Wait For The Moment When: Mae West

Mae-West_SheDoneHimWrong

…manifests on screen. Her film debut (she’d been on the New York stage for 20 years) was a supporting role in Night After Night in 1932, a film remembered now only for Mae and the exchange:

“Goodness, what beautiful diamonds!”

“Goodness had nothing to do with it dearie!”

The more you think about it the funnier it is; with its lilting scansion it is also poetically simple. Maybe that’s why the line is so frequently garbled and misquoted – as with Marilyn needing 58 takes to recite “where’s that bourbon?” while simultaneously opening a drawer. Less is more. Legendary theatrical turns of a century ago were by modern standards basic, even nugatory, but nonetheless radiated a concentrated energy (Sarah Bernhardt expected nightly to die on stage). Mae undulated an indolent shimmy, yowled suggestive songs, rotated her hips and delivered startling innuendo in that curious voice, part nasal, part mashed potato, that veered between New York brashness and tom cat purr. It was an old music hall persona but brand new to the screen: Hollywood kept Miss West on ice till the talkies arrived. Despite her extraordinary appearance she was also a creature of aurality as her notoriety on the wireless testifies.

Once she appears, you can’t take your eyes off her: the only definition of a true star. Like Garbo – quite unlike, say, Davis, Crawford or Rita Hayworth – she ignores everyone else in the picture: they are laid on merely as feeds and props. Far larger and stranger than life, entirely self-obsessed, Mae loves Mae. While appearing so transparently lubricious and blatantly arousing she is in fact a complete enigma. Presenting nothing but sex, is she in fact sexy?

Entirely the wrong figure and silhouette for her era, she dresses in a parody of the styles of the 1890’s. Her sweeping spangled gowns conceal the 8″ inch heels and soles that, with pompadours and plumes, transform her from petite to Statue of Liberty dimensions. The legs are rarely glimpsed. Never a beauty, Mae was 40 before she filmed, with an odd little face which Cecil Beaton later likened to that of an ape. Was she laughing at herself or was she deadly serious? Was she really a man, as has often been suggested? Was she the experienced voluptuary she implied or a sexually neurotic woman who avoided intimacy, preferring (like Somerset Maugham) “to be touched only by prior arrangement”.

From increasingly bizarre interviews and memoirs over the decades it’s impossible to tell. I always liked the account of one interview where she generated electricity from the nylon carpet to transmit a shock on shaking hands. Why did Billy Wilder have Mae down as his first choice for Norma Desmond? Had he got her number right off?

Yet one of Mae’s most endearing features is that on film she always appears to be enjoying herself: another aspect of the star persona. This is so even in the movie mistakes of her old age, Myra Breckinridge and Sextette, despite microphones hidden in her false hair to feed her dialogue, and with technicians kneeling on the floor propelling her around the set. There is on You Tube a sweet interview with Mae talking to Dick Cavett – her vast bosom is corseted and tightly upholstered in black velvet, and she comes over as a darling and slightly raffish old lady who has spent a jolly life in saloon bars (needless to say, she was in fact strictly teetotal). She looks fun and – as was once said of Swanson – she is fun to think about, too.

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Rochas took Mae at face value when he and Edmond Roudnistka created FEMME towards the end of World War Two. Couturier Marcel Rochas had known West for years as a client: he now designed the flacon as a surreal vision of the celebrated hips. Naturally it feels wonderful to hold. The box was patterned with the black lace panels that Rochas used to create the optical illusion of a slimmer figure. So maybe the sweet and fruity (prunes, but crystallised) chypre has a touch of tongue in cheek. Today – if you can find a bottle – it is still gorgeous and fascinating despite the passage of 70 years; and so, on celluloid, is Mae.

‘Oh, Beulah…’

‘Yes, ma’am?’

‘Peel me a grape.’

MAE WEST 1893 – 1980

The Scent of Silence

Jean Dujardin & Berenice Bejo in The Artist

I wonder how many of you currently enjoying the Oscar-winning movie The Artist recall that historic episode of Parkinson during which Barry Humphries remorselessly baited poor old Gloria Swanson, stamping on her every line and never allowing her a word in edgeways. Later publicly rebuked he remarked unabashed, “but I was told she was a silent star”. It was probably the first time in her life that Swanson had been upstaged. Perhaps more than any other of her contemporaries she came to personify what the silent screen was all about: but hers was a survivor’s perspective: she had a good voice, made the cross-over to talkies and retrospectively defined old-time stardom in Sunset Boulevard; this kind of became her act for the next 30-odd years – being a (ostensibly sane) survivor from Jurassic Hollywood.

A factoid cliche claims that sound killed the careers of all the great silent stars just as the meteor finished the dinosaurs: their voices were all wrong, it is said. Not so: Valentino was already prematurely dead; Chaplin continued to work without sound; Joan Crawford, Dietrich,Mary Astor, Ronald Colman, Carole Lombard, William Powell, Myrna Loy and especially Garbo thrived in the silents and became even bigger stars in the talkies. Others like Clara Bow and John Gilbert staggered on for years in the new medium. After all, there was such a profession as voice coach even then. No, it was the changing times, the Zeitgeist, that put paid to the careers of the more outre and extravagant personalites.

The breadlines,soup kitchens and dance marathons of America in the Depression had no interest in the eccentricities and extravagances of Mae Murray (twice married to European aristocracy but who fell into such poverty that she ended sleeping on a park bench); Barbara LaMarr “The Girl who is too Beautiful” who like Mabel Normand drugged herself to death; Corinne Griffith,who forgot who she was; the ethereal intellectualism of Lilian Gish or the play-pretend infantilism of Mary Pickford. The USA grew up as fast as Wall St collapsed and was looking for a new grittiness in its entertainments: and the world took its lead (as ever) from America.

And perfumes changed too. They sobered up, cleaned up, freshened up for the 1930’s. Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden put up floral bouquets in lieu of such baroque splendours as Caron‘s Narcisse Noir, Pois de Senteur de Chez Moi, Nuit de Noel and the late lamented Patou extravaganza, Chaldee. (Long before Marilyn’s experiments with Chanel, Josephine Baker danced nude except for clouds of Chaldee). Scents of the silents were intricate, perverse, bizarre: they expressed and emoted like the divas who wore them and whose acting manner, far more than their voices, dated them once the studios were miked.

Twenties perfumes needed huge colourful eccentric personalities to carry them off: they pioneered the use of leather and tobacco; they revelled in overdoses of gardenia (try the Isabey version) jasmine, tuberose and all the brilliantly scented synthetics and chemicals then inspiring the leading perfumers of the day. Their perfumes complemented the wearing of fur, feathers, metallic beaded dresses of sequins and golden mesh, thickily brilliantined cropped hair and garish makeup. Scents unfolded slowly, like the stately pace of silent movies; you can’t rush a silent, nor a silent star’s scent. It will last while you see the programme round again.

A final note on Gloria …remember those obituary headlines? “Sic transit Gloria mundi”. Narcisse Noir was always said to be her signature, and it was already a best-seller when she was still a girl in Chicago. But the immortal Narcisse Noir deserves a Wedge all to itself at a future date.