While she is now remembered as one of the biggest icons of the 1930s, and of classic cinema in general, it’s easy to forget that Mae West’s film career was actually pretty brief. She only appeared in twelve films, fewer than Luise Rainer, who was also among the stars dubbed Box Office Poison in a 1938 ad published by the Independent Theater Owners Association (ITOA).
Mae West was a master of shaping her public image through her trademark quips, often playing up the magnitude of her success. If it’s easy to forget that her film career was less than prolific, it’s even easier to forget that she was ever labeled “Box Office Poison.” She created something of a Midas-esque image for herself, with anything she touched turning to gold. When you do even the most basic level research into Mae West, you’ll inevitably find things about how her movies were credited with saving Paramount from bankruptcy, how she took credit for discovering Cary Grant, and a few witty remarks she made about how censorship made her rich.
Some of these claims are easy to fact check. All you need to do is look at Cary Grant’s IMDB profile to see that he had appeared in several movies before She Done Him Wrong, including Blonde Venus with Marlene Dietrich. As for the claim that her films saved Paramount from bankruptcy, the You Must Remember This podcast episode about Mae West and the book Hollywood Babylon touches on that. However, quotes like, “I believe in censorship. After all, I made a fortune out of it,” are interesting given that it’s widely accepted that censorship was a contributing factor to the decline of her film career.
There’s no dispute around the fact that censorship played a huge part of Mae West’s career. And there’s no questioning that she did successfully capitalize on it at times. But it was something of a double-edged sword; helping her at times and working against her her at others. During her time on Broadway prior to going to Hollywood, Mae made a name for herself by writing and starring in plays notorious for their controversial content. Her 1927 play The Drag, for example, had a financially successful tryout run, but a play about gay people that featured a drag ball scene was too controversial to be able to open on Broadway at that point in time.
Not all of her stage shows were hits, but she came to Hollywood with some real successes to her credit. Once she started working in films, she got off to a great start by stealing the show in 1932’s Night After Night and by adapting her stage hit Diamond Lil into She Done Him Wrong, which became one of the top grossing films of 1933 — after a few modifications to appease the censors, of course. She outdid herself the following year with I’m No Angel, which became Paramount’s top grossing film of 1934.
From then on, Mae was stuck working against a combination of unrealistically high expectations from Paramount and production codes that were now being more strictly enforced. She often talked about how she would intentionally include lines she knew censors would demand to be cut because they would distract their attention from the less provocative lines she wanted to keep. But the more movies she made, audiences became increasingly less receptive to the toned down version of Mae’s persona.
Belle of the Nineties was her follow-up to I’m No Angel, and while Paramount considered it a disappointment at the box office, it was still profitable and drew very sizable crowds in many cities. One theater in Atlantic City played it twelve times a day to keep up with demand. But even with production codes being enforced, protesters still came out to complain and Paramount’s publicists got to work trying to create an image of Mae West being an upstanding, moral woman at heart.
1936’s Klondike Annie, an adaptation of Mae’s play Frisco Kate, was the movie Mae was most proud of, but it was essentially the beginning of the end of her film career. Since the story involved religious workers, an interracial affair, and Mae’s character being on the run from the law, it was highly scrutinized by the Hays Office. Even once it was approved for release, many other organizations complained, some saying the story as a whole was completely unacceptable and no amount of cuts could make it redeemable in their eyes. William Randolph Hearst waged his own war against Klondike Annie, refusing to allow advertisements for it to run in his papers. Paramount found a way to work around Hearst’s ban, though. Rather than advertising Klondike Annie by name, they ran ads telling people to call for information about an important feature.
In spite of negative reviews from critics, being banned in some areas, and Hearst’s best efforts, the Motion Picture Herald reported that Klondike Annie earned $2,500-$8,000 over average per box office. Variety also credited Hearst’s campaign with generating interest in Klondike Annie. But even with any success it had, it still wasn’t another I’m No Angel.
By that point, the relationship between Paramount and Mae was becoming strained. Ernst Lubitsch was in charge of Paramount’s productions by then and Mae wasn’t happy with the way he was running things or the suggestions he had for her films. And any publicity Mae was generating from her battles with censors just wasn’t worth it for Paramount anymore. Not only was she still drawing protests, she posed a larger problem for the industry as a whole.
One of the key reasons why the Box Office Poison ad was published in the first place was because the Independent Theater Owners Association (ITOA) objected to the practice of block booking. Block booking was a practice in which theater owners were forced to book groups of movies at a time. This would involve packages of movies that were expected to be big hits and others that weren’t. If independent theaters wanted to show the surefire hits, they had to show some of the lesser movies, too.
There’s also the fact that the popularity of some stars could vary from location to location, depending on local tastes, and independent theater owners wanted more control over the movies they showed. Greta Garbo‘s movies, for example, tended to be more popular in big cities and in Europe than in small towns and rural areas. In the case of Mae West, her suggestive persona cemented her place in pop culture history, but made her a target for the ITOA.
Even before the Box Office Poison ad was published, the ITOA had been highly critical of Mae West. They argued that she was the very personification of immorality in film and block booking forced them to screen her films even if customers in their communities would stay away because of moral objections. During a 1936 sub-committee hearing in the U.S. Senate, with the Klondike Annie controversy fresh in everyone’s minds, the ITOA used her movies as a prime example of why they wanted block booking to be abolished. During that hearing, Paramount responded by submitting evidence that there had not been a single exhibitor cancellation of a Mae West movie. On the other hand, movies of the “quality type that have good moral standing” like Abraham Lincoln and Alice in Wonderland faced lots of cancellations.
Even though the ITOA lost the battle that time — block booking wouldn’t be prohibited until 1948 — Mae was still a target for them by the time the Box Office Poison ad was published in 1938. In response to the ad, she stated, “Why, the independent theater owners call me the mortgage lifter. When business is bad, they just re-run one of my pictures.” She also noted that the entire American film industry was in a lull at the time and added, “The only picture to make real money was Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and that would’ve made twice as much if they’d had me play Snow White.”
Until 1937, Paramount had been able to use Mae’s box office performance to respond to those criticizing the moral content of her films; arguing that many people clearly did not find her movies objectionable. But while Mae still had her fans, many of them recognized that her movies just weren’t what they used to be. When Every Day’s a Holiday was released in December 1937, many theaters only played it for a single week and it became her first real box office dud. On the other hand, She Done Him Wrong spent a month in some theaters when it was released.
With the failure of Every Day’s a Holiday, Mae parted ways with Paramount and made a couple more movies at other studios. Most notably, there was 1940’s My Little Chickadee with W.C. Fields. While My Little Chickadee was a box office hit, she did not enjoy working with Fields and was even less impressed when his performance got better reviews than hers. Three years later, she made The Heat’s On for Columbia and for the first time, she did not write any of the dialogue in one of her movies. But when that failed to make an impression, she went back to performing on stage and found success in theatrical plays and nightclubs. After an extended break, she did appear in two more films, 1970’s Myra Breckinridge and 1977’s Sextette. Neither one was a financial success, but over time, became known as cult classics.