I'm Barbara Klein.
And I'm Steve Ember with People in America in
VOA Special English. Today we tell about film actress Mae West. She was also a
writer, producer and businesswoman. The sexual nature of her life and art
represented her liberal and often disputed ideas. Her funny jokes have become
part of the language of American popular culture.
West was born in Brooklyn, New York in eighteen ninety-three. Her father, John
West, had several jobs but started his career as a competitive fighter. Mae's
mother, Matilda, played an important role in developing her daughter's career
as an entertainer.
Mae started to perform in local theater groups as a young
child. By nineteen-oh-seven she was part of a national vaudeville tour that
performed across the country. Vaudeville
was a theatrical show with several entertainers performing songs, dances and
jokes. Vaudeville was very popular in the United States during the early
Mae West was about eighteen years old she started performing on Broadway, the
famous theater area of New York City. She appeared in many musical shows such
as "Hello, Paris" and "A la Broadway." For the next fifteen years she sang and
danced in both Broadway and vaudeville shows.
the middle nineteen twenties, Mae West started to write, produce and act in her
own plays. She also started to create the sexual jokes that would make her
famous -- and also get her into trouble. Her first Broadway play was called
The play was very popular, but soon closed temporarily.
City officials put Mae West in jail for more than a week. The police arrested
her because they said the play was not moral. Mae West knew that this incident
would make her a national success --- and it did.
Serving time in jail did not stop West from writing more
plays or causing new disputes over their sexually suggestive subject matter. In
fact, she said that she learned from her jail experience. She said the people
she met in jail influenced the characters she later created.
Mae West wrote many kinds of theatrical productions,
but some details remained the same. Her humor was often sexual. But her jokes
had two meanings. Her statements were humorous and intelligent because they
could be understood in two different ways. She was also funny because she
greatly overstated her sexy nature and love for men. Mae West always played the role of a young
and strong woman. She also made sure that she always had the biggest role. She wanted everyone to know she was the star
and she was in charge.
of her most famous plays was called "Diamond Lil." Mae West made careful
choices when writing this play so that it would be popular with a wide
audience. She set the play in a famous New York City area called the Bowery.
Audiences knew the history of this dangerous area. West also had the story take
place in the late nineteenth century. She knew that the clothing from this
period looked good on her large and curvy body. She thought that older people
would like the time period. Female audiences would like her rich clothing. And
younger people would like the play's action and sexy style.
plays a singer named Lil who works in a saloon, a public drinking place. She
walks around in very tight, shiny dresses. She has shiny, golden, wavy
hair. She wears diamond jewels and large
hats. She has many lovers and adventures.
Lil" was a big success. It was performed more than three hundred times on Broadway. Then it was performed all over the
country. Lil became the most
representative example of Mae West's characters. It was a role she would play
many times in her life.
"Diamond Lil" shows the way Mae West appeared
in many of her productions, and even in real life. Mae West once said: ''It
isn't what I do, but how I do it. It
isn't what I say, but how I say it, and how I look when I do it and say it."
stock market crash of nineteen twenty-nine, Mae West faced a difficult period.
Many theaters could no longer remain open in this time of economic depression.
She also had to deal with legal battles over the disputed subjects of her
plays. Her latest musical was a failure on Broadway. And, in nineteen thirty
her mother died. It was soon time for Mae West to make a change.
nineteen thirty-two Mae West moved to Hollywood, California to start her film
career. Her first film was called "Night After Night." At first, Mae West had refused to be in the
film because she was not satisfied with her character. But the producer allowed
her to rewrite parts of the story. West helped give the film a special humor
The next year she starred in the movie "She Done Him
Wrong." This was the film version of her successful play, "Diamond Lil". But
making this movie was not easy. The Hays
Office had forbidden several of Mae West's plays such as "Diamond Lil" from
being made into movies. The Hays Office was in charge of enforcing a severe
production code. This code controlled what was considered morally acceptable
subject matter for American movies.
make this movie, the producers changed the name of the play and its characters.
And Mae West brought her intelligence to the film. She created sexy statements
that the Hays Office had to accept.
Instead of direct sexual comments, she perfected her sexually suggestive
this film, Cary Grant plays the role of Mae West's main love interest, Captain
Cummings. This is one of Cary Grant's earliest roles. He soon became a big
Hollywood star. In this scene from the
movie, Mae West makes her most famous statement. Her character, Lady Lou, is in
love with Captain Cummings. She is trying to get him to "come up and see her."
LADY LOU: "You know, I always did like a man in a
uniform. That one fits you grand. Why
don't you come up sometime and see me…I'm home every evening."
CAPTAIN CUMMINGS: I'm busy every evening.
LADY LOU: "Busy? So what are you trying to do, insult
CAPTAIN CUMMINGS: "Why no! Not at all. I'm just busy,
that's all. You see, we're holding meetings in Jacobsen's Hall every evening.
Anytime you have a moment to spare, I'd be glad to have you drop in. You're
more than welcome."
LADY LOU: "I heard you. But you ain't kidding me any.
You know, I've met your kind before. Why don't you come up sometime, huh?"
CAPTAIN CUMMINGS: "Well, I…"
LADY LOU: "Don't be afraid, I won't tell. Come up, I'll
tell your fortune."
made Mae West a great success. "Why don't you come up and see me sometime"
became one of the most famous statements in film history. For a period, she was
one of the highest paid female entertainers in America. Some experts say her
movies helped save the production company Paramount Pictures from financial
ruin. Audiences all over the world either loved or hated this wild woman.
West both starred in and wrote her next film, "I'm No Angel." She played a circus performer. As always, her
character drives men crazy with desire. When the film opened, it broke records
for attendance and profits. Here is Mae West performing the theme song of this
(MUSIC: "I'm No Angel")
West continued to make films – and trouble -- throughout the nineteen thirties
and early forties. Critics say this was the most exciting part of her career.
They say that after this period, she only repeated herself. While she had offers for films, she refused
to play the role of an older or weak woman. West continued to act on stage,
wrote books and appeared on television.
At the age of eighty-five she starred in a film called
"Sextette." Not surprisingly, Mae West played a sexy woman that men could not
resist. Some critics dismissed the
film. Others praised her spirit for
never surrendering to old age on film. Two years later, Mae West died at her
home in California. She was eighty-seven.
West remains one of the most famous and liberated actresses in American film
and stage history. She used her yellow hair, playful voice, and shapely body to
create a whole new kind of Hollywood star. She was a strong woman who kept
careful artistic control over her work. Her independence, humor and sexy nature
continue to influence performers today.
program was written and produced by Dana Demange. I'm Steve Ember.
I'm Barbara Klein. Join us again next
week for PEOPLE IN AMERICA in VOA Special English.