Credit: Netflix

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Ben Flanagan

In Leo McCarey’s Belle of the Nineties (1934), a Western parody released a few months after the introduction of the Code, Mae West appears in a stage show as Ruby Carter, where the desirable ‘good time girl’ dons various outfits taking on the shape of a rose, a spider, and the Statue of Liberty. In this truncated comedy, stripped to the bone by the moralism of Joseph Breen et al, West would wrap up desire with animal instincts and transfiguration. There can be only one direct descendant to this moment: Rebel Wilson’s feline visage in Cats (2019). Tom Hooper’s adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical is a noted disaster, but ‘The Old Gumbie Cat’ sequence is easily its most successful. Making full use of her phallic tail, Wilson enters the film by masturbating before singing about her sexual anxieties over the mice in her kitchen. When the mice sing the bridge, Wilson winks, ‘Dinner and a show,’ before the scene erupts into a Busby Berkeley dance number. Cats is a nightmare hallucination, sure, but at least it chooses its points of reference well: like Mae West before her, Rebel Wilson is film star as mirage.

Such is the Mae West paradigm: with complete alienation from each scene in itself, she instead surveys it for sex and double entendre. West signified modernism like few others. Long before turning to the movies, she had displayed a transgressive streak in the theatre world, becoming known for ‘male impersonation’ and a moral prosecution for her 1926 play Sex (she went to jail rather than paying the fine – better for publicity). The persona she then translated to the screen immediately popped in a small role in Archie Mayo’s Night After Night (1932), with an amplification of sensuous femininity that uses her rare voluptuousness and that working-class Brooklyn drawl to draw lucid spirals across screen and soundtrack. Always with an adoring mammy in toe (in 1933’s I’m No Angel, she has four), she is a friend to all, particularly the audience. 

85 years after the pre-Code era, where is West’s essence to be found? The comedy giants of double entendre who followed – Myers, Sandler, Steve Martin – play dress up as ludicrous characters from their repertoire who often cross racial and gender boundaries. Melissa McCarthy may have been a contender, but she now leans away from comedy, proving herself to be a real actor, as her turn as Sean Spicer showed us. West stays herself, even when forced into a period piece in films like She Done Him Wrong (1933), where she plays a bawdy saloon singer, or My Little Chickadee (1940), where she plays a bawdy saloon singer. 

For Armond White, parallels between West and Amy Schumer abound, in a piece that comes across as contrarian bingo. That Schumer’s raunchy comedy is more overtly political is no surprise, and her Inside Amy Schumer sketch show could well be a parallel to West’s stage shows in building a persona. But across Schumer’s film career in middling comedies – Trainwreck (2015), Snatched (2017), and I’m So Pretty (2018) – her presence never managed to find a balance: girlboss politics and sloganeering moralism clashed against a purported dirtbag aesthetic. Schumer’s appeal is in her ‘normalness’, but her beliefs always seemed aspirational of the Clinton class. As White himself asserts, West was ‘beyond feminism’. Schumer’s aesthetics never make the same leap. 

It should be stated that quality is no mark of a Mae West film. It is characteristic of her features to be convoluted and rarely funny. Often her jokes seem to require an unnecessary run up. She is an unforgettable persona, but the films are bad. Goin’ to Town (1935), West’s second film under the Code, is telling. While she is given the dignity to express genuine love for Paul Cavanaugh, the film also revolves around her dance hall queen Pygmalioning herself into a good woman. What stronger sign of those suddenly more prudish times than that we are expected to follow West’s journey to the good girl, rather than feeling desire. This might be her closest parallel to Schumer, whose punkish put-ons bely a wish to settle down and be looked after. Couldn’t be West, who is always on the lookout for the next step in the socio-economic ladder.  

This is what makes the mugging and sexualised banter of maligned actor Rebel Wilson the true lateral personality to West. Having appeared seemingly from nowhere as ‘Fat Amy’ in the musical-campus-comedy Pitch Perfect (2012), Wilson’s body-positive spin on flirtatious sorority humour made her a stand-out player of the early 2010s landscape of post-Apatow comedy. In the Australian actor’s first lead role, 2019’s Isn’t It Romantic, Wilson plays a jaded woman who hits her head on a subway railing and wakes up in a Romantic Comedy where men suddenly begin throwing themselves at her as though she was Mae West herself.

But Wilson’s conception of nostalgia only goes about as far as Pretty Women (1990). Her costume, a hat and white dress with arm-length gloves, doesn’t reference anything beyond our idea of an Anne Hathaway comedy. Wilson though, stands out, her awareness of her presence in a film an updating of West’s own detachment from the scene. In a typically postmodern Hollywood way, the necessity of the plot to explain away Wilson’s winking to the camera as a meta-storyline holds her back from a true expression of the persona. Her life outside of the screen is key to the text of the story itself. It is the ur-Wilson, just sadly not a very good one. Instead of a mammy, she has a gay best friend (a trope that must have switched via the camp British butler, as can be seen in West’s swansong, 1978’s Sextette). Isn’t it Romantic imagines itself as the first self-aware rom com, instead of its likelihood of being the last. It ignores Nora Ephron’s deconstructivist approach where she updated the likes of The Shop Around the Corner into You’ve Got Mail, or, in Sleepless in Seattle, designing a rom-com where the leads don’t meet.

The two musical numbers in Isn’t It Romantic? are much like the West oeuvre’s constant use of musical interludes, and similarly, both are covers of popular older songs with little relation to the story itself. Isn’t It Romantic also exposes the difference in care given to the American comedy film between the 1930s and today. Paramount produced most of West’s films, and no expense is spared with floral plumage and ornate set decoration furnishing the frames. Even when barely a thing is happening, it looks pretty. In I’m No Angel and Belle of the Nineties, West had Travis Banton styling her. Banton, who styled Dietrich in four of her Hollywood collaborations with Von Sternberg and who did the greatest costuming job of all time in Ophüls’ Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948), was a master of characterisation through clothes, a proto-Edith Head (and her mentor) who combined surrealism, persona, and storytelling in his style. West’s materialism has never been clearer than in Belle of the Nineties, in which her character devises a ruse to win back a collection of diamonds and jewels she has been robbed of – which she stole herself, of course. 

West’s gleeful navigation of the law is another key part of her mirage. West plays a con artist herself a few times, notably in Every Day’s a Holiday (1937), in which she adopts a French accent (and some of her best outfits) “Stop this before I forget who I am,” she cries when a fight breaks out. Klondike Annie (1936) is based, like many of her films, on her own play, directed by Raoul Walsh and edited by Stuart Heisler. It’s the classic American tale right down to its use of some of the laziest yellowface I’ve ever seen (is it worse that they don’t use paint? Somehow?). West, escaping a murder charge, cons her way onto a cruise ship where she flirts with Victor McLagan, then poses as a Christian Missionary. It’s got a touch of Flannery O’Connor to it, and Walsh shoots with wonderful attention to the faces and bodies of people in the town. But it’s toothless, and there’s far too many musical numbers. Around 10 minutes were cut and you can feel their absence in stitching a threadbare film together.

Wilson’s frat-girl-gone-bad persona goes down this road, too, in The Hustle (2019), wherein she teams up with Anne Hathaway for a Chris Addison-directed remake of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. This Riviera-set comedy should have the makings of a Paramount-style film. But the film is cheap and overlit. As a con-artist-in-training, Wilson is forced to fall over and demean herself, with the handy excuse from a production perspective that it’s all part of the deception. Wilson, although equally as confident and desirable to male characters as Hathaway, is looked at with some level of distance – it is seen as outlandish or bizarre that a romantic male would find her appealing. Though men fight over Rebel, they are often revealed to be con artists. Where West is in control, utterly confident of her body and her wit, the Wilson comedy always feels the need to explain her appeal through plot machinations. You won’t see her having a dance scene with Randolph Scott, patting his behind, unless it’s in a dream sequence or part of a con. Rebel Wilson films fall over themselves trying to explain that someone could desire her. West reaches back to a music hall past; Wilson sells Theatreland self-loathing. 

West’s best film is I’m No Angel, one of her rare titles not to be censored, and the one which most carefully deconstructs her persona. In it, a circus performer from the wrong side of the tracks becomes a huge star by putting her head in a lion’s mouth, and then navigates the advances of various well-to-do men. When her eventual fiancé Cary Grant shrugs her off, she sues him, resulting in a courtroom set piece where the jury (the American public) are asked to judge West’s moral character. While the system should be against her, even the judge is so head-over-heels that she easily wins the case, a metaphor for West’s position at the time as the highest paid actor in Hollywood. I’m No Angel director Wesley Ruggles has a quietly surreal eye. Shots of hands performing action are disembodied from the voices we hear throwing barbs at one another. West’s trademark swagger is accentuated through a camera that doesn’t cut between one piece of action and another. When she is brought out to a performance atop an elephant, her body is so fixed into a single iconic sculpture that it’s no wonder Dalí was obsessed with her lips. 

Wilson has never had a comedy vehicle befitting of her persona. West entered the industry by writing her own material, and the victor in the battle for control over her image is largely what divides the pre-code and following films. Perhaps the only remaining analogue, then, might be the filmmaker Lena Dunham. Across the film Tiny Furniture (2011) and the HBO series Girls (2012-2017), Dunham developed a snarky persona of self-possession and economic fortitude. But unlike West, Dunham, the daughter of artists, is from the right side of the tracks. Girls represented a pinnacle of whatever they called Mumblecore, and as such was seen as a mainstream moment for a movement that was otherwise defiantly shoddy and festival-based. There is also the fact of Dunham’s body, which was endlessly discussed by the media. It is not just the fact of a ‘normal’ body being shown on television, but that the likes of Adam Driver and Riz Ahmed would find her sexually desirable, and HBO’s love of on-screen flesh that presented viewers with the shocking reality of coupling.

The show, a fizzy and biting satire of New York millennial life (the hilarious sub-plot introducing Childish Gambino as Dunham’s boyfriend, who she exoticises until discovering that he votes Republican, was a clear response to criticism that the show presented a whitewashed view of upper-class Brooklynites), was sold as an art object rather than a romantic comedy – hence Tiny Furniture’s release as part of the Criterion collection, and the complete lack of interest since in Dunham as a mainstream film star.  But ultimately what did Dunham in was her privilege. As the daughter of New York-based artists, Dunham’s route to success was apparently easy. Girls made no bones about this fact: throughout its run, Dunham’s stories are in the Philip Roth tradition, showing the sexual impulses that undergird power structures of the bourgeoisie. They are a pinpoint depiction of Obama-era malaise, but that is hardly a crowd-pleaser. 

West, herself a Brooklyn native from the era before it joined with New York, played the underdog to a tee. For men to desire her revealed an animal instinct within the mores and social graces of early 20th century politesse. Dunham’s sexuality only presents wealth back to itself, which is less empowering to a mass audience, like the Depression-era crowds who dug West. It is for this reason that there is no heir to the Mae West sofa: They are either oafish like Wilson, politically spayed like Schumer, or rich like Dunham. The emergence of a new wave of black female comics like Tiffany Haddish and Radha Blank has coincided with the irreversible tide that American comedies remain frightened of the intellectually, sexually and economically empowered woman, and that’s why they must erase the shadow of Mae West.