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Mae West started in Vaudeville and on the stage in New York, and later moved to Hollywood to star in films known for their blunt sexuality and steamy settings.
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Mae West continued to write plays over the next several years, including The Wicked Age, Pleasure Man, and The Constant Sinner. In some, she was given credit as writer and/or producer,
but did not play a part. The plays dealt with what today would be called "adult subject matter" with tryst plots and sexual innuendos. Her productions were not easy ones to bring to the stage for a myriad of reasons, primarily the constant changes needed to bring the dialogue and plot lines more in line with the moral codes of the day. On several occasions the actors learned two scripts, one for the general audience and a "more refined" version for the times when they were tipped off that vice agents might be in the audience. Of course, all this only brought more publicity to her productions, and resulted in packed performances.
By 1932, Hollywood began to take notice of Mae West's performances and talent. That year, she was offered a motion picture contract by Paramount Pictures. At 38 years old, she might have been considered in her "advanced years" for playing sexy harlots, but her persona and physical beauty seemed to overcome any doubt. The first film she appeared in was Night after Night, starring George Raft. At first she balked at her small role, but was appeased when allowed to rewrite her scenes in order to conform more to her performance style.
In the 1933 film She Done Him Wrong, Mae West was able to bring her "Diamond Lil" character to the silver screen in her first starring film role. The "Lil" character was renamed "Lady Lou," and contained the famous Mae West line, "Why don't you come up sometime and see me?" The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, and also starred new comer Cary Grant in one of his first major roles. The film did tremendously well at the box office, and is attributed to saving Paramount Pictures from bankruptcy. In her next movie, I'm No Angel, she was again paired with Cary Grant. This film, too, was a financial blockbuster giving West the honor of being the eighth-largest box office draw in the United States. By 1935, Mae West was the second-highest paid person in the United States behind publisher William Randolph Hearst.
However, the blunt sexuality and steamy settings of her films aroused the wrath and moral indignation of several groups. One of these was the Motion Picture Production Code, also known as the Hays Code for its creator, Will H. Hays. The organization had the power to pre-approve films' productions and change scripts. On July 1, 1934, the organization began to seriously and meticulously enforce the code on West's screenplays, and heavily edited them. West responded in her typical fashion by increasing the number of innuendos and double entendres, fully expecting to confuse the censors, which she did for the most part.
In 1936, Mae West starred in the film Klondike Annie, which concerned itself with religion and hypocrisy. William Randolph Hearst disagreed so vehemently with the film's context, and West's portrayal of a Salvation Army worker, that he personally forbade any stories or advertisements of the film to be published in any of his publications.
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