‘Sex’ and Mae West

During 1925, Jane Mast – a seemingly unknown playwright – began penning a play. She was not herself a demure wallflower and her completed work entitled, shockingly, ‘Sex’ was not destined to dwell forgotten and barely acknowledged in the backstreets of an off-Broadway theatre. Off course, ‘Jane Past’ was just a pseudonym and it was for the even more outlandish Mae West who knew how to attract attention and demanded the spotlight.

Mae was born Mary Jane West on August 17, 1893 in New York and began her seven decade career as a child, performing in amateur shows and beauty contests. As she grew older, this became a more permanent spot in vaudeville and several Broadway shows. It was decades later when Mae was in her early thirties and an experienced and popular feature in the New York scene when she began writing her most famous and controversial piece.

Publicity shot of a young Mae West during her Broadway years.
Publicity shot of a young Mae West during her Broadway years.

The play opened April 26, 1927 at Daly’s 63rd Street Theatre and starred the divine Mae in the main role. It was never going to be a critical success with moralists stunned by the plays overt title and even more overt themes. One critic even wrote:

“Mae West … has broken the fetters and does as she pleases here. After three hours of this play’s nasty, infantile, amateurish, and vicious dialog, after watching its various actors do their stuff badly, one really has a feeling of gratefulness for any repression that may have toned down her vaudeville songs in the past. If this show could do one week of good business it would depart with a handsome profit, it’s that cheaply put on.” (Courting Mae West blogspot)

Another commented, “We were shown not sex but lust—stark naked lust.”

But, it was the audience that would make or break the fairly obscure production with a sold out opening performance and good ticket sales for the subsequent 375 shows. By February the following year, when the marquee was still boasting the bright, glittering word ‘SEX’ and posters were shouting ‘Sex with Mae West’, the guards of morality in New York had had enough. After several complaints from key religious and political figures and members of the public, the police took action arresting Mae and others on the 9th of February as well as permanently closing the show.

Mae West, April 1927, at the trial with a fellow member of the cast.
Mae West, April 1927, at the trial with a fellow member of the cast.

The arrest and subsequent prosecution was a media frenzy, an opportunity Mae exploited to its full potential. She had countless interviews, wore her most glamorous outfits and wasn’t afraid to scandalise herself and the court to the absolute maximum. To her all publicity was good publicity. On April 19, 1927 Mae was prosecuted on moral charges, mainly for “corrupting the morals of youth” and given a $500 fine and ten days in jail. However, of her sentence she only served eight days for good behaviour. During her time in prison, Mae seemed – like in life – to find the fun side, reportedly dining with the warden and his wife and admitted to wearing silk underwear. She also used her stint to publicise the problems with women’s prisons by writing several articles about the people she met and donating money to improve the library facilities.

It would be five years later that Mae, now aged 38, was offered a contract with Paramount studios and began her first film Night After Night (1932). The case appeared only to increase Mae’s notoriety and reputation and hastened her entry into movies which made her a legend in both film history and pop culture in general.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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I'm a film lover and writer whose main interest is classic or pre-1960's Hollywood. At the moment I am obsessed with the Precode era - from 1929 to 1934.

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8 Comments

  1. AnnaLar

    Great study as always Emma!

  2. Taylor Ramsey

    MORE!!
    I love these and I want MORE!!
    Thanks again for another great article!

    • EmmaAlsop

      Thanks Taylor, it feels great to start writing articles again. Hopefully I will do some more pretty soon.

  3. Haha I like this, my favorite part: when the marquee was still boasting the bright, glittering word ‘SEX’ and posters were shouting ‘Sex with Mae West’, the guards of morality in New York had had enough.

    “Sex with Mae West”! 😀

  4. you are spot on with the article about Mae West. I really love it when people focus on her writing and early career as a producer ..and her progressive stance on so many topics (guys in drag on stage, and african americans..etc..

    I named my coffee shop/bar in honor of her…considering she’s a Brooklyn native and was born pretty close to my place. I hope I can quote or link you to our web page. http://www.thewestbrooklyn.com

    • EmmaAlsop

      Hi Esther, thanks for your comment and link. I agree, Mae West was a very refreshing actress/ writer/ director because of her focus on the forgotten parts and topics of society of that era – sex, african americans, gays and lesbians.

      You can quote or link anything you like. Also, if you are interested I run a blog focusing on the revolutionary era of cinema, Precode – http://letsmisbehaveprecodefilmtribute.blogspot.com.au/.

      Thanks,
      Emma

  5. Kenneth
    0

    I absolutely adore Mae West. I would loved to have seen her play. Thank you for your great articles. I found this one while doing some research on Charlie Chaplin. I just couldn’t pass it up after reading your bit on his wives.

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