Mae West and 1930's Censorship

Topics: Film, Cinema of the United States, Censorship Pages: 7 (2244 words) Published: December 9, 2010
Mae West and 1930’s censorship
Nowadays, we probably take for granted that the majority of films created in Hollywood have no moral or content boundaries whatsoeverAlthough today the boundaries might seem a little blurred, it was not always like this. The censorship process in Hollywood films (as well as in many other media) is a process that has grown and fluctuated along with American society. Behind many of these films there have been struggles, debates, and confrontations of ideas to have power over what could be shown. Films have always been a main target for censorship, primarily because movies are a major audiovisual form of entertainment and mass communication with a tremendous power over the public.

Mae West is a name that comes up when discussing U.S. censorship and film, mainly because she was a Hollywood star who danced the line between what was allowable and what was not. A great deal of her career as a Hollywood actress revolves around pushing the limits of the moral landscape. She became one of the biggest *

* female icons of the 20th century thanks to her voluptuous figure, sexy innuendos, and uncontainable wit. This essay explores the relationship between Mae West’s performances and the early thirty’s censorship changes in her work.

West worked during the period spanning World War I, Prohibitionand the Great Depression; a period characterized by a dualism between a huge cultural experimentation and a strict repression. The war coincided with a rising sexual revolution; film audiences wanted sexand censors wanted to suppress it. From the starting point of her career, West became aware of this duality and played around that fine line. She took it upon herself to fight the censors when it came to her career. Emily Leider quotes Mae West in these fights saying, “My fight has been against depression, repression and suppression.”

Marybeth Hamilton describes Mae West as “Hollywood’s most colorful victim of censorship,” (Hamilton, 187). With one of her first major movies, I’m no Angel, West was characterized by Variety as “the biggest conversation-provoker, free space grabber and all-around box office bet in the countryBut that slightly changed in 1934, when a national campaign that battled film immorality forced her to follow the rules of the Production Code Administration (PCA), which is the film’s industry self-regulatory organization. This action took a hard toll on her popularity. Hamilton quotes historian Robert Sklar regarding West decline after 1934, saying, “the pre-1934 West was raw, acerbic, even sexually revolutionary, precisely because she was *

uncensored…exploding on screen with unfettered power before the censors killed her off.” (Hamilton, 188)
Yet, many documents and archives from the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) show evidence that Mae West was never really completely uncensored. Before she was forced to follow PCA’s regulations, West’s work was always submitted to the MPPDA office’s scrutiny. This censorship process was very complex. Every stage of the production was supervised but, against general supposition, the process was not aiming to suppress the sexual content Moreover, many historians agree that Hollywood censors helped shape West’s characteristic sexual expression, in fact, “censorship helped create Mae West as we know her, shaping her persona far more effectively than West herself would ever admit.” (Hamilton, 188)

In reality, West’s immediate connection to sexual topics in Hollywood was not exclusive to her with sexual content issues in many non-Mae West films (like Black Street, Possessed and Blonde Venus); but West had a particularity that distinguished her from other performers: her roots in Broadway gave her a “reputation for urban realism…providing a glimpse of authentic underworld vice.”(Hamilton, 189). Diamond Lil was the title of the Broadway play that made West gain that particularity (a...
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