Mae West is a Hollywood legend. That much is clear before you’ve ever seen any of her films. She’s a part of the culture, from that lascivious purr and hip-swinging sashay to those instantly quotable lines. You know the ones: “Goodness had nothing to do with it”, “Why don’t you come up sometime and see me?”, “When I’m good…” etc. But unlike her male contemporaries, West’s individual films are rarely discussed, screened or lauded in the same way as Duck Soup or City Lights. When this extensive new set from Indicator came up for review, I had seen just one of West’s films and was keen to rectify that. After all, it’s not often you get the chance to own virtually the entire career of a screen icon in one package (only West’s two films from the 1970s are missing, by all accounts mercifully).

There’s received wisdom amongst many reviews that all Mae West films are pretty much the same and that they go downhill the moment the censorious Hays Code takes a firm grip. While there is certainly a hint of a formula to some of the early films, it is an effective one and to say it continues across the whole West catalogue is simply untrue. The style varies across her output to incorporate farce, melodrama, westerns, light character comedy, boisterous ensemble pieces and showbiz revues. And only those hungry for the most risqué of one-liners and nothing besides (something West is unfortunately reduced to all too frequently) would contend that the quality dips significantly. In fact, as the censors square up to West, it’s fascinating to see how she gets round them and often surprising just how much she sneaks in under their noses. Watching these films chronologically is a fascinating and consistently enjoyable experience and I emerged a fully fledged fan.

NIGHT AFTER NIGHT

Director: Archie Mayo
Screenplay: Vincent Lawrence
Based on the play by: Louis Bromfield
Producers: William LeBaron
Starring: George Raft, Constance Cummings, Mae West
Year: 1932
Country: USA
Duration: 76 mins

Night After Night was Mae West’s screen debut and from what I’d heard about the film I was very much expecting it to be a mere hors d’oeuvre to the main course of her starring vehicles. The received wisdom is that this is a stiff, lifeless affair, save for the fleeting moments when West sashays across the screen. So I came for the historical significance but, as it turned out, I stayed for the underrated gem.

Joe Anton, a rough-around-the-edges speakeasy owner, becomes fascinated by one of his regular patrons Miss Healey, a woman who sits alone every night in a contemplative state. Already taking lessons in high-class deportment from the sweet-natured but crushingly unfulfilled Miss Jellyman, Joe ups his game by inviting Miss Healey to dinner, with Miss Jellyman coming along for support. Things do not go according to plan however, as Joe must also contend with the arrival of his homicidally jealous casual girlfriend, his audaciously brash old flame, Miss Healey’s fiancé who also happens to be a friend of Joe’s, and a gang of mobsters who want to buy Joe’s business and won’t take no for an answer.

While it’s true to say that West gives the standout performance in Night After Night, she’s far from the only thing of note here. The lightly farcical story is told in a joyously busy way in which characters are thrown into the mix for no other reason than to heighten the chaos. The witty screenplay by Vincent Lawrence is bolstered by contributions from two uncredited co-writers; Hollywood legend Joseph L. Mankiewicz and West herself, who was allowed to write much of her own dialogue, including that famous risqué line about diamonds.

The cast here is a delight. George Raft, latterly famous for not being the greatest actor, does perfectly fine as Joe and Constance Cummings is agreeable as Miss Healey. But in this kind of film the leads tend to be the least interesting part and their central relationship is merely the throughline on which to hang more entertaining antics. Hollywood stalwart Leo Karns is fun as Joe’s devoted companion Leo and Wynne Gibson is memorably edgy as the jealous Iris, but Night After Night really belongs to two performers: West, of course, as the boisterous Maudie, and Alison Skipworth as Miss Jellyman, a repressed woman whose simmering potential is unlocked by an unlikely friendship with Maudie. In their clamour to hand the film lock, stock and barrel to the scene-stealing West, many critics overlook that she is in fact working here as half of a very effective odd-couple double act with the fantastic Skipworth, who’s demure eloquence beautifully offsets West’s streetwise colloquialisms. There’s a great exchange between the two in which Skipworth erroneously believes West to be a prostitute that probably stands as the highlight of the film.

There is a theme of dissatisfaction at the heart of Night After Night, with Joe longing to shed his rough edges and climb the social ladder while his tutor Miss Jellyman longs to cut loose from the restrictions of that same ladder. Miss Healey, meanwhile, is preparing to marry a man she finds dull while secretly being excited by the very roguishness that Joe is trying to ditch in order to impress her. Of all the characters, it is only West’s Maudie who is comfortable in her own skin, helping to shepherd the others towards their true desires. Night After Night is very much a pre-Code film, not just evidenced by West’s suggestive dialogue and manner but also by an ambiguous amorality that would soon be squeezed out of subsequent pictures. Hollywood would soon have its hand forced away from making such overt suggestions that you’re better off as a small time crook than a phoney socialite, even if there’s a warmer core message of being true to yourself that makes such specifics the fodder of the over-literal.

