This may well be the worst episode of An Alan Smithee Podcast since the last worst episode. That alone should make for required listening. We are defeated by overestimating the entertainment value of a Hollywood “legend” whose golden years may not have been all that amusing, even in what is considered to be her best film.
The icon is Mae “Come Up And See Me Sometime” West, and the nominally good film is She Done Him Wrong (1933). By the time we get to the more auspiciously dire swan song Sextette (1978) our spirits are already broken and discussing the not-so-fine art of double entendres becomes insult to injury.
West’s life would probably make a better film than any films of her own. West worked her way up in vaudeville, rebelling against stuffy social bigotry and sexual repression like every other young punk in the 1920s and crafting the stage persona she came to be known for onscreen: a brassy, wisecracking maneater who dominated and manipulated all those around her and constantly joked between the lines about her sexual prowess. This proto-post-feminist shtick was heady stuff for the time, as were her drag queen inspired fashion choices and shimmy-shawobble hip movements inspired by black nightclub dancers.
What’s headier to think of today is that West was thought of as a sexual object of desire and not merely a comedian – which is exactly how she liked it. People come to see her on Vaudeville for the raunchy laughs while her nudity-free act let her revel in skits and songs about her sexual power as a universally irresistible man magnet. She wasn’t the most attractive broad in show business but there wasn’t yet an official middle ground between glamourous and funny women performers. Women weren’t even legally ruled funny by the Supreme Court until 1927. Her breakout Broadway play Diamond Lil was a saucy melodrama set in the “Gay 90s” at the turn of the century, and by the end of the roaring twenties everyone in New York knew of West.
When she arrived in Hollywood, Diamond Lil was prepared for the screen as She Done Him Wrong, much to the consternation of the Hays censorship office who’d already caught wind of West’s reputation. This was a big factor in my urging of the film as West’s “good” movie for Alan Smithee Podcast – if the Hays office hated it, it must be good, right? Joe Bob Briggs even featured it in his book of essays on sexually liberating milestones in film, Profoundly Erotic. I can’t blame him for recognizing the cultural significance of Mae West and her best known work outside of My Little Chickadee with W.C. Fields, but he should have affixed the same warning that he gave Blood Feast in the similar tome Profoundly Disturbing – this film is more fun to talk about than it is to actually watch.
At just over an hour, She Done Him Wrong crawls like a snail. A film so short shouldn’t need musical numbers but there’s almost as much padding as the inside of Mae’s girdle. The story revolves around her headliner status at an 1890s saloon and dancing hall, which means the songs featured were considered kind of corny even in 1933. Mae’s songs are about as sexy as a slow ready of “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain.”
You can count the number of sets on your hand as the obviously stagebound nature of the original play relegates everything to either mustachioed fops onstage or West hamming it up with cocktail napkin quality zingers in her private backstage boudoir. Some of her come-ons are directed at young Cary Grant, who had acted in a few prior films including Blonde Venus with Marlene Dietrich, but whom West would claim “discovery” of for the rest of her life.
Mae West’s life after She Done Him Wrong was an experiment in aging timelessness. Far ahead of the cultural curve, West was absorbed into collective consciousness almost immediately by cartoons, quotations and parody. By the 1940s she was already considered old hat and muzzled by stricter Hays Code regulations on the depiction of promiscuity. She left Hollywood, making sporadic television appearances over the years and otherwise supporting herself with live performances around the world. At some point the warm tide of nostalgia that made W.C. Fields and The Marx Brothers hip again revived interest in and respect for her libertine overtones and she returned to film Gore Vidal’s other infamous contribution to cinema besides Caligula (previously discussed in this episode), the infamous Myra Breckinridge (1970). At the age of 77, her looks and timing obviously weren’t what they once were, which is why it may have taken another eight years before two young, eager and likely homosexual fans from Crown International Pictures approached her about filming her last attempt at Broadway, the 1961 farce Sextette.
There are two forces at work in Sextette which have rightfully qualified the film for previous inclusion on “Razzie Award” lists of “the worst films ever made” and the like. The first is obviously that West is, uh, not well. She’s playing herself the only way she can, far past not only the cultural expiration date of her act but that of her corporeal husk. This results in line readings of corny innuendo with pauses so awkward, rumors have persisted for years that she was being fed her lines through earpiece microphones under her wig. This leads to some real ickiness between her and Timothy Dalton, giving his all as her newest husband (the sixth) who can’t wait to make the kind of proper Englishman love to West that she hasn’t had since Cary Grant.
The film would’ve been enough of a mess with her running around on Dalton while occasionally stopping for disco-infused songs. Elevating the film the true clusterbomb status is the gaggle of guest stars playing West’s former husbands who all happen to be staying in her honeymoon hotel, with great wackiness and misunderstanding. The guest star ensemble method of casting had reached a tacky nadir by the late 70s and Sextette combines vintage 70s celebrity scenery chewers sprinkled with West’s geriatric Hollywood pals doing her a favor: Keith Moon AND Ringo Starr, George Hamilton, Tony Curtis, Walter Pidgeon, Alice Cooper, George Raft and who else but Dom Deluise as West’s right hand man. Some acquit themselves admirably, like Dalton. Deluise sings and dances on a piano.
Unfunny comedies are hard to appreciate even if they’re historically significant. Our next attempt to class up Alan Smithee Podcast won’t rely so heavily on dated hipness and sultry sirens. Future bad-movie selections, however, will probably include Dom Deluise again at least once.
NEXT EPISODE: WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT (1988, ROBERT ZEMECKIS) / COOL WORLD (1992, RALPH BAKSHI)