Actress, singer, playwright, screenwriter, comedian and sex symbol Mae West was born Mary Jane West 123 years ago today in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Here are 10 MW Did-You-Knows:
West was delivered in her family’s home by her midwife aunt. Her father was a prize fighter and, later, a private investigator.
Her first public performance is said to occurred at the age of five, when, ironically enough, she entertained at a church social at a still-extant Queens establishment called Neir’s Social Hall (now Neir’s Tavern). After that, she performed in local talent shows.
West’s first Broadway appearance came in a 1911 revue called A La Broadway, which was mounted by her former dancing teacher and long-time impresario of juvenile theatrical acts, Ned Wayburn. The revue folded after just eight performances.
Her first review in The New York Times, when she was 18 years old, stated, “A girl named Mae West, hitherto unknown, pleased by her grotesquerie and snappy way of singing and dancing.”
West began writing risqué plays under the name Jane Mast, and her first starring role on Broadway came in a 1926 play she wrote called Sex. Conservative critics and church groups objected to the play, but the production was a hit. Eventually, the pressure put on by the groups led to West being arrested and placed in jail at Jefferson Market Courthouse (it’s now a public library).
West could have paid a fine and remained free, but she opted for a sentence of ten days in jail, figuring it would be good publicity (it was).
Of the twelve pictures West appeared in, she wrote or co-wrote nine of them.
From the 1920s forward, West was an outspoken supporter of gay rights.
West’s 1928 play, Diamond Lil, earned her a ticket to Hollywood (the play was eventually adapted for the screen as She Done Him Wrong and costarred Cary Grant). She was nearly 40 when she signed her first movie contract.
After strict enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code began in 1934, putting a damper on her popularity (a toned-down Mae West wasn’t as appealing to the public), West performed in nightclubs, mounted a Las Vegas revue, made records (something she’d been doing since the 1930s) and wrote books. Her final film, Sextette (1978), closed out a career that had spanned more than seventy years.
Joan Bennett, sister of Constance Bennett, another Cladrite favorite, was part of a theatrical family that went back to the 18th century. She had a few tiny bits in the silent era, but got really busy once talkies came in and acted into the early 1980s.
Bennett, who was born 106 years ago today in Pallisades, New Jersey, left a legacy in two of our favorite cinematic genres—Pre-Code and Film Noir—and we wish her the happiest of birthdays, wherever she may be.
Hermie was a little bit embarrassed by his preference in movie stars, but he figured there was not as much competition that way.
We have a similar little thing for Una Merkel, whose 112th birthday it is today. Una came to specialize in playing wise (and sometimes wisecracking), loyal second bananas to the leading ladies in films of the Pre-Code Era, but she was certainly not without her own charms, not the least of which was her Southern drawl.
Ironically enough, it was Una who was first slated to play Blondie in that popular series of films before the role was finally awarded to Singleton.
Merkel was born Una Kohnfelder in Covington, Kentucky (we’ve long wondered at the choice of Merkel to replace Kohnfelder. It doesn’t seem the typical choice for a studio-concocted screen name) and began her career in silent movies. She’s listed in some sources as having appear in a 1924 short called Love’s Old Sweet Song and a feature film produced in Texas that same year called The Fifth Horseman. This now-lost (and good riddance) picture was an entry in the then-active genre of pro-Ku Klux Klan films, so perhaps the less said about it, the better. (We hope and trust our Una was just in it for the money.)
As the years passed, Merkel got to stretch out a bit and her career showed staying power (her final role final role was in 1968, on the popular television program I Spy). Along the way, she appeared in Jean Harlow‘s final picture, Saratoga (1937), indulged in a hair-pulling catfight with Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again (1939), and even appeared in the 1961 Disney comedy The Parent Trap as the Evers’ family’s housekeeper.
After a hectic day, we’re under the wire by less than two hours in wishing James Cagney a happy birthday.
Had he managed to stick it out a little longer, Cagney, perhaps the quintessential New Yorker, would have been 113 years old today.
Cagney was a delight from the start of his career to the finish, but we especially love his performances in the snappy Warner Brothers programmers of the early 1930s.
Below are three clips, the first two of which are taken from his early days in Hollywood. In the first, Cagney spars with Bette Davis in 1934’s Jimmy the Gent, and in the second, he speaks Yiddish in a scene from Taxi! (1932).
In the final offering, our Jimmy appears as the mystery guest on an episode of What’s My Line? that aired in May 1960.
Hollywood pictures of the early 1930s are often interesting in the attitudes they exhibit toward gay men and lesbians. The presentation of gay characters are sometimes very matter of fact, offering no particular judgment or attitude, and even when the depictions are a bit demeaning, at least the fact that there are gay men and lesbians in the world is acknowledged. In pictures from the late ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, one rarely sees a gay character depicted at all (Peter Lorre‘s Joel Cairo in The Maltese Falcon (1941) is one notable exception to this rule).
Jews underwent a similar cinematic fate in Hollywood, it seems to us. In the 1920s and early ’30s, there were many Jewish characters depicted in Hollywood movies. Were those depictions sometimes stereotypical? Undeniably, but not all were, and at least Jews had a prominent presence in the Hollywood movies of the era. That seemed to change drastically in the ensuing decades.
We were watching a pre-code James Cagney film not long ago (Picture Snatcher, 1933), and in one scene, for reasons not salient to this account, Cagney is on the phone pretending to be a woman. A dame he’s scamming walks in, hears his end of the conversation, and asks, “Want to borrow one of my dresses, dearie? Who was that on the phone?”
“Ah, just a bunch of violets,” Cagney answers. “He had the wrong number. I egged him on for a laugh.”
“A bunch of violets”—as an old euphemism for “gay man,” that was a new one on us.