Mae West’s fervent belief in the healing powers of sex was only equaled by her epic and rather unlikely confidence in herself. The idea of erotic indulgence filled her big, swaying body with euphoric anticipation, and she was as romantic about money as Jack Benny—in lieu of cash, she preferred glittering diamonds for her unusually tiny hands. When West made her first movie, she was a coarse woman of 40, a Broadway headliner who had done time in the hoosegow for indecency. No great beauty, she was more dumpy than curvaceous, and so hard-bitten that she sometimes alarms the camera with her impenetrable sangfroid. Many thought she was a man in drag, and she does have a drag queen’s exaggerated hauteur and vicious, off-putting toughness. What she had on her side was an inexhaustibly playful interest in language, a rare, sometimes perplexing, and even lofty wit, spiced by low-down slang. She wrote all her own material, insisted on total control of her work, and was wildly popular for a short time, right before the Production Code lowered the boom on adult attitudes. West made only 12 movies in total, and only three are really first-rate, but this was enough to seal her legend.
West’s first film (and the first movie in this DVD set) was Night After Night, a very dull George Raft vehicle. About 40 dreary minutes go by before West’s first appearance. On stage, and in her later films, she perfected a kind of slow-motion languor, her eyes rolling around like avid, drugged marbles as she contemplated her amatory prospects and stewed in the juices of her sated, shady past. But when she was on the set of Night After Night, she saw that the actors were playing their scenes at a snail’s pace. Seizing her Hollywood opportunity by the short hairs, West jolted the supine film awake by playing her own dialogue in a raucous, fast style. “Goodness, what beautiful diamonds!” exclaims a hatcheck girl. “Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie,” quips West’s Maudie Triplett, putting the audience right in her pocket. When Miss Jellyman (Alison Skipworth) asks Maudie if she believes in love at first sight, West offers the first of her philosophical bon mots: “I don’t know, but it saves an awful lot of time,” she ruminates. Raft later marveled in his autobiography, “[She] stole everything but the cameras.”
This canny rescue job gave West the power to film her biggest stage hit, Diamond Lil, as She Done Him Wrong. This still-fresh Gay Nineties frolic established her film stardom, and it led to her best film, I’m No Angel, a true classic (and the second movie in the set). West’s Tira is first seen doing a shimmy, driving gross men to distraction with her extremely lazy gyrations. As she undulates off, West sneers, “Suckers!” under her breath, the sharpest female gibe at the sex wars until Jane Fonda looked at her wristwatch during coitus in Klute.
Tira finds fame doing a lion act, and as she gets richer she employs a bunch of black maids (among them Hattie McDaniel and Gertrude Howard). They aren’t servants so much as confidantes, blissfully dancing with West as she starts to shout jazzy nonsense and shuffle across the room. (Two of her lesser films, Belle of the Nineties and Every Day’s a Holiday, are bolstered by the august presence of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong backing her bizarre musical numbers). West classes herself with the outsiders of the time: blacks, gays, and fallen women are her people, and they are always her friends on screen, whereas the ones with power, rich white men, are generally seen as repulsive in some way. Her leading man here, Cary Grant, seems amused by West, and not always in a kind way: he projects a mocking aggression that she doesn’t seem to notice.
The next two films in the set, Goin’ To Town and Go West, Young Man, are watered down due to censorship, but they both have their moments. The first has West singing an aria from Samson and Delilah and pining for a dull Englishman (Paul Cavanaugh). She gets most of her laughs here with her nasal delivery, since the edge of her double meanings has been filed down by the Code to single-meaning one-liners. In Go West, West plays a movie star hiding out in the country, feeling up Randolph Scott’s sexy gas station attendant in several lengthy scenes (Scott and Grant must have laughed their heads off at home together). She seems most like a gay man in this movie, brazenly checking out Scott’s ass when he isn’t looking, even beating out a rhythm on it as they dance. Go West is the rare West film that offers interesting roles to other women: Elizabeth Patterson’s quietly salty Aunt Kate is sensitively limned by West, and Isabel Jewell is likable as a film-struck girl. The endings of both Goin’ to Town and Go West are jarringly abrupt and slapdash; West’s plots are so hectically lurid and tied up so neatly and quickly that they suggest a satire on the movies of the time.
The set concludes with the semi-classic My Little Chickadee, where West met her match, W.C. Fields, another resolutely uningratiating, egocentric vaudevillian. They shared a love for mysterious, black-humored non sequiturs, and they both refused to make contact with others. “Is it possible for us to be lonesome together?” asks the Great Man, and West smiles with appreciation at his wintry, cynical solitude. This is the only time she really pays attention to someone else in her movies, and it makes the somewhat flat Chickadee an endlessly watchable source of delight, a pre-WWII Theater of the Absurd. All it really needs is the Marx Brothers to show up and the whole world to break down into sex (West), drink (Fields), and self-defeating puns (the Brothers), concluding in the end of life as we know it: the sexual congress of Mae and Harpo, as Groucho watches and Fields passes out. Chickadee is like a movie you dream of but can’t imagine actually happening, which is why it’s always a little prosaic, a tad disappointing. Fields gets the lion’s share of the laughs, but West gets in her innings during a schoolroom scene where she counsels some unruly boys: “Two and two are four, and five’ll get ya ten if ya know how to woik it,” she advises.
West did one more disastrous movie after Chickadee, The Heat’s On, then returned to the stage and later to nightclubs. At age 77, she made a comeback in an outrageous adaptation of Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge, then proved her implacable (omnipotent?) will by getting a young Timothy Dalton to croon “Love Will Keep Us Together” to her in Sextette, when she was closing in on 90. Toward the end of her life, when a reporter asked West what she thought of love, this seminal artist replied, “Love is what you make it, and who you make it with.” If her figure wasn’t especially shapely, her epigrams surely were.
Let's not mince words: this is a shamefully lazy, piss-poor presentation of these five West films. The case and the screen menus (for all of the movies) feature a purple quick sketch drawing of a pretty, slim girl that looks nothing like Mae. The box itself calls West a "hilarius" leading lady. The sound on all five films is in shambles, especially on Go West, Young Man, which seems to have a separate hiss track for each line of dialogue. I'm No Angel is jerky and grainy, and Goin' to Town is marked by vertical lines and splotches. These are terrific movies, and the price is economical. Just know that there's a reason for that. Mae deserves better.
Nothing except theatrical trailers.
Five fine Mae West films thrown together in a shoddy white plastic package.