Night After Night does have its shortcomings. Though the brief runtime makes for a refreshingly breezy picture, it doesn’t allow much time to properly develop the relationship between Raft and Cummings. The basis of their attraction is well set up but the climax of their romance has to be forced through with an abrupt scene in which Joe’s insistent advances cross the line of what we’d now deem sexual assault. Still, Night After Night is not as clear cut in its morals as many would think and Joe is often portrayed as an unpleasant character. The ending isn’t so much a happily-ever-after as a brace-yourself-for-further-disaster, as evidenced in West’s smirking final remark.

Night After Night is better than its patchy reputation suggests but while there is more to the film than just West, it is true to say that her presence is the key to the film’s longevity. Remove Maudie, as it would be so easy to do from a narrative standpoint alone, and you significantly decrease the film’s appeal. In fact, the whole thing could come toppling down. George Raft later remarked that West “stole everything but the cameras.” While this remark has passed into legend, I’d say it is wholly inaccurate since the cameras are the first and most important thing that West claims as her own. She doesn’t so much make love to the camera as dare it to lust after her from afar. It’s a gambit that pays off in spades. From the first moment West emerges from a throng of clamouring men, the lens practically fogs up. A star was born and condensation would soon line the sleeves of every cameraman who worked with her.

SHE DONE HIM WRONG

Director: Lowell Sherman
Screenplay: Harvey F. Thew, John Bright
Based on the play by: Mae West
Producers: William LeBaron
Starring: Mae West, Cary Grant, Owen Moore
Year: 1933
Country: USA
Duration: 66 mins

Mae West’s triumphant debut in Night After Night practically guaranteed her a starring role in her next film and it was fitting that this role be one of her own creation. She Done Him Wrong is based on West’s successful, controversial Broadway hit Diamond Lil and while it is very much a pre-Code film, censors still demanded many changes to reduce elements of West’s liberated take on female sexuality. Titles that included the word ‘Diamond’ were also banned in order to play down the film’s links with the play. Still, the film’s poster promised “Mae West gives a “Hot Time” to the Nation” and West’s reputation in the entertainment industry was already sufficient that audiences knew exactly what to expect. Ultimately, the enormous success of She Done Him Wrong saved Paramount Pictures from bankruptcy and the film found itself nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, securing its place as West’s most famous film to this day.

But is She Done Him Wrong West’s best film? To my mind, definitely not. There is much to admire here, from director Lowell Sherman’s evocative opening scenes of the Bowery of the 1890s to the handsome barroom setting. But it is, of course, West who provides the bulk of the entertainment value. Icy cool but with a greater sense of human vulnerability layered in, West’s diamond-encrusted saloon singer Lou is a more well-rounded character than Night After Night’s entertaining but one-note Maudie. Indulging in pleasure with a sex-positivity that the Hays Code would soon make impossible to depict so plainly, Lou dispenses West’s immortal one-liners with breathlessly iconic style. This is, of course, the film in which she first spoke those oft-misquoted words “Why don’t you come up sometime and see me?”

It’s fair to say that She Done Him Wrong is never dull when West is onscreen. And after a slow build up designed to maximise the impact of her arrival, she’s rarely off screen. But where the film trips over itself is in its plot. Between those impeccably delivered quips and enjoyably bawdy musical numbers, She Done Him Wrong attempts to squeeze about two hours worth of plot into 66 minutes. The complex comings and goings of the saloon patrons and staff attempt to introduce a dramatic thriller element and the film goes to some dark places with a suicide attempt, murders, accidental deaths and a sex trafficking ring among the plot strands. It’s just too much for such a slender film to contain and the other characters are too bland to make it play engagingly or even coherently.

Amongst the supporting characters, as you’d sadly expect in a 1933 film, are a few racist stereotypes. The talented Louise Beavers, who made a career playing maids, servants and slaves, has one of her more degrading, thinly-written roles as Lou’s maid Pearl and there’s also a pretty superfluous scene with a grotesquely hand-rubbing Jewish businessman. Still, if these lazy stereotypes are underdeveloped, so are the other supporting roles. A young Cary Grant, despite receiving second billing, has very little to do as the director of the local mission, located next door to the saloon. To Grant’s annoyance, West would often erroneously claim to have essentially discovered him, although even if that were true this role is scarcely enough to have propelled him to stardom.

