In a career that lasted over eighty years, the performances of Mae West were famous, or infamous, for their power to shock, their transgression of boundaries of class, gender, sexuality and propriety, and for the frequent opprobrium that West seemed to attract. Moreover, there was no subject matter considered “off-limits” within Mae West’s work, and her plays and films were marked by her fearless approach to topics that even today are often seen as problematic (substance abuse, abortion, rape, and the idea of the “expiry date” of the female performer and her sexuality). West also broke new ground by both bringing taboo subjects into mainstream view, and by combining a sympathetic and humorous treatment of serious topics. Despite her reputation as a screen icon with a rapier wit, her work as a writer, and indeed, the effort she put into creating and maintaining the style and content of her act is frequently overlooked. Throughout her plays, films, radio appearances and written work, she consistently pushed the envelope in terms of what was deemed acceptable, normal or humorous for her age (and her era). When castigated for going “too far”, she simply edited her material and tried again, inching forward and gradually setting a precedent for later generations of comics and comic writers, while situating herself within an extant framework of shocking and subversive performers. This paper is intended as an exploration not only of West’s much-publicised transgressive use of humour, or the subversiveness of her humour itself, but also the way in which her career trajectory embodied the notion of going “too far” with her final films, and how Mae West’s life so frequently imitated her art.
Cline, E.F., dir. (1940). My Little Chickadee. Universal Pictures.
Hall, A., dir. (1935). Goin’ To Town. Paramount Pictures.
Hughes, K., dir. (1978). Sextette. Crown International Pictures.
Mayo, A., dir. (1932). Night after Night. Paramount Pictures.
McCarey, L., dir. (1934). Belle of the Nineties. Paramount Pictures.
Ruggles, W., dir. (1933). I’m No Angel. Paramount Pictures.
Sarne, M., dir. (1970). Myra Breckenridge. 20th Century Fox.
Sherman, L., dir. (1933). She Done Him Wrong. Paramount Pictures.
Southwell, B., dir. (2002). Living Famously: Mae West. Bristol: BBC Bristol.
Sutherland, A.E., dir. (1937). Every Day’s A Holiday. Paramount Pictures.
Walsh, R., dir. (1936). Klondike Annie. Paramount Pictures.
Ashby, L. (2006). With Amusement For All: A History of American Popular Culture Since 1830. Lexington KT: University Press of Kentucky.
Balcerzak, S. (2013). Buffoon Men: Classic Hollywood Comedians and Queered Masculinity. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.
Bourdet, E. (1926/2003). ‘The Captive’, in Hodges, B. (ed.), Forbidden Acts: Pioneering Gay & Lesbian Plays of the Twentieth Century, New York: Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, pp.83-171.
Butler, J. (1990, 1999). Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge.
Carmichael, R. and Nuttall, J. (1992). Common Factors-Vulgar Factions. London: Routledge.
Chandler, C. (2009). Mae West: She Always Knew How. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Chauncey, G. (1994). Gay New York. New York: Basic Books.
Curry, R. (1991). ‘Mae West as Censored Commodity’. Cinema Journal 31 (1), pp. 57-84.
Failler, A. (2005). ‘Excitable Speech: Judith Butler, Mae West and Sexual Innuendo ”, in Sönser Breen, M. and Blumenfeld, W.J. (eds.), Butler Matters, Aldershot: Ashgate, pp.95-109.
Glenn, S. (2000). Female Spectacle: the Theatrical Roots of Modern Feminism. Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Hamilton, M. (1992). ‘Mae West Live: SEX, The Drag and 1920s Broadway’. Tulane Drama Review 36 (4), pp. 82-100.
Hamilton, M. (1995). The Queen of Camp: Mae West, Sex and Popular Culture. London: HarperCollins.
Heap, C. (2009). Slumming: Sexual and Racial Encounters in American Nightlife, 1885-1940. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Lally, K. (1996). Wilder Times: The Life of Billy Wilder. New York: Henry Holt.
Louvish, S. (2006). Mae West: It Ain’t No Sin. London: Faber and Faber.
Macqueen-Pope, Walter. (1957/2010). Queen of the Music Halls: Being the Dramatized Story of Marie Lloyd. London: Nabu Press.
Martin, G. (1995). Summer of Love: The Making of Sergeant Pepper. London: Macmillan.
Merryman, R. (1969). ‘Mae West’. Life Magazine, 18 April, pp. 60-73.
Rathbone, B. (1962/2004). In and Out of Character. New York: Doubleday.
Riva, M. (1994). Marlene Dietrich, by her Daughter. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
Robertson, P. (1993). ‘”The Kinda Comedy That Imitates Me”: Mae West’s Identification with the Feminist Camp’. Cinema Journal 32 (2), pp. 57-72.
Robertson, P. (1996). Guilty Pleasures: Feminist Camp from Mae West to Madonna. Durham, London: Duke University Press.
Schlissel, L. (ed.) (1997). Three Plays by Mae West. London: Nick Hern Books.
Troy, W. (1933). ‘Mae West and the Classic Tradition’. Nation Review, 8 November, pp. 547-548.
Vogel, M. and Nocera, L. (2007). Hollywood Blondes: Golden Girls of the Silver Screen. Shelbyville: Wasteland Press.
Watts, J. (2001). Mae West: An Icon in Black and White. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.
West, M. (1975). Mae West on Sex, Health and ESP. London: W.H. Allen.
Wortis Leider, E. (1997). Becoming Mae West. New York City: Da Capo Press.