Way Out West: Classic Lines from Hollywood’s Dirty Blonde

Trailblazing Hollywood legend Mae West was born on August  17, 1893. To celebrate the outspoken leading lady, here is a look at some of her classic movie lines that left audiences wanting more.
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Hair Dos and Don'ts: Mae West's 'do is a testament to every lady who wants their hair to look like cake-frosted rose petals. (Photo circa 1933). (Photo: Getty Images)

Mae West, circa 1933. (Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

“I believe in censorship. I made a fortune out of it.”

Mae West had a way with words—a way that delighted audiences while horrifying the guardians of public morals. Unable to speak frankly about her favorite subject—her New York stage debut, in 1926, was in a play she wrote, called Sex, which landed her in prison—she spoke around it, in double entendres that gave her enemies fits. Ticket buyers couldn’t get enough, that is, when the police weren’t closing down her shows, which included one that dealt openly with homosexuality, The Drag.  

 West’s trailblazing act caught Hollywood’s attention, and at age 39 she made her film debut in Night After Night (1932). Hers was a supporting role, but its star, George Raft, said, “she stole everything but the cameras.” West was able to rewrite her scenes, leading to this first classic exchange:

Hat Check Girl: “Goodness, what beautiful diamonds.”

West (as Maudie Triplett): “Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie.”

Born in Brooklyn in 1893, West sprinkled her movies with as much four-carat dialogue as she could slip past the censors. Let’s revisit a few of these timeless gems as we celebrate her birthday today. And remember: “Virtue has its own reward, but no sale at the box office.”

She Done Him Wrong (1933)

West’s first starring role was an adaptation of her Broadway hit Diamond Lil (1928). A smash hit, it was nominated for Outstanding Production (now Best Picture) at the Oscars, and gave co-star Cary Grant one of his first successes. She’s Lady Lou, a singer putting the moves on Captain Cummings (Grant), an innocent charity director who’s in fact an undercover federal agent investigating vice.

Lady Lou: “I always did like a man in a uniform. That one fits you grand. Why don’t you come up sometime and see me? I’m home every evening.”

Captain Cummings: “Haven’t you ever met a man that could make you happy?”

Lady Lou: “Sure, lots of times.”

I'm No Angel  (1933)

West’s followup was the biggest hit of its year, one that staved off bankruptcy for Depression-wracked Paramount Pictures. Grant co-starred, as Jack, a wealthy suitor for Tira, another of West’s singers of relaxed morals. Gertrude Howard is Beulah, Tira’s maids, and the recipient of an oft-quoted line, “Beulah, peel me a grape.” (Again breaking with tradition and attracting controversy, West hired a number of black performers for her stage shows and films.)

Tira: “It’s not the men in your life that counts, it’s the life in your men.”

Jack: “You were wonderful tonight.”

Tira: “Yeah, I’m always wonderful at night.”

Jack: “Tonight, you were especially good.”

Tira: “Well, when I’m good, I’m very good. But when I’m bad…I’m better.”

And, reworking and perfecting her line from her prior hit, West says her immortal “Come up and see me sometime.”

Belle of the Nineties (1934)

Originally titled It Ain’t No Sin—but that was just one of many changes brought on by the introduction of the standards-setting Production Code that year. The movie is less known for its dialogue than for a hit song, “My Old Flame,” performed by West, by now Hollywood’s hottest star, and the Duke Ellington Orchestra. But West got off a few zingers, like (to a suitor who desires her “golden hair, fascinating eyes, alluring smile, and lovely arms”): “Wait a minute. Is this a proposal, or are you taking inventory?”

In a more strait-laced era this one, with West as “The Frisco Doll,” a fallen woman who masquerades as a missionary, raised a few eyebrows, and newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst (the highest paid person in America, followed by West) vowed to keep her name out of his publications. But for all the cuts imposed (the film was banned outright in Georgia) West remained irrepressible. Says The Frisco Doll, “When caught between two evils, I generally like to take the one I never tried.”

The heat was off West by the time The Heat’s On (1943), a musical comedy, went cold at the box office. She kept busy with stage and TV appearances, made a few records, and was immortalized on the cover of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967). “What would I be doing in a lonely hearts club band?” she asked, then gave the Fab Four her permission to use her likeness when they wrote her a fan letter.

Sargeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band Photo

Mae West (top row, third from left) was immortalized on the cover of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. (By The Beatles [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons)

Her final two films, Myra Breckinridge (1970), an adaptation of Gore Vidal’s scathing Hollywood satire, and the all-star Sextette (1978), with her romancing future 007 Timothy Dalton and dueting “Love Will Keep Us Together” with him, were more creepy-campy than funny. The frail and carefully preserved octogenarian gave herself lines that were out of step in the Swinging Seventies, like “I’m the girl that works at Paramount all day, and Fox at night” and “Marriage is like a book. The whole story takes place between the covers.” 

But it’s a measure of how much she’s still enjoyed when clips from Breckinridge turn up in the new documentary Best of Enemies, which recounts Vidal and William F. Buckley’s debates during the 1968 political conventions, and audiences excitedly murmur, “Look, Mae West!”

Fans prefer to remember My Little Chickadee (1940) as a more fitting sendoff to a relatively brief yet bright movie career. She and fellow vaudevillian W.C. Fields made this spoof of Westerns, and while the two squabbled over screenplay credits, they mine gold from the best of it. Their last scene in particular is a keeper, with Cuthbert J. Twillie (Fields) and Flower Belle Lee (West) exchanging catchphrases:

Twillie: “Come up and see me sometime.”

Lee: “Mmm, I will, my little chickadee.”