If you had to pick the most memorable actresses of the silver days of cinema, most people would name Mae West right of the tip of their tongue. West was born Brooklyn, NY but raised all over the metro area. Her father was a prize fighter & special police officer and her mother was fashion model in New York City. She got her start singing in bars and competitions. By the age 14 she was on the Vaudeville stage under the name Baby Mae. Her first appearance as lead on Broadway came at the age of 23. A lot of her early broadway appearances were in sexually charged plays. Her first leading role would also land her in jail for 8 days. Her second leading role was in a play called The Drag, which dealt with homosexuality and sadly never made it to broadway thanks in part to a morality board that was gaining power in the big city.
West remained on the stage for several more years and had several successful roles like Diamond Lil in 1928. In 1932 West received a contract offer with Paramount Pictures and made her way west. West was 40 years old when she signed her first contract with a studio. She was billed in a small side role in her first film, although her performance stole the movie from it’s 3 stars. West then took her career in her own hands and brought her Diamond Lil character to life on the big screen in 1933. The success of her first leading role amplified her box office success in her next few films. Her movies were certainly controversial in subject matter. From sexuality, religion, politics, hypocrisy of government and even the film industry.
By the late thirties, the Production Code started to edit her scripts and even the titles of her movies. She was even attacked for her casting of the movies. Most times she won considering West in her early career was the most 8th most successful box office draw and at her career peak, she was the second highest paid person in the U.S. (behind William Randolph Hearst). In 1934 she shook up hollywood and hired Duke Ellington and his band to do the soundtrack for her film Belle of the Nineties. The studio fought her hard to not hire the band but she won in the end. The movie would go on to be a huge box office success.
In 1937 she appeared in her last contract film with Paramount, the film failed and seemed to signal the end of West’s career. West struggled to stand back on her feet after walking out of Paramount. She was even labeled box-office poison with such names as Fred Astaire, Katharine Hepburn and Greta Garbo. All were successful under studio contracts but when those contracts were up for renewals, the stars wanted more and with it came the backlash from the general public. West tried to keep her momentum going by making the jump to radio in the mid-30’s, sadly she was met with more censorship and her appearance on NBC broadcasts garnered fierce protests from many groups for her sexual and questionable statements. Mae would eventually be banned from NBC and radio and would not appear again on the radio waves till 1950.
With her film career creeping to a stand still and radio career completely dissolved, West moved back to the stage and appeared in several successful broadway productions. In the early 1950’s West would be one of the first big names of Hollywood to appear on stage in Las Vegas. Her career in Vegas would last for almost 3 decades. She would continue to make movies through her later years, she was even offered the role of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. West had an ferocious and equal appetite for fame and men through out her career. She never gave a chance for a good time. Mae West only made 14 films in her career but today she is probably the most memoriable personalities from in the 1930’s.