Welcome to another Film Friday! Today we’re beginning our look at the Pre-Code (and no promises, but perhaps some Post-Code) work of Paramount’s lightning-in-a-corset, the iconic Mae West!
Mae West was born Mary Jane West in Brooklyn on August 17th, 1893. Her father was a prizefighter and eventual PI; her mother was a former fashion model. West’s professional career began in vaudeville at the age of 14. In 1911, she made her Broadway debut after secretly marrying and jilting a fellow vaudevillian four years her senior. (A scandal erupted after Mae became a star in which she erroneously alleged that though they had indeed married, they never lived together. The divorce was finalized in 1943.) West finally got her big break dancing the shimmy in a Shubert Brothers revue called Sometime (1918). Her first starring role was in the notorious Sex (1926), which West also wrote, produced, and directed under the alias “Jane Mast.” For this shocking play, West was prosecuted on morals charges, and later spent eight days in jail. The publicity helped Mae’s career and she continued to write shocking pieces like The Drag (1927) and The Pleasure Man (1928). West struck gold with her play Diamond Lil (1928), in which she played the titular character.
She came to Hollywood in 1932 after being signed by Paramount. Her first role was a supporting character in the George Raft vehicle, Night After Night (1932). Mae was a smash success and began starring in her own films, She Done Him Wrong (1933) and I’m No Angel (1933). The enforcement of the Production Code in 1934 stifled Mae’s creativity, but she continued to make films with regularity until 1937. She made two more films — one for Universal and the other for Columbia — before returning to Diamond Lil and the stage in 1943. She headlined her own Vegas show in the ’50s and made various appearances throughout the ’50s and ’60s. She returned to the screen in 1970 for the controversial adaptation of Myra Breckinridge. She made one more film in 1978 that flopped. She died of complications following a stroke in 1980 at the age of 87.
We’re beginning our spotlight on Mae West by highlighting her first screen appearance in 1932’s Night After Night.
Night After Night (1932)
A successful ex-boxer buys a high-class speakeasy and falls for a rich society girl, who doesn’t know about his past. Complications ensue when some ex-girlfriends from his boxing days show up.
Starring George Raft, Constance Cummings, Wynne Gibson, Mae West, and Alison Skipworth. Written by Vincent Lawrence. Story by Louis Bromfield. Continuity by Kathryn Scola. Directed by Archie Mayo.
Night After Night, though not technically a Mae West picture, instantly becomes one the moment she steps into the film. West, along with character actress Alison Skipworth, steal the pleasant but dull film away from leads Raft and Cummings, who despite their charms, simply do not have presences strong enough to compete. The skinny: unless you’re a Skipworth fan, there’s only one real reason to watch this film — Mae West.
Ex-prizefighter Joe Anton owns the “55,” a New York speakeasy that was once the Healy family mansion. Seeing Jerry Healy sitting alone in the club night after night, Joe becomes enamored of her and, resolving to get into a legitimate profession, dumps his girlfriend Iris Dawn and takes lessons in manners and “class” from the matronly Mabel Jellyman. Joe arranges to have dinner with Jerry, whom he calls “Miss Healy,” but also invites Mrs. Jellyman to keep him from making a fool of himself. The dinner is interrupted by Maudie Triplett, Joe’s old mistress, whose sharp wit and double-entendres embarrass Joe, but amuse the ladies. During a tour of the house, Iris pulls a gun on Jerry in Joe’s bedroom, but Joe distracts her and saves Jerry, who kisses him and calls him the “pirate of the day.”
Meanwhile, mobster Frankie Guard wants to buy Joe’s club because it is cutting into his own business, but Joe refuses to sell until he sees his chances with Jerry increase. He goes to Jerry’s apartment to swear his love, but she tells him that she plans to marry the wealthy Dick Bolton, whom she does not love, to bolster her family’s lost fortune. Calling Jerry “just another girl in a skirt,” Joe leaves, disillusioned. That night, Frankie and his men arrive at the “55” to close the deal, but Joe reneges. In an attempt to deny her true feelings for Joe, Jerry arrives at the club and begins to wreck his bedroom, until he grabs her and kisses her. She rebuffs him until Frankie’s mob arrives and starts shooting and she realizes that to save his life, she must admit her love. Finally the two embrace and Joe gives up his club to Frankie. (This summary brought to you courtesy of TCM.)
Though clocking in at a mere 73 minutes, the film’s pace is unquestionably slow. While the plot is simple and entertaining enough to sustain a 73-minute story, most of the actors, led by Raft and Cummings, have a tendency to underplay everything (and with little energy). Alison Skipworth, a largely forgotten character actress, is highly amusing as the matron Raft hires to teach him manners, but even she can do little when playing opposite a performer who gives her little vitality. It should be noted that the romantic leads, while dull, are not without their charms. Both are likable and make interesting choices. But they are unquestionably minor presences, especially when surrounded by major forces. In addition to Skipworth, Wynne Gibson does some delightful scenery chewing as Raft’s vengeful ex. While she lacks the honesty one would require in a traditional picture, her hysterics contribute some much needed life into the film, providing a source of conflict and a handful of laughs.
But of course it’s all really about Mae West. When she walks into the film at the halfway mark, the picture instantly speeds up, becomes sharper, becomes brighter, and becomes better. With little effort, she singlehandedly wrests control of the story from the other leads and invokes some HUGE laughs with her signature Westian quips. (“Goodness, what beautiful diamonds!” “Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie.”)
She is brilliantly paired with Skipworth in the film’s most memorable scene. With these two broads around, who really cares about the boring relationship between George Raft and Constance Cummings?
So while the film is virtually lifeless save the few moments that West is on the screen, I do want to insist that the plot is cohesive, amusing, and enjoyable. And though the leads are unique, they are way too underpowered. Mae West saves this film, and honestly, if she wasn’t in it, most of us wouldn’t even bother to watch it today. That being said, it’s only 73 minutes, so if you have that time to spare and you want a little Mae, it’s worth it to watch the whole film. West may not be on screen for the full 73 minutes, but during the few moments she is on, she sizzles.
Come back next Friday for another Mae West film! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week on That’s Entertainment!