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Mae West and 1930’s censorship

Nowadays, we probably take for granted that the majority of films created in Hollywood have no moral or content boundaries whatsoeverAlthough today the boundaries might seem a little blurred, it was not always like this. The censorship process in Hollywood films (as well as in many other media) is a process that has grown and fluctuated along with American society. Behind many of these films there have been struggles, debates, and confrontations of ideas to have power over what could be shown. Films have always been a main target for censorship, primarily because movies are a major audiovisual form of entertainment and mass communication with a tremendous power over the public.

Mae West is a name that comes up when discussing U.S. censorship and film, mainly because she was a Hollywood star who danced the line between what was allowable and what was not. A great deal of her career as a Hollywood actress revolves around pushing the limits of the moral landscape. She became one of the biggest female icons of the 20th century thanks to her voluptuous figure, sexy innuendos, and uncontainable wit. This essay explores the relationship between Mae West’s performances and the early thirty’s censorship changes in her work.

West worked during the period spanning World War I, Prohibitionand the Great Depression; a period characterized by a dualism between a huge cultural experimentation and a strict repression. The war coincided with a rising sexual revolution; film audiences wanted sexand censors wanted to suppress it. From the starting point of her career, West became aware of this duality and played around that fine line. She took it upon herself to fight the censors when it came to her career. Emily Leider quotes Mae West in these fights saying, “My fight has been against depression, repression and suppression.”

Marybeth Hamilton describes Mae West as “Hollywood’s most colorful victim of censorship,” (Hamilton, 187). With one of her first major movies, I’m no Angel, West was characterized by Variety as “the biggest conversation-provoker, free space grabber and all-around box office bet in the countryBut that slightly changed in 1934, when a national campaign that battled film immorality forced her to follow the rules of the Production Code Administration (PCA), which is the film’s industry self-regulatory organization. This action took a hard toll on her popularity. Hamilton quotes historian Robert Sklar regarding West decline after 1934, saying, “the pre-1934 West was raw, acerbic, even sexually revolutionary, precisely because she was uncensored…exploding on screen with unfettered power before the censors killed her off.” (Hamilton, 188)

Yet, many documents and archives from the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) show evidence that Mae West was never really completely uncensored. Before she was forced to follow PCA’s regulations, West’s work was always submitted to the MPPDA office’s scrutiny. This censorship process was very complex. Every stage of the production was supervised but, against general supposition, the process was not aiming to suppress the sexual content Moreover, many historians agree that Hollywood censors helped shape West’s characteristic sexual expression, in fact, “censorship helped create Mae West as we know her, shaping her persona far more effectively than West herself would ever admit.” (Hamilton, 188)

In reality, West’s immediate connection to sexual topics in Hollywood was not exclusive to her with sexual content issues in many non-Mae West films (like Black Street, Possessed and Blonde Venus); but West had a particularity that distinguished her from other performers: her roots in Broadway gave her a “reputation for urban realism…providing a glimpse of authentic underworld vice.”(Hamilton, 189). Diamond Lil was the title of the Broadway play that made West gain that particularity (a play that would later be adapted into her second film She Done Him Wrong). According to historians like Lewis Erenberg, what Diamond Lil rendered was slumming made pleasant, “the lure of the forbidden with the rough edges smoothed off.” Those kind of Broadway shows appealed to the tastes of the middle-class who wanted a clean, underworld desire land. This is the same niche or target from which Hollywood wanted to separate itself.

The success of West’s play was a concern for the MPPDA. Broadway provided the movie industry with a pool of potential actors and writers who were eager to bring that “realism” main stream. But, unlike Broadway, the film industry had to sell their product to small towns as well as big cities. This meant they had to pass the inspection of every censor board on the way. So the MPPDA office developed a strategy to sell movies as an exclusive form of entertainment, with no attachments whatsoever to the inner-city nightlife and in accordance with the values of American confines.

Now, the MPPDA and the censors had a new and difficult task on their hands regarding Mae West’s performances and movies: the story of the ambitious woman who used love and sex to get to the top of the social and material ladder had to get onscreen in a form that would be profitable and that would avoid any kind of problems with the moral branch of the film industry. This translated into having a representation in which sexual matters were suggested, not manifested, “from which conclusion might be drawn by the sophisticated mind, but which would mean nothing to the unsophisticated and inexperience” as Jason Joy stated (director of the Studio Relations Committee, SRC; precursor to the PCA) (Maltby, 63)

When the movie She Done Him Wrong came out, it was obvious that the efforts of the MPPDA office to not evoke Mae’s Broadway realism in her performance backfired. Critics agreed that West’s acting had brought down all the efforts to veil Lou (her character in the play). What was seen as “realism” was, in fact, West’s acting style, “the oozing walk, the hard-boiled speech that lent an unexpected saltiness to seemingly innocent lines.” (Hamilton, 193). Even what was a gentle love lyric on paper, “A Guy What Takes His Time,” became a graphic illustration of languid sex when performed by Mae West (an interpretation that cost a lot of panic in the MPPDA office and a lot of money to cut short). While in theaters the audience had the choice of focusing or not on Mae West, on film, the camera forced them to keep her erotic figure and delivery as their main focus.