In order to get the most out of She Done Him Wrong, you have to be able to place yourself in the mindset of an audience of the era. I’ve read numerous reviews that claim Mae West films no longer work for modern audiences because what was once seen as shockingly salacious now seems comparatively tame. I’ve never bought into this idea that a film must be timeless to have continued worth. In fact, one of the greatest joys of being a cinephile is having access to those doorways to different eras. If you can slip into that early 30s headspace, you’ll hopefully find yourself gasping and giggling in all the right places. There’s also an infectious energy to the brisk pacing of the film and goofy, theatrical overplaying of its game extras. Just don’t come into She Done Him Wrong looking for a coherent plot. As the many, many characters pass through, it’s best to stay focused on Mae. It’s not much to ask.

I’M NO ANGEL

Director: Wesley Ruggles
Screenplay: Mae West, Harlan Thompson
Producers: William LeBaron
Starring: Mae West, Cary Grant, Gregory Ratoff
Year: 1933
Country: USA
Duration: 87 mins

I’m No Angel is probably Mae West’s second most famous film after She Done Him Wrong but it improves on that film considerably. It has all the same plus-points (the one-liners, the musical numbers, Cary Grant) only this time it uses them in the service of an easy to follow, though still unusual, plot. The 20 minutes of extra runtime here allows West to stretch out and enjoy herself, letting things unfold at a leisurely pace instead of in a confusing frenzy. It might not build up the same giddy energy as She Done Him Wrong but the result is a considered, infectiously entertaining picture.

The plot of I’m No Angel initially seems all over the place, beginning as a circus story which then seems ready to segue into a crime thriller before becoming a rise to fame tale, a bawdy romance and finally a courtroom comedy. But West, who wrote the screenplay herself, keeps hold of all the threads and the longer the film runs, the more apparent the significance of each plot strand becomes. By the final fade out, West has artfully pulled them all together so they coalesce into one hell of a great film. West plays Tira, a singing sideshow attraction who drives men wild while her pickpocket boyfriend Slick cleans them out. When Slick gets in trouble with the law, Tira’s fear that he will implicate her leads her to inadvertently offer to headline a lion-taming act in which she will stick her head in the lion’s mouth. This daredevil act makes her into a star and brings the attention of even more suitors, including two very wealthy cousins. This love triangle is further complicated by Slick’s release from prison.

As usual in a Mae West film, West is the main attraction and she makes the most of her marquee appeal, once again giving herself a titillating build up, this time by way of a carnival barker. If anything, the one-liners in I’m No Angel are even more quotable than those in She Done Him Wrong, with another line that has passed into legend (“When I’m good I’m very good. But when I’m bad I’m better”). And this time she actually does say “Come up and see me sometime”! The fleeting songs are incorporated in a much livelier manner, with West bursting into a number wherever she feels like it rather than waiting for a spotlight to hit her.

Once again, Cary Grant gets second billing for a comparatively small role (he doesn’t turn up for 48 minutes) but this time he seems more comfortable, his role better developed and his chemistry with West significantly increased. Other standouts in the cast are West’s trio of African-American maids, played by Gertrude Howard, Libby Taylor and the soon-to-be Oscar-winning Hattie McDaniel. West has been retrospectively commended for her efforts to ensure people of colour had roles in her plays and films, although as She Done Him Wrong proved, these roles weren’t always ideal. Maid roles, however, were generally what was available to black female actors in mainstream Hollywood productions at the time and in I’m No Angel, West makes them more like pals, with Gertrude Howard’s Beulah being Tira’s main confidante. They are still ordered around by West, of course, and in one ugly moment when she thinks she’s been betrayed, West refers to Beulah as “shadow“ but for 1933 there’s at least a hint of progression that was less visible elsewhere.

I’m No Angel’s major achievement in terms of progressive attitudes however is once again it’s female empowerment. Tira is another of West’s sexually liberated women, holding court over a plethora of enraptured men and refusing to be shamed by those wielding the traditional values of the day. The fantastic courtroom scenes towards the climax of the film allow West to address the double standards of the era head on as Tira becomes her own lawyer and defends her reputation by casually and hilariously exposing the hypocrisies of men. There’s also a lovely little cameo here by Walter Walker as a judge who is a little more taken with Tira than is strictly professional.

I’m No Angel is a tremendously original film that slowly but surely worked its magic on me. At first I thought it didn’t quite know where it was going but as its various acts unfolded the significance of each puzzle piece snapped into focus. Just as Tira keeps pictures of previous boyfriends next to symbolic statuettes of animals (her current beau’s image stands next to a deer, while former boyfriends stand astride a skunk and a snake), so there is a greater thematic significance to West standing over a group of male lions while wielding a whip, and emerging triumphant even when she puts her head right in the beast’s mouth.

BELLE OF THE NINETIES

Director: Leo McCarey
Screenplay: Mae West
Producers: William LeBaron
Starring: Mae West, Roger Pryor, John Mack Brown
Year: 1934
Country: USA
Duration: 75 mins

Not long after the triumphant I’m No Angel, the Hays Production Code was fully enforced. The code had been around for years already, it’s influence dogging Mae West’s progress in making her early films. But by mid-1934, approval by the newly-created Production Code Administration was required if a film was to be released at all. Belle of the Nineties, West’s fourth film, found itself under the watchful eye of the PCA and reportedly the film practically had to be made twice in order to accommodate the PCA’s demands. West’s attitude to the increased authority of the PCA was to be made clear by a satirical publicity stunt in which 50 parrots were trained to squawk “It’s a Sin”, which was originally to be the film’s title. The PCA hit back by demanding a title change, thereby rendering the time and effort spent training the birds useless.

Given how pointedly the PCA targeted West, it’s a wonder Belle of the Nineties is even as good as it is. West managed to slip plenty of her trademark double entendres past the censors and Leo McCarey (a wonderful director who was about to embark on one of the greatest runs of films of the classic Hollywood era) brings an element of class to the direction. But McCarey’s more polished approach ends up eroding the scrappy charm of the earlier West films and this is exacerbated by a slight but noticeable drop in energy from West. Perhaps her enthusiasm for the material was worn away as she was forced to cut and reshoot chunks of the film.

It must be said though that Belle of the Nineties does have a comparatively dull plot, a fairly conventional traipse through a love triangle that descends into a violent but rather hurried climax. The reshot ending, originally intended to feature a pre-marital sexual encounter, was replaced by a wedding scene. It seems naive at best to imagine such a scene could convince audiences that West’s character was a virgin up until then, but the interference of the PCA was clearly driven less by plot credibility than by a desire to banish West from screens altogether.

Amidst the resulting rubble of the storyline, it is the musical numbers that really stand out in Belle of the Nineties. Accompanied by the Duke Ellington Orchestra, West’s usual snatches of scattered tunes are replaced by some big production numbers. The opening My American Beauty involves several impressive costume and scenery changes, A bizarre and somewhat un-PC sequence involving a campily overwrought African-American spiritual service is impressively handled by McCarey as he intercuts its rapturous rituals with a lonely solo performance by West. And the film trusts in the strength of the soon-to-be-standard My Old Flame to present it with a pleasing simplicity.

Belle of the Nineties may be a comparative disappointment in the West filmography but it still entertains sufficiently for its fleeting runtime and Mae West running on reduced energy levels is still more fun to watch than the average lead actor of the age firing on all cylinders. Still, the PCA weren’t going anywhere for a few decades and West’s career from hereon in would be coloured by uncharacteristic compromise.

GOIN’ TO TOWN

Director: Alexander Hall
Screenplay: Mae West
Producers: Willaim LeBaron
Starring: Mae West, Paul Cavanagh, Gilbert Emery
Year: 1935
Country: USA
Duration: 74 mins

Goin’ to Town is often considered one of Mae West’s weakest films, although I’m sure this is at least partially influenced by it being her fourth starring role and the growing realisation that her films were following a certain formula. There’s nothing wrong with formula, of course. It never hurt Marvel. But, as someone who has recently made the decision to check out of the MCU for good, I appreciate that it can become wearing. The Mae West formula at this stage included an opening in which, while West is offscreen, a group of men talk about how amazing and gorgeous she is; a possessive and often homicidally jealous admirer; an abrupt moment of violent crime; a love triangle complicated by a romantic misunderstanding; and, of course, enough one-liners to keep a censor busy for a month. Goin’ to Town features all these elements, and yet it gets away with them yet again because there’s a fresh angle: Mae vs. the snobs.

I’ve always enjoyed films in which pomposity is pricked and the snobs are bested by the slobs. Even at their most one-dimensional, these films still seem to satisfy some bitter part of my working class sensibility. In a superficial way, Goin’ to Town reminds me a bit of Caddyshack, with West in the Rodney Dangerfield role (West’s influence on Dangerfield’s own one liners and delivery has been noted by many, although his comedy includes a self-deprecating side which West’s crucially never did), and it results in the same simplistic satisfaction. West’s Cleo Borden is herself in front of society snobs who are putting on an act and they end up bested by her in every situation, looking aghast and clucking at their unfulfilled entitlement (if there were monocles, they would be falling out of eyes left, right and centre).

The simple pleasures of Goin’ to Town charmed me with ease. There are small variations on the formula here, such as the plot being driven by West’s pursuit of a man and not the other way round, but basically we get what we come to a Mae West film for. The one-liners are as good as always but there’s also an increased amount of character comedy, with more laughs coming from West’s perfunctory attempts to fit in amongst high society which give way almost immediately every time. There are also a few more unusual elements here, such as a Western prologue which explains neatly how West finds her way into the world of the moneyed upper classes, and a set-piece which sees her dabble in opera. Whether Goin’ to Town works for you will depend on how susceptible you are to West’s charms in the first place. Clearly, at this stage, I’m extremely taken with her and so Goin’ to Town felt quite underrated to me. A cheerful little pleasure of a film.

KLONDIKE ANNIE

Director: Raoul Walsh
Screenplay: Mae West, Marion Morgan, George Brendan Dowell
Based on the play by: Mae West
Producers: William LeBaron
Starring: Mae West, Victor McLaglen,
Year: 1936
Country: USA
Duration: 80 mins

Just when you think you’ve got a handle on West’s style, she pulls the rug from under you yet again. With Klondike Annie, West not only serves up a drama but a drama with a strong moral core and religious themes. It doesn’t take more than a few minutes of trawling online reviews to find disillusioned West fans pointing the finger at the Hays Code by way of explanation, suggesting that its demand had turned West from a succulent sinner into a pious saint. But this simply isn’t true. For one thing, Klondike Annie’s exploration of morality and religion was highly controversial, with censors excising a full 8 minutes of the original cut. Some reviews incorrectly claim that West converts to Christianity in the film, undermining her established persona for tedious moralising. Again, this isn’t true. Klondike Annie is a much more complex work than that and what’s more, it works really well.

Though the missing 8 minutes of Klondike Annie make it choppier than it should be, there’s a heightened sense of class to the whole production, aided by the direction of veteran director Raoul Walsh (The Thief of Bagdad, White Heat) and a co-starring role for the then-recently Oscar-garlanded Victor McLaglen as a brutish ship’s captain who falls for West’s Frisco Doll, a fugitive escaping from an oppressive relationship which ended in a fatal act of self-defence. When missionary Annie Alden dies on the same voyage, The Doll evades the authorities by switching identities with the dead woman. But guilt gets the better of her and she feels compelled to fulfil Annie’s purpose of helping to save a financially troubled Alaskan mission.

Though it remains an underrated film, there are those who claim Klondike Annie features West’s greatest performance. While I’d contest this (I love that perfection of her classic persona in I’m No Angel), Klondike Annie undoubtedly features her most naturalistic performance. In this role, West drops her trademark purr and hip-bouncing swagger. She still draws on her usual sexual liberation and thankfully doesn’t betray this by validating the Hays Code’s view on sexual morality. Rather, West examines the idea of goodness in both the religious and secular, providing a more nuanced picture of human nature than was becoming de rigueur at the time.

Klondike Annie is by no means a perfect film. There’s an immediate “uh-oh” moment when the opening caption reads “San Francisco Chinatown” and, sure enough, there are some immediate awful stereotypes (American actor Harold Huber was hardly born to play the role of Chan Lo), but fortunately this sequence largely serves only to set the plot in motion, albeit after a West-led musical number called ‘I’m an Occidental Woman in an Oriental Mood for Love’. There’s also the slight sense that, like She Done Him Wrong before it, Klondike Annie could’ve benefited from a longer runtime to allow it’s more complex plot to unfold properly. The ending is somewhat abrupt and unsatisfying. But for all these issues, Klondike Annie is a fascinating, often excellent film. It mixes in elements of humour while retaining an overall dramatic bent (the funniest scene goes not to West, but to an enterprising young boy who extorts money from everyone around him) and refuses to simplify its broad view of goodness to give the audience an easy time, as was so common in the Hays infested films of the era. Klondike Annie emerges as further proof of West’s often unsung versatility as both a writer and performer.

GO WEST, YOUNG MAN

Director: Henry Hathaway
Screenplay: Mae West
Based on the play by: Lawrence Riley
Producers: Emanuel Cohen
Starring: Mae West, Randolph Scott, Warren William
Year: 1936
Country: USA
Duration: 82 mins

While the iron grip of the Hays Code had certainly affected Mae West’s output more visibly since 1934, she had managed to continue making films that still had enough of her persona and ideas behind them to be unique and entertaining. With Go West, Young Man, West seems excessively compromised for the first time. Based on a play by a male playwright rather than one of her own works, West’s adaptation struggles to combine the material with her own strengths. The main attraction of Mae West films had always been Mae West. This story of a movie star who becomes stranded in a small town boarding house leans more towards an ensemble farce and West feels a little lost amongst a strong cast struggling with bland material.

As with Klondike Annie, West gives a deliberately more subdued performance here, her lusty excesses reigned in (if still very much pivotal to the plot) and her one-liners traded for light character comedy. For the first time ever, a co-star is allowed to steal the film, with Isabel Jewell’s starstruck, Garbo-impersonating maid getting what few big laughs there are. The action mostly revolves around West’s attempts to seduce the mechanic fixing her car (a young Randolph Scott) against the wishes of her over-protective manager Warren William. Alice Brady and Elizabeth Patterson are also good as the other boarding house inhabitants, which is lucky as the film spends much longer with these supporting characters and with West offscreen than was common in a Mae West picture.

Ultimately, Go West, Young Man feels, for all its ordinariness, like an experiment. This is West trying her hand at something lightly charming rather that boisterous and bawdy and, while the results aren’t terrible, neither are they in any way remarkable. Go West, Young Man is pleasant enough company for 80 minutes but it drags even across that short time. I have the sneaking suspicion that it is the presence of West that scuppers the film more than anything. For the first time she seems like she’s been successfully suppressed and appears as desperate to burst free of the material than she normally is to burst the buttons on her dress. This is definitely minor West.

EVERY DAY’S A HOLIDAY

Director: A. Edward Sutherland
Screenplay: Mae West
Producers: Emanuel Cohen
Starring: Mae West, Edmund Lowe, Charles Butterworth, Charles Winniger
Year: 1937
Country: USA
Duration: 80 mins

After the neutered, mildly amusing Go West, Young Man, Every Day’s a Holiday is a welcome return to something more boisterous from Mae West. But this isn’t just a return to the innuendo-heavy early style, which the Hays Code had made increasingly impossible. Instead, West has created a lightly satirical, fast-paced farce with a terrific ensemble which leans more towards the zany than the salacious. Moral ambiguity still abounds, with West’s character Peaches O’Day being a con artist and small-time thief who, it is implied, is still better than the corrupt politicians whose less-obvious misdemeanours infect the very fibre of New York. One such politician, the odious police captain John Quade, becomes Peaches’ adversary as he first attempts to arrest her and then unwittingly to romance her when she re-emerges as temperamental French alter ego Fifi.

Every Day’s a Holiday is generally dismissed as another minor West effort but I just loved it. Some complain that the wit of old has been replaced by increased volume and it is true that this is a very loud film, but there’s plenty of wit mixed in and the rowdy energy is a relief after the sluggish pacing of its immediate predecessor. West has surrounded herself with a game cast of men, noticeably less superfluous or interchangeable than the men in her earlier films. Particularly fun are Charles Winniger as the wealthy Van Doon, the loudest and most excessive of all the characters here, and Lloyd Nolan as the villainous Quade, whose predisposition for misspeaking provides the film with some of its best pieces of wordplay. Walter Catlett also scores big as West’s savvy manager Nifty Bailey. West herself is back in full hip-bouncing form after a couple of subtler roles, and in the guise of Fifi she also ups the decibel levels to match the hollering of her costars, in some of the film’s most hilarious scenes.

Another complaint I’ve seen in many reviews of Every Day’s a Holiday is that West’s French accent is terrible when she is playing Fifi. This entirely misses the point, since it is very obviously supposed to be terrible. West’s character is forced into playing the role to evade the law and the more deliberate hammy she is, the funnier the scenario. It’s in keeping with the broad, lively tone of the whole film. Also in keeping with the spirited, high-energy atmosphere is a cameo by Louis Armstrong, who gets his own brief musical number towards the end of the film. Every Day’s a Holiday was West’s final film for Paramount and it’s a fantastic way to bow out after a series of terrific movies.

MY LITTLE CHICKADEE

Director: Edward F. Cline
Screenplay: Mae West, W.C. Fields
Producers: Lester Cowan
Starring: Mae West, W.C. Fields
Year: 1940
Country: USA
Duration: 84 mins

Following a break of a couple of years after she left Paramount, Mae West returned to the screen in Universal Pictures’ My Little Chickadee, a joint star vehicle with W.C. Fields. Once again West wrote the screenplay, with Fields contributing scenes here and there, but the two stars were given joint screenwriting credit. This was just one cause of tension between them and their reported mutual dislike of each other scuppered any chance of West and Fields becoming a double act with any longevity.

In truth, I’m glad that My Little Chickadee was a one-off. Neither West or Fields seem like the sort of performers who benefit from an onscreen partner. Both thrive more as solo performers who are allowed to dominate their respective films. My Little Chickadee seems to recognise this to an extent, and though they do have scenes together the screenplay conspires to keep them apart for much of the runtime, with separate set-pieces allowing them to do their thing. West gets the best material, with the highlight being a scene in which she substitutes for a teacher with a class of unruly boys.

My Little Chickadee is passable fun but for me the major problem with the film is Fields himself. I’m undecided on whether I enjoy his work as a performer. The odd mix of verbose wordplay and shambolic slapstick is fascinating but it needs a lot of space in which to work. Fields’ style doesn’t blend with a comedy partner, least of all one as equally dominant as West. Fields has some funny moments, like a borderline surreal bath sequence in which we see just his legs washing themselves, and his pompously eloquent persona is amusing, though a little goes a long way and it’s so broad that he makes West look subtle.

Once again, there are elements here that haven’t aged well. This is a spoof Western and so there are the usual Native American stereotypes of ululating savages that were pretty much a staple in early examples of the genre. Far stranger is a speech by Fields as he fills in behind a saloon bar, in which he tells a story about how he and another barman beat up a female bandit. The joke is aimed at Fields, with the double punchline being that he hurt his foot on her corset and that she came back the following day and beat up both her attackers, but it’s hard to see where the humour ever was in a speech that features the line “I starts kicking her in the midriff.” It’s an odd example of violence against women being seen as an acceptable punchline, a trope that unfortunately lasted well into the 80s.

My Little Chickadee, for all its failings, is a handsomely mounted film that passes 80 minutes quite enjoyably, especially when West is onscreen. It made me curious to watch more of Fields work to see if his peculiar style is a taste I can acquire or not, but I did spend most of his solo scenes here looking forward to West reappearing. The closing gag, in which (mild spoiler here) the two stars speak each other’s catchphrases, is the key to My Little Chickadee. This was very much a film aimed at existing fans of both these comic icons and the thrill of the film is in seeing them in the same picture. Whether they enhance or detract from each other’s impact is a matter of taste. As a recent West convert and a complete Fields novice, perhaps this is a film I should revisit after I’ve seen more of the latter’s work. For now, it’s a not-quite-successful curio.

THE HEAT’S ON

Director: Fay Lawrence
Screenplay: Fitzroy Davis, George S. George
Producers: Milton Carter
Starring: Mae West, Victor Moore, William Gaxton
Year: 1943
Country: USA
Duration: 79 mins

The Heat’s On was Mae West’s first film in three years but something was very different. While she still received top billing over the title, she had to share it with two men. Her name was nowhere to be found amongst the writing and story credits. Worst of all, her screentime was negligible and her performance disengaged and without the wit or flair audiences had come to associate with her. In other words, Mae West’s final film of the Golden Age was not a Mae West film at all.

The Heat’s On is not a good film but neither is it the abomination that most online reviews make it out to be. These reviews largely come from disappointed West fans who were hoping for something more akin to what they’d come to expect from her work, or at the very least something she’s actually in! What The Heat’s On is instead is a musical revue. This kind of musical, in which Ian afterthought of a plot is used to string together a series of showpieces, was not uncommon in the 30s and 40s but they don’t tend to get shown much now because the material has often dated poorly. The Heat’s On seems to have survived above its contemporaries chiefly because of West’s involvement and the continued interest in her work, but its previous availability was limited. Its preservation here then is a cause for celebration for completists, even if it had little to offer the average viewer.

Though not a disaster, The Heat’s On is the epitome of a weak film of its era. The comedy, which mostly comes courtesy of Victor Moore rather than West, is unfunny; the plot is perfunctory and the majority of the musical turns are drippily dull. The notable exception to this latter point is the wonderful Hazel Scott, a jazz pianist and civil rights activist who completely steals the film with a routine in which she plays two pianos simultaneously. The use of black keys on white keys on one piano and white on black on the other predates the message of ‘Ebony and Ivory’ by decades, and the music’s better too! It’s a high point amongst what is, unfortunately, a damp squib of a film.

