to unpack, but West is unusually progressive for the era in consistently crediting Black performers as her primary influences.
(West also had a number of Black lovers, including prizefighter William Landon Jones. When the management of the Ravenswood, the Hollywood apartment where she lived, tried to bar Jones from coming up to see her, she bought the building.)
For someone who was by far the most popular star of her era, Mae West’s films remain maddeningly difficult to view today. Of her classic Paramount films, only She Done Him Wrong and Klondike Annie are available for streaming or digital rental. A few more can currently be found on YouTube; these are mostly unlicensed so they tend to come and go. Physical media is really the best solution here — I was only able to watch Belle of the Nineties by acquiring it on Blu-Ray.
Cécile McLorin Salvant and I have been collaborators since the premiere of her incredible song-cycle Ogresse, which I arranged and conduct. When I was looking for words to set to music for Cécile to sing with my band, as soon as I read “Mae West: Advice” I knew I had found the perfect thing. The poem is by Paisley Rekdal, who I met during an artist residency at Civitella Ranieri. Her text is a mix of genuine Westisms (despite the number of cigarettes she goes through on-screen, West abhorred smoking and wouldn’t allow it in her presence) and invented aphorisms. (“Fake news,” according to Paisley.) The poem is a sonnet, and the final line, a genuine West quote — “Don’t be a noodle: be cool and collect” — provides the allowable pool of letters to be used in the rest of the poem. Paisley actually has a series of West-inspired poems collected in her book Imaginary Vessels; she talks about what drew her to Mae West in this interview.
You’ll be able to hear “Mae West: Advice” when Dynamic Maximum Tension is released on September 8, but until then, here’s a preview: