Editors Note: Before we answer the above question, a brief message noting the passing of Zizi Jeanmaire, the Paris-born chanteuse/dancer extraordinaire who logged a six-decade career entertaining audiences worldwide from the Paris Opera to Broadway to a smattering of Hollywood films in the Fifties (eg. she danced with Bing Crosby in 1956’s Anything Goes; her first movie was 1952’s Hans Christian Andersen starring Danny Kaye). Most of her limited film work was in her native France (see one-sheet below) where she was an established star.
Frank remembers a time in the mid-1980’s, when marooned in a Milan waiting out a delayed flight, was stuck in a dull hotel. Flipping on the tv resulted in a musical-variety program splashed across the tube, the kind of show that domestic tv had long abandoned. And there she was (about 60 at the time). Zizi Jeanmaire, slim, athletic, slightly naughty and surrounded by a scantily clad chorus (both male and female, as recalled). Enough said that Zizi performed her highly choreographed act with an infectious energy and good humor that night — lifting the mood in that dismal hotel room to unheard of heights. Zizi Jeanmaire, died on July 17 in Switzerland. She was 96.
Now back to our opening question. The answer: no, we haven’t forgotten Mae West, but we welcome the chance to recall her exploits.
Something to keep in mind: West made a lasting impact with the fewest number of film releases, 12 features from 1932’s Night After Night to 1978’s Sextette.
Such a big name for so little output. Actually, her reputation was established in vaudeville and on the New York stage; by the time she reached Hollywood, she was a fully formed and known commodity.
Has there ever been a sexier Hollywood star?
Sure she had been around the block a few times by 1932 when she arrived in Hollywood. Fortyish, full figured and a fully-formed show biz veteran, she never quite fit the Hollywood prototype of either the slim, winsome ingenue or the seasoned actress/star with glamour to spare.
West made a specialty of confronting sexual matters head on: creating snappy, transgressive, self-mocking dialogue to accomplish her goal. When I’m good, I’m very good. But when I’m bad, I’m better… To much of a good thing can be…wonderful… Give a man a free hand and he’ll run it all over you… It’s better to be looked over than overlooked.
She never played the innocent coquette. Neither was she the sophisticated beauty.
With her distinctive platinum blond hair, flagrant sashaying and randy quips, she conquered vaudeville, Broadway stage (eg. Sex and The Drag), and blazingly emerged as one of 1930s Hollywood’s biggest box office draws.
She reeked of pure sexual attitude. La sulfureuse, as the French put it.
Few attained fame and international popularity as quickly as did Mae West. Her full-figured, voluptuous image even inspired the naming of the inflatable life vest worn by Allied airmen in World War II. She was otherwise described as “the Big Ben of hourglass figures.”
As mentined, West didn’t make many movies. And she stayed active a bit beyond her past-due date, appearing in such clunkers as Sextette and Myra Breckinridge. But her appearances in other platforms — from vaudeville and stage to radio and live touring performances — reinforced and extended her career. A notorious health nut, she died in 1980 at age 87.
Every once in a while we like to dip into Goodness Had Nothing To Do With It, the book Mae wrote about herself in 1959, and then updated 11 tears later. Herewith we present a small sampling of her words of wisdom:
— After I’m No Angel, her 1933 romantic comedy opposite Cary Grant, Mae West became something of a worldwide sensation. She looks like the statue of libido, opined one critic. Said West: my personal life kept pace with my public one. I played as hard as I worked. I did not neglect my pleasures, but I did wish I had more time for them.
— On villains with facial hair: Only Gable and (Ronald) Colman could play good men with mustaches.
— I’ve never been able to sleep with anyone (!). I require a full size bed so that I can lie in the middle of it and extend my arms spread eagle on both sides without heir obstructed. –
— Sex and I have a lot in common. I don’t want to take any credit for inventing it — but I may say, in my own modest way, and in a manner of speaking — that I have rediscovered it.
— Hollywood treated me well after I fought to establish myself, but I always held it at arms’ length like a would-be lover one didn’t fully trust.