While The Heat’s On might feel like a limp ending to Mae West’s glory days, it was only the end of her screen years (not counting the roundly-panned duo of films she made in the 70s, later reclaimed by some as artefacts of high camp). Though her popularity as a screen attraction had waned, she was not recognised as an institution thoroughly embedded in the culture and her return to her stage roots, including lucrative stints in Las Vegas, proved wildly popular. Though she resisted a return to the screen for 27 years (including turning down the part of Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder’s classic Sunset Boulevard), West’s star never dimmed and she remains one of the most instantly recognisable figures of the twentieth century. And thanks to this wonderful boxset, I now understand what all the fuss is about.

Mae West in Hollywood is released by Indicator on limited edition Blu-Ray on 13 December 2021. The copious special features include numerous commentaries from historians and critics, original trailers, interviews and documentaries. Two special features especially worth flagging up: Three Walter Lantz cartoons of the era , including the Oscar-nominated The Merry Old Soul, featuring Hollywood caricatures and parodies of Mae West films; and the feature length 1982 TV movie Mae West, a multiple Emmy-nominated production starring Ann Jillian as West and co-starring Piper Laurie, Roddy McDowell and James Brolin.

FULL LIST OF INDICATOR LIMITED EDITION BLU-RAY BOX SET SPECIAL FEATURES

NIGHT AFTER NIGHT / SHE DONE HIM WRONG

2014 High Definition remaster of Night After Night
2017 restoration of She Done Him Wrong from a 4K scan
Original mono soundtracks
Audio commentary on She Done Him Wrong with critic and film historian Pamela Hutchinson (2021)
Mae West at UCLA (1971, 29 mins): archival audio recording of the great performer in conversation at the University of California, Los Angeles
She Done Him Right (1933, 8 mins): animated short film parody of She Done Him Wrong featuring Pooch the Pup and other canine characters
The Merry Old Soul (1933, 8 mins): Oswald the Rabbit animated short film featuring caricatures of many Hollywood stars, including Mae West
Original theatrical trailer for Night After Night
Image galleries: publicity and promotional materials
New and improved subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
UK premieres on Blu-ray
I’M NO ANGEL / BELLE OF THE NINETIES

2019 4K restoration of I’m No Angel
2021 restoration of Belle of the Nineties from a 4K scan
Original mono soundtracks
Audio commentary on I’m No Angel with critic and writer Farran Smith Nehme (2021)
Two Super 8 versions of I’m No Angel: a pair of original cut-down home-cinema presentations, each condensing the film via different scenes
Original theatrical trailers
Image galleries: publicity and promotional materials
New and improved subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
UK premieres on Blu-ray

GOIN’ TO TOWN / KLONDIKE ANNIE

2018 restoration of Goin’ to Town from a 4K scan
2014 High Definition remaster of Klondike Annie
Original mono soundtracks
Audio commentary on Klondike Annie with academic and curator Eloise Ross (2021)
Downtown Girl (2021, 34 mins): appreciation of Mae West’s unique persona with academic and film historian Lucy Bolton
Original theatrical trailer for Goin’ to Town
Image galleries: publicity and promotional materials
New and improved subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
UK premieres on Blu-ray

GO WEST YOUNG MAN / EVERY DAY’S A HOLIDAY

2021 restorations of Go West Young Man and Every Day’s a Holiday from 4K scans
Original mono soundtracks
Audio commentary on Go West Young Man with writer and film historian Nora Fiore (2021)
The Only Way Is West (2021, 19 mins): exploration of Mae West’s cultural importance with critic and author Christina Newland
Original theatrical trailer for Every Day’s a Holiday
Image galleries: publicity and promotional materials
New and improved subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
UK premieres on Blu-ray

MY LITTLE CHICKADEE

2018 4K restoration
Original mono soundtrack
Mae West (1982, 95 mins): television movie biopic directed by Lee Philips, starring Ann Jillian as Mae West, and co-starring James Brolin, Piper Laurie, and Roddy McDowall
A Love-Hate Relationship (2021, 13 mins): appreciation of My Little Chickadee with Dr Harriet Fields, granddaughter of W C Fields
Hollywood Bowl (1939, 7 mins): Walter Lantz animation featuring many Hollywood caricatures, including W C Fields
Original theatrical trailer
Image gallery: promotional materials
New and improved subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
UK premiere on Blu-ray

THE HEAT’S ON

High Definition remaster
Original mono soundtrack
Super 8 version: original cut-down home-cinema presentation reducing the film to a quarter of its original theatrical runtime
Image gallery: promotional materials
New and improved subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
World premiere on Blu-ray
Limited edition exclusive 120-page book with a new essay by Iris Veysey, extracts from West’s autobiography, archival articles and interviews, and film credits
Limited edition of 6,000 numbered units

Mae West in Hollywood 1932 - 1943
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