Tough As Diamonds: Taboos, Censorship and Mae West

Even today Mae West would be breaking all the rules. There she is in all her glory in 1933’s She Done Him Wrong: defiant, smart, curvy, and past forty, declaring herself “the finest woman ever to walk the streets” and suggestively yowling her appreciation for “A Guy What Takes His Time” (“I’m a fast moving girl that likes ‘em slow,” she sings with cheerful vulgarity). I came to Mae West already knowing the persona – having already gleaned the distinctive voice and the mannerisms, the outrageous diamond jewelry, and the immortal “Come up and see me sometime” from clips and impersonations – but I still found her brassy presence galvanizing the first time I saw one of her films. In her own time West made a splash with her risqué humor, but even now her brazen onscreen persona and off-screen chutzpah carry more weight than simply that. She’s the anti-ingénue, tough and worldly and unapologetic. She made a career of playing women who took care of themselves, and was one of very few classic era actresses to wield a great deal of control over her own image.

West had a part in writing the majority of films she appeared in and based the screenplay for She Done Him Wrong on her own stage play, Diamond Lil. She also selected She Done Him Wrong’s leading man herself – a young and fairly inexperienced fellow named Cary Grant. It’s a kick to see Grant opposite West before his own movie star image had solidified. The promise may be there, but Grant is not yet the polished and adroit comic leading man that he would be at the end of the thirties: here he’s baby-faced and no real match for West’s dominating presence.

Grant wasn’t yet thirty the first time he starred opposite West, and his age adds another provocative element to West’s gleefully taboo-busting, sexually frank presence. “To be sexual with younger men has been, according to Hollywood, a female sin punishable by death or dishonor,” feminist film critic Kathi Maio writes in her book Popcorn and Sexual Politics. “There have only been rare exceptions. When Mae West encouraged Cary Grant, a much younger man, to come up and see her sometime, she wasn’t interested in baking him a batch of brownies. Mae was sexy, but her blatant bawdiness was never threatening because her comehither looks were played for comedy. And besides, Mae West got to break the rules governing female comportment because Mae West was a law unto herself.” Maio is mostly right here – West really does seem to be a law unto herself as she shimmies across the screen and swaps lascivious double entendres, but what Maio neglects to acknowledge is that there were a great number of people who did find West extremely threatening, and that her persona only emerged as the result of cleverness and persistence in the face of censorship.

Even before she hit the big screen West was ruffling feathers. She and the rest of the cast of her play Sex were arrested in 1927 for corrupting the morals of youth, and, later that year, her play The Drag, “a homosexual comedy in three acts,” created such a public outcry that no theater in New York would book it. West made her Hollywood debut with a supporting role in the film Night After Night and put her own distinctive stamp on the role, responding to a hatcheck girl’s cry of “Goodness, what beautiful diamonds,” with a saucy, “Goodness has nothing to do with it.”

She made waves again with her first starring role in She Done Him Wrong. The Hays Office, responsible for the industry’s newly-instituted Production Code, used to regulate objectionable content in motion pictures in order to avoid government censorship, had already determined that Diamond Lil was unsuitable for filming when Paramount Studios and their new leading lady Mae West began conspiring to bring the ribald play to the screen. They made their way around the censors by cleaning up much of the script, still implying much but avoiding actually saying or showing it forthright. They also set about altering the names of several characters – Lil became Lou – and coming up with something new for the title. Even with the changes, the film was severely edited in a number of states when the film was released (West’s performance of “A Guy What Takes His Time” received the brunt of the censorship, but many of her sexually charged jokes were also jettisoned in a various parts of the country). Similarly, West’s next film I’m No Angel sent the Hays Office to work nipping and tucking scenes, lyrics and dialogue. Nevertheless, there was really no diluting West. She had to do little more than swagger across the screen for one to get a sense of who she was. She became a subversive success and eventually, an icon.

Humor isn’t a means of diffusing the potency of West’s persona so much as one of the sharpest weapons in her arsenal. She remains an intrinsically subversive figure for many of the reasons already mentioned – her sexuality, to be sure, but more importantly her unmistakable independence, and the satiric edge of her indelicate wit. She isn’t only playing herself and her “blatant bawdiness” for laughs, but also highlighting the ridiculousness of lustful male admirers, most notably in I’m No Angel, where she plays a lion tamer who is equally adept at wrangling men. It’s telling that when searching for a title for her thinly-veiled adaptation of Diamond Lil, West rejected the suggestion He Done Her Wrong and chose to reverse the gender of the wronged party. She wanted the woman of the title to be the one performing the action, and that, ultimately, was only fitting. West was a woman who acted, not one who was acted upon. Hollywood films displayed a marked tendency to punish and vilify independent, sexualized women for years before West’s emergence and in years hence – from the gold diggers of the 1920s to countless noir femme fatales – but West’s Lady Lou not only escapes any form of punishment, she gets a diamond ring and Cary Grant. More importantly, we know that she may want Grant and his diamond, but she doesn’t need either of them. She’s older, wiser, and stronger too – Lou can make it all on her own, and so could West.

She Done Him Wrong USA, 1933.66 min. Paramount

Victoria Large Written by: