“Step by step I hit the top of the ladder. It was a dangerous climb.
But now I’m a lady, come up and see me sometime.” From Mae West’s closing song
To truly enjoy this film, and understand why the extravagant set design, a little background is in order. It is 1934; Mae has made four pictures for Paramount since detraining in Pasadena in June of ’32, overweight and almost forty. With no one there to greet her, she “reckoned the old Mae West stock had taken a Wall Street cocktail…” (her words, in reference to the 1929 market crash). Immediately she set about getting back where she belonged: On Top.
Although once “the toast of Broadway,” her likes had never been seen by the nation at large—but when they did, what a welcome they gave her. Over 24 months, 46 million people laid down their dime and shared happily in her wisecracks and innuendos, so saucily delivered in that unmistakable manner of speech.
Mae was nothing less than a film phenomenon and enjoyed giving the censors a merry chase. Her double entendres were famous, repeated and laughed at from dingy corner saloons to dinner parties hosted by Palm Beach society divas. Those who liked her loved her; those who did not feared her power and deliberately set out to destroy the actress and everything she represented.
By the time Goin’ to Town was in pre-production, these unhappy self-appointed social arbiters carried even more firepower. The bat-eared Will Hays, a former Postmaster General of the United States, was Chief Spoilsport. This “Tsar of all the Rushes”—an annoying little man with an irritating high-pitched voice—had recently introduced an even more severe Production Code for the industry. Mae was now “Target One” and he delighted in tormenting both studio and star. The plan was simple: slash away at the clever wordplay in her scripts until what was left was so lame it would almost certainly ruin her career. After all, without sex where would she be?
Mae enjoyed a good fight; but Paramount, having been saved from selling out to MGM by the enormous profits from her box-office smashes, had its own good reasons for keeping both the actress and her admirers happy. When Goin’ to Town was completed—concerned the much pummeled script might disappoint her public if the film was not properly promoted—the studio went on the offensive. Theatres were instructed to run clips from She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel hoping to exploit the West mystique and lather up fan anticipation—despite the fact both films were now forbidden further exhibition by order of the Hays Office.
Taking no chances in overplaying their hand, the new picture was advertised as a “deliberate” departure for the actress. This was Mae West as social satirist and critic “mocking upper crust arrogance and pretension” and exposing class superficiality and hypocrisy. Paramount reasoned (correctly as it turns out; the film made a decent profit) that if fans did not expect a “modern” Mae to vamp her way through seventy-one minutes of outrageous pranks, double talk, and sexual overtone, they would watch it with an open mind and the studio might rack up another winner.
The story begins in contemporary time, in a western town deep with the dust of two thousand cattle (likely Texas as there is a lot of cross-border rustling going on). In fact that is what gets dance-hall entertainer Cleo Borden’s (Mae West) intended, Buck Gonzales (Fred Kohler), killed on the eve of their wedding making her one of the wealthiest women in America overnight.
A geological engineer, Edward Carrington (Paul Cavanaugh, in a role originally intended for Cary Grant), who was hired by Gonzales, confirms the ranch sits on pockets of oil “worth millions.” Cleo’s infatuation with Carrington is immediate. And we are sympathetic; after all, Buck won her hand in a crap game.
However the reserved Englishman is offended by Cleo’s “flirtatious” antics, such as roping him and shooting his hat off. His work completed, he heads off to South America. The smitten Cleo goes after him all under the pretext of entering her horse Cactus, “the fastest mount in the west,” in the International Sweepstakes. She is also chasing some social cachet, figuring being a “Cattle Queen,” or even “Oil Queen,” just doesn’t cut it if there’s no blue blood when you nick yourself shaving your legs.
The International Club in Buenos Aries is the first big indoor set and Art Deco buffs will be enchanted. The entrance is simply dazzling—and the casino doesn’t disappoint either, with its magnificent mirrors, sparkling filigree work, and glittering crystal. When we first see Mae in her suite, fittingly in the bedroom, there is a single piece any real deco enthusiast would leap through the screen for: a magnificent all-white floor radio.
Spurned again by Carrington, Cleo settles for in an arranged marriage to Fletcher Colton. She gets a Long Island name, and he a wife who can afford his huge gambling debts. It is strictly a monetary agreement, no hanky-panky. So now it’s off to Southhampton and Colton Manor where the art director seem to have had an absolute field day. It looks like most of the stuff was picked up at a “garage sale” at San Simeon, California, where newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst stashed his incredibly eclectic collection of art and objects from around the world. (Hearst’s taste was often reviled.)
Contributing to the lack of elegance are unsightly table bases, heavily ornamented flowers, cupids, nude male statues, mirrors emblazoned with tree branches, and a hodge- podge of other pieces of dubious appeal. The sitting room fireplace is overdone to the point it almost, but not quite, calls your attention away from Cleo as she feeds walnuts to her parrot while verbally sparring with her husband’s viperous aunt. On the plus side, a live monkey is a nice touch.
Fortunately her bedroom is toned down considerably from the rest of the mansion’s motif, and not so bad to look at if you can sleep amidst a collision of semi-transparent screens with elliptical framing, striped wallpaper, festoons, figurines, plaster and wood adornments. At a quick glance the relief above the door could represent either the wings of Hermes, messenger to the Greek gods, or old west-style handlebar moustaches, a reminder of her bawdy bloodline.
Two pieces offer redemption: a beautiful white Baby Grand in the music room; and a metal sculpture of a heron just below the bedroom balcony. (The heron is one of three birds most often depicted in art deco, the others being the flamingo and pelican. In this scene at dusk, like a foreshadowing of imminent danger, it also closely resembles a baby raptor.) These sets are either to be viewed as “Deco” in extremis, or a bastardized mixture of rococo and baroque—but they certainly add to the fun as the plot hurries on, sliding nearly into slapstick.
In an effort to impress her sneering Social Register neighbours Cleo decides to put on the opera Samson and Delilah. Accompanied in her grand entrance by half naked African slaves, she sings the role of Delilah (a woman she admires as “one lady barber that made good”). Watching Mae “in black chiffon with a long shimmering trail and diamond-studded pelvic and breast-plates, crowned with a long blonde wig and a tiara of diamond leaves” singing the mezzo half of her duet in French—all the time fondling Samson’s lengthy black tresses—is enough to grab the attention of the dead. It is also pure burlesque cheerfully brought back from her vaudeville days.
While all this is taking place someone is trying to collect on another of Fletcher’s IOU’s; a nasty trio of society matrons is planning a most unpleasant surprise for Cleo; her true love, Edward Carrington, has unexpectedly shown up; and, back in Cleo’s bedroom, the nefarious actions of a Russian gigolo result in murder. Here, the quick-thinking assistance of Cleo’s devoted Apache servant, Taho, helps save the day. (Only Miss West could have an Apache servant and get away with it!)
The resulting mayhem is a richly wrought spoof of high society, its members and their courtiers. For a little while the mood is more one of the combined comedic insanity of Peter Sellers, Woody Allen, and The Three Stooges all wrapped into one tremendously entertaining extended sketch. That, to my eye at least, explains why the overly-wrought set design works so well. By this time the audience is ready and willing to accept just about anything, even the décor, as long as Mae eventually gets her man.
Hollywood Popcorn: Did You Know… ?
- Mae was born August 17, 1893, to Matilda and John “Battlin’ Jack” West (a former prizefighter) in New York City. She was actually christened “Mary Jane” after her grandmother. When his career in the ring was finished, her father started a “private police force” which more often than not meant working as muscle for local crime syndicates. He was of English/Irish descent, while mom, “Tillie,” was born in Bavaria and brought to America as a child. Eventually Mae had two siblings: Beverley and John.
- As a child Mae began appearing in vaudeville and burlesque. Eventually she realized her dreams of fame in a series of controversial plays. “Sex,” which she wrote, opened off-Broadway in 1926, and led to her arrest and a trial on obscenity charges which put Mae on the map as a genuine celebrity. She counted among her friends Texas Guinan (New York’s most famous madam, also known as the “Queen of the speakeasies”), and enjoyed a fast and furious affair with George Raft while she appeared in Diamond Lil (1928).
- It was Raft who was responsible for bringing her to Hollywood to work with him on Night After Night (1932) in which her unforgettable performance brought her to the abrupt attention of the entire nation. About his old flame’s accomplishment, Raft accurately offered: “She stole everything but the cameras.” The next three films were hers alone: Diamond Lil (1933), I’m No Angel (1933) and Belle of the Nineties (1934).
- When she arrived in Los Angeles, Paramount Studios had arranged for Apartment 611 at The Ravenswood, “a handsome Art Deco block on…a leafy boulevard in the smartest part of Hollywood.” She made it her sanctum—and forty-eight years later, on November 22, 1980, after a series of strokes, Mae West died in her infamous bedroom with its mirrored ceiling. (She also owned a beach house in Santa Monica and a small ranch.) Within two days her old friend, Raft, joined her. One can only imagine the conversation between the world’s most famous “wannabe gangster,” and the world’s most “famous sex symbol,” when they met up once more with the long-departed Guinan at her new establishment.
- Mae was married once, age 17, on April 11, 1911, to fellow stage actor Frank Wallace with whom she had been touring in A Florida Enchantment. It was a secret ceremony and they never lived together as man and wife. He granted her a divorce in 1943 in exchange for a generous settlement.
- By the end of 1935 she was America’s most highly paid woman with an income of over $480,000. Although Goin’ to Town returned above average box office, this film would not do as well as her previous pictures.
- Foolishly she had so bought into her carefully nurtured self-image that she turned down the lead in Sunset Boulevard with William Holden, a picture that Gloria Swanson decided to make—a decision she never regretted. In 1971, Mae was honoured with UCLA’s “Woman of the Century” award.
MAE AND HER MUSCLEMEN
Mickey Hargitay (Mr. Universe, 1956) was appearing with Mae at the Latin Quarter in the mid-1950’s when Jayne Mansfield first laid eyes on him. Almost immediately these two young cast members “plunged into a headline making affair.” The publicity did not hurt Mae’s show (just the opposite), only her pride. Even she could not pretend to compete with a 20-year-old beauty being touted as the next Marilyn Monroe.
While touring in Mississippi with her own night club act in 1967, Jayne Mansfield died in a car crash, age 34; she was decapitated. Coincidentally, another muscleman, Arnold Schwarzenegger, played her husband, Hargitay, in a made-for-television biopic, The Jayne Mansfield Story (1980), four years before starring in The Terminator.
Long before his Magnum P.I. fame, Tom Selleck, then 25, played one of Mae West’s studs in Myra Breckinridge (1970). This was Mae’s first film in twenty-six years.
SOME OF MAE’s ZINGERS
I feel like a million tonight. But one at a time.
I’m a good woman—for a bad man.
So many men; so little time.
Anything worth doing is worth doing slowly.
I’ve been in more laps than a napkin.
He who hesitates is a damn fool.
She’s the kind of girl who climbed the ladder of success—wrong by wrong.
I generally avoid temptation, unless I can’t resist it.
Whenever I’m caught between two evils I take the one I’ve never tried.
I always say keep a diary and some day it’ll keep you.
When I’m good, I’m good. When I’m bad, I’m very good.
It’s not the men in my life; it’s the life in my men.
I used to be Snow White…but I drifted.
It’s better to be looked over than over-looked.
I only like two kinds of men: domestic and foreign.
Give a man a free hand and he’ll run it all over you.
Good girls go to heaven; bad girls go everywhere else.
I’m the finest woman to walk the street
By: Michael Orr