The film rapidly became a box-office sensation. This fact only helped the reformist to argue that the film industry was not fit to control its own product. She Done Him Wrong enraged people within the film industry, reform groups, censor boards, and many others. These groups grew as a threatening force that eventually obligated Mae West to change, regardless of her huge box-office sensation.

With all the bad press, the MPPDA office feared a federal intervention of the film industry. Will Hays, the head of the MPPDA at the time, took the matter into his own hands and publicly expressed that more Broadway sensationalism would only give the critics precisely what they wanted.

For her next film, I’m No Angel, the test was to transform West’s performance into a more acceptable one. “Determined to hold West to the code, Hays and his underlings maintained a vigilant watch over I’m No Angel. Previewing drafts of the script and song lyrics, they bombarded the studio with mandated cuts and revisions.” (Watt, 172). The idea was not to remove all sexual allusions completely, but to smudge them.

The changes forced upon Mae West quickly became evident. The studio, Paramount, was firm on limiting West’s creative influence. The setting of the new film illustrated more clearly the changes regarding “immoral” elements. This time, they pulled Mae out of the New York City underworld and placed her in a carnival sideshow, as a character under the name Tira. Tira would go from being a singing marvel and a lion tamer on a show, to a loving, wealthy wife living in a penthouse apartment in the city. Though, not all was pure as it sounds. Tira was a gold digger, a woman willing to exchange sex for fortune. One of Mae West’s most famous quotes comes from this movie: “Somewhere there’s a guy with a million waiting for a dame like me.” But, unlike the past narratives, which passed unashamed until the end, Tira is transformed by true love.

I’m No Angel became an immediate hit at the box office. Jill Watts tells a story in his book Mae West: An Icon in Black and White, of a Boston journalist who reported that the lines outside the movie theaters extending down several blocks looked like a “run on the neighborhood bank” (Page 180) In Chicago the film ran twenty hours a day and even patrolmen were necessary to help organize and calm the crowds. The release of the movie made West a true star.

Once again, Mae West’s persona injected a “realism” that the script was trying to escape. “On paper, Tira was an ambitious dancer with a craving for money. On the screen she exuded earthier desires. West’s swiveling hips, knowing laugh, and appraising gaze injected a bawdiness that the script had carefully eschewed” (Hamilton, 197).

The fact that Mae West was a plot all on her own made her even more of an iconic figure. Now, the show was her personality. As in Diamond Lil, West managed to deliver ironic suggestions in forms of private jokes that she would never reveal. Thanks to the censors, the audience of I’m No Angel was even more intrigued as to what was she laughing at.

Even though I’m No Angel was a success among critics and West’s former enemies, there were some concerns regarding the interpretation young women (the main audience) would give to Mae’s line deliveries and provocative performance. The Production Codes Administration (PCA) attempted to domesticate her performance in order to eliminate these possible interpretations. But they soon came to realize that as long as the audience had a memory of Mae’s past performances, viewers would never be completely passive. As Joseph Breen, appointed head of the PCA in 1934, explains, “with West at the helm, even the most scrupulously sanitized story could be subverted by a well-placed wink.” Mae West’s next film, Klondike Annie, became a perfect illustration of this phenomenon.

Joseph Breen tried without any success to sanitize the story and script of Klondike Annie. But he quickly understood that the very presence of West in the film would make that task impossible. As he said himself “Just so long as we have Mae West on own hands with the particular kind of a story which she goes in for, we are going to have trouble…lines and pieces of business, which in the script seem to be thoroughly innocuous, turn out when shown on the screen to be questionable at best, when they are not definitely offensive” (Hamilton, 206)

It was very clear to everyone involved in the film industry that with Breen as the new office head, West’s career was going to be over. Although many other projects required Breen’s vigilant watch, he focused mainly on not letting anything from Mae West slip by him. He made her his top priority. At the same time, Paramount, to show that they were closely following the Code, brought executive Phillip Hammell to work as a private censor on West’s films.

Hollywood was redefining its parameters and Mae West’s style did not fit in. What happened to her career after 1934 is a small-scale representation of the effects the PCA had on Hollywood. West gradually faded out of the spotlight. Lea Jacobs, a prestigious film professor and author, believes that the strategies introduced by the PCA to deal with sex films not only affected Mae West, but also the complete genre: “by eliminating the double meanings, the calculated ambiguities, and the narrative disjunctures which gave the films of the early thirties their zest” the viewer’s experience was changed (207).

West’s role in the development of American film censorship is a matter of great debate. Some maintain that Mae West is solely to blame for censorship; her loud career and the changes in the PCA do coincide time-wise. But it is a well-known fact that the scrutinizing of movies that supposed a threat to morality was something that had been happening well before West appeared on the big screen. At the same time, West’s rising popularity made her an easy target for critics and reform groups. But, as Jill Watts mentions, “she was more than symbolic; her controversial screen presence became a major impetus that accelerated a process already set into motion” (171).