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From the current Summer 2019 Issue

How a visit to the Garden of Eden
got Mae West banned from radio

TROUBLE IN PARADISE

By Garry Berman

 

It was December of 1937, and even though winter was on its way, a firestorm of controversy was erupting on radio. Like a wildfire, it spread quickly, and at the center of the controversy was Mae West — which, in retrospect, shouldn’t have come as a big surprise.

In fact, West had established her professional reputation almost twenty years earlier. She had been singing and dancing since childhood (often performing risqué songs), and began playing in vaudeville and various revues when she was in her teens. She was 25 when she landed a key role in the 1918 production Sometime, which starred Ed Wynn.

As much as she admired Wynn’s comedic talents, she began to feel frustrated by her unsuccessful efforts to capture some attention for herself. “I found I was throwing away all my lines,” she said later. “So I learned to catch the eye of the audience first — usually with some movement. Everything I do and say is based on rhythm… All I had to do, I discovered, was to wander around the stage like so much bait while the boys kept the audience happy with laughs.”

It was at a matinee — during a scene in which she needed to cross the stage behind Wynn — that West debuted what would become her famous walk, by adding a bit of slowly gyrating hip action to her stride. The deliberate pace of her swagger distracted Wynn as well as the audience. “The audience forgot the comedians,” she recalled. “They forgot the patter… They just looked.” She had made her point and proven that she was fast becoming a force to be reckoned with. Although she never graduated high school, West had the creative talent to write her own plays. Using the pseudonym Jane Mast, she wrote, produced, and directed the 1926 comedy-drama Sex. (And if that title shocks you, dear reader, imagine what it did to audiences ninety-plus years ago.) In the play, West played Margy LaMont, a Montreal prostitute trying to turn her life around by finding an honorable man to marry.

The show opened to poor reviews, especially those by faint-hearted — and even angry — critics. Variety delivered one of its most scathing reviews ever, beginning “Never has disgrace fallen so heavily upon the 63rd Street theatre as it did Monday night, when a nasty red-light district show — which would be tolerated in but few of the stock burlesque houses in America — opened and called itself Sex… After three hours of this play’s nasty, infantile, amateurish and vicious dialog, after watching its various actors do their stuff badly, one really has a feeling of gratefulness for any repression that may have toned down [West’s] vaudeville songs in the past.” The review also hastened to report how audience members began to walk out before the end of the first act, and continued to do so until the closing curtain. Other reviews were equally hostile.

Despite the vicious reviews (or perhaps because of them), the show still ran for nearly a year before police raided a performance in February of 1927, by order of the district attorney. Twenty-two cast members, plus the producers, were arrested on charges of performing an obscene play — as perceived at the time, of course. After a stormy trial, all were found guilty, but only West and the two other producers were given 12-day jail terms plus fines. (West got two days off for good behavior.)

The incident secured her notorious image, but West wasn’t about to back down with either the content or performance style of her subsequent works, whose titles alone (The Drag, The Wicked Age, Pleasure Man, The Constant Sinner) evoked the provocative nature of their themes.

“Audiences have always been pleased by what I do,” she said, “and I have always been doing the same basic thing, with different trimmings. I didn’t recognize what I did myself at that time. I didn’t know what it was I had. It wasn’t until much later that anyone, including myself, realized that it was the force of an extraordinary sex-personality that made quite harmless lines and mannerisms seem suggestive. It wasn’t what I did, but how I did it. It wasn’t what I said, but how I said it; and how I looked when I did it and said it. I had evolved into a symbol and didn’t know it.”

Broadway knew it, and soon Hollywood would as well. West’s 1928 Broadway hit Diamond Lil was the basis for She Done Him Wrong, her first starring movie, which premiered in January 1933. West was just shy of forty at the time; as such, she may have been considered a tad mature for the image she was about to unleash on the world via the screen, but that didn’t seem to matter.

The New Movie Magazine chose its words carefully in its review: “You can be very sure that this picture is something quite new for your movie experiences. a trifle strong for the weak sisters… but rare stuff for any who like brisk entertainment with a kick.”

Picture Play magazine took an even greater delight in the spicy nature of the film, calling it “Ribald, rowdy, and unashamed… It is extraordinarily funny. She swaggers with brazen assurance uttering speeches that should make one’s hair curl by their implications, but they don’t. Instead, you laugh at her crudity and applaud her lack of hypocrisy.”

The same reviewer provided some reassurance for those who may have had misgivings about West’s reputation, insisting that “There isn’t an unseemly word in the piece nor even the sort of kissing found in ninety-nine out of a hundred films which haven’t the courage to say what Miss West does without subterfuge or subtlety.”

West’s follow-up film, I’m No Angel, was released just months later, and the two films combined to make her the talk of Hollywood. They were even credited for pulling Paramount Pictures out of financial jeopardy during the depths of the Depression.

Even at the time, however, it was soon clear that West was pretty much a one-note character. Audiences learned what to expect from her, and after two or three films of her slow swaggering and murmured innuendoes, the novelty faded. Thanks to the Hays Office, her heavily-censored scripts hampered her unique style on film. Perhaps she thought that radio would be more welcoming.

She had already reached her peak of popularity by the fall of 1937, when she was invited to take part in radio’s most popular program, The Chase and Sanborn Hour. This 60-minute variety show was hosted by Don Ameche and starred ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy, Charlie McCarthy. The program could do no wrong and was praised by the public and critics alike.

One of the sketches on the December 12 broadcast featured West and Don Ameche, performing a spoof of the Adam and Eve story, written specifically for West by Arch Oboler. The sketch portrays Adam as a laconic husband and Eve as his bored, impatient wife, looking for some excitement and a change of pace, preferably away from the Garden of Eden.

Seeing an opportunity to “expand my personality,” West’s Eve provokes the serpent in the Garden of Eden to pick forbidden apples for her, which she then makes into applesauce for Adam and herself. As Arch Oboler explained, “Instead of going on the premise that the snake tempted Eve, it occurred to me, since Miss West was such a dominant woman, to have Eve tempt the snake.”

Listening to the sketch today, it is not especially hilarious, and even the studio audience offers only a handful of hearty laughs throughout the eight-minute segment. The biggest laugh comes as Eve encourages the serpent to retrieve the fruit, commanding him to “Get me a big one. I feel like doing a Big Apple” (a reference to a dance craze of the time).

But the sketch, predictably, also includes a few of the double-entendres and innuendoes long associated with West. To provide some added punch for radio, her inflections, soft groans, and purrs magnify the suggestiveness of the dialogue still further, even with lines that don’t really warrant any “naughty” interpretation at all. In a 1971 interview with Nostalgia Digest founder Chuck Schaden, Don Ameche recalled, “I was worried about many of the words that were in the script,” and presented his fears to the sponsor, demanding “all these lines have got to come out or I am not doing the show tomorrow.” The lines were removed, while the rest were “read in the regular Mae West style, which was fine by me.” Speaking with Schaden in 1975, Edgar Bergen shared his impression that West was “holding back a little bit” during rehearsals, but gave the broadcast performance her all.

It didn’t take long before she got back as good as she gave. Immediately afterward, protests poured in to NBC, prompting Chase and Sanborn’s advertising agency, J. Walter Thompson, to publicly apologize. The agency’s president, Stanley Resor, issued this statement: “We wish to express our deepest regret that the program broadcast Sunday night, Dec. 12, gave offense to anyone. Obviously, the whole purpose of these broadcasts is to afford wholesome entertainment. These programs, over a period of eight years, are evidence of this. The script of this feature of the broadcast was our responsibility. It was a mistake and we can assure the public at large that the same mistake will not be made again.”

It was to no avail. The Catholic News commented, “Last Sunday night, with the introduction of Mae West into the program, the Chase and Sanborn hour descended into the mire.”

West was no stranger to the heavy hand of censorship and overly sensitive self-appointed morals police (and, at least once, the actual police), and she was used to the Hays office taking the bite out of her film work. But even she couldn’t have prepared for the outrage ignited by the Adam and Eve sketch. “Once again,” The New York Times lamented, “Mae West finds herself the storm center of the amusement world.”

With the deluge of protests continuing from all over the country, a number of knee-jerk reactions were set in motion, as enumerated in the Times:

1: A Legion of Decency crusade against radio suggestiveness, similar in scope and purpose to the campaign against the motion picture industry in 1934;
2: Closer surveillance by motion picture producers over radio activities of their stars;
3: Possible postponement of release date for Miss West’s new picture, listed for early January showing, until public indignation cools; and
4: A complaint lodged with the FCC by the Reverend Dr. Maurice S. Sheehy, head of the Catholic University’s Religion Department, labeling Miss West’s remarks as “filthy, sacrilegious and irreverent.”

That same article reported that NBC took an even more draconian measure, declaring that “Reference to the name of Mae West, film actress, whose role in an ‘Adam and Eve’ sketch over the WEAF network on Dec. 12 was critically received by many listeners, has been banned by the National Broadcasting Company on any of its fifteen managed and operated stations throughout the country. A.H. Morton, general manager of the NBC station group, has ordered that no script utilized as a basis of broadcast programs over these stations shall contain any reference to Miss West, nor shall her name be mentioned by entertainers or others.”

There were also more than 100 other WEAF-WJZ network stations for which NBC had no direct control over programs, but “no program ‘built’ by the broadcasting company, or any program from a station or studio of the company, will contain the actress’s name.”

The ban remained in place for twelve years.

The repercussions of the scandalous broadcast suddenly had those in radio identifying with those in the movie industry who had already been living under the stern hand of the Hays Office. “As a result,” reported the Times, “the two entertainment mediums have been drawn together for their mutual protection…The Hays office is apprehensive lest the purity folks be inclined to charge the crime up to [Hollywood]. That the public’s reaction will be reflected in the reception accorded Miss West’s newest endeavor, Every Day’s a Holiday, is conceded, and the industry is laying low, hoping that any interest of the Legion of Decency will be confined to the single film.” As it happens, Every Day’s a Holiday was West’s final film for Paramount; the studio did not renew her contract.

Indeed, the ruthless efficiency of the Hays Office during the previous five years had trained writers and producers to quash the slightest potential transgression of the Code, which created an uneasy appearance of serenity on the surface. As the Times noted, “The tranquility that has persisted for so long has made the outburst provoked by Miss West’s broadcast the more startling.”

Neither West nor her representatives issued any statement of apology or regret for the tempest, although one studio executive remarked, “You don’t hear any shooting from the boys in the street, do you? West’s public likes that stuff.”

West may have been persona non grata on radio, but she generated more positive publicity when she teamed up with W.C. Fields for the 1939 film My Little Chickadee. Unfortunately, the two stars did not get along (to put it mildly), and deliberately didn’t share much screen time.

Undaunted, Mae West continued her career for decades after her radio scandal. Throughout it all, until her death in 1980, she never deviated from the character she had created — a character that is still instantly recognizable (and still much imitated) even today.


Tune in to Those Were the Days on August 17 to hear Mae West's appearance on The Chase and Sanborn Hour.

 

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