Friday, March 4, 2016

Go West Young Man (Paramount, 1936)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched the 1936 movie Go West Young Man (no, there isn’t a comma in the middle of the title), yet another effort by Paramount Studios to figure out what the hell to do with Mae West, whom they still had under contract but they were having a hard time trying to give Mae West’s audiences what they wanted from her without getting the Production Code Administration and the Legion of Decency (the bizarre pressure group founded by the Roman Catholic Church to end the relative freedom of the so-called “pre-Code” period of loose Code enforcement from 1930-34 under which West had flourished and made her two best films, She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel) breathing down their backs again. We’ve already seen West in Belle of the Nineties — a film shot “pre-Code” in 1934 but released “post-Code” and severely butchered by the censors — and her first “post-Code” film, Goin’ to Town, and there would be three more Mae West movies at Paramount — Klondike Annie, Go West Young Man and Every Day’s a Holiday — before the studio released her and she made two films elsewhere (My Little Chickadee with fellow Paramount refugee W. C. Fields at Universal in 1940 and The Heat’s On at Columbia in 1943) before quitting movies altogether until her ill-advised attempt at a comeback in the 1970’s. Go West Young Man was written by Mae West — as were all her Paramount films after her debut, Night After Night; indeed, West had it in her contract not only that she would write her own scripts but her credit as writer would be in letters 75 percent the size of her credit as star — though she didn’t come up with the original story herself.

It started life as a play called Personal Appearance by Lawrence Riley and cast West as movie star Mavis Arden, under contract to Superfine Pictures, who’s appearing in person at a theatre in Washington, D.C. along with a showing of her latest film, Drifting Lady (reminding one of a particularly famous Mae West bon mot, “I was pure as the driven snow, until I drifted”). The portions of Drifting Lady we get to see include a surprising number for West, backed by a samba band on an Arthur Johnston-Johnny Burke song called “On a Typical Tropical Night” — the sort of number that supposedly didn’t become fashionable in Hollywood until Carmen Miranda arrived four years later and brought her own samba band with her — and some hideously awful romantic dialogue West must have had her tongue firmly in her cheek when she wrote it: “When you’re gone, remember me kindly sometimes for just a brief moment, when April comes around again with its blue skies and sudden showers. Remember that April woman who drifted into your life as casually as the summer cloud drifts over a green field, and then drift on again.” She not only speaks these lines within the film-within-a-film but repeats them in the character’s “real” life during the movie — indicating that Mavis Arden is considerably more naïve and less in control of her career than the actress playing her. When she leaves the big personal appearance she’s briefed by Morgan (Warren William, looking considerably older than he did in his final appearances at Warners, where he’d just run out his contract so he could free-lance), her personal manager and press agent, who’s been appointed by Superfine’s head to keep Miss Arden away from men so she can fulfill the part of her contract that does not allow her to get married for five years. She meets with a Congressional candidate named Francis X. Harrigan (Lyle Talbot — Mae West and Ed Wood, one degree of separation! Though if Wood had ever met Mae West I suspect the first thing he would have asked her is, “Can I please try on some of your clothes?”) and hands him a platform point that the government should offer subsidies to people to get married (which, as Charles noted, in the modern day sounds like something the Right-wingers would come up with even though their 1930’s counterparts tried to — and successfully did — drive Mae West off the screen!). Determined to break up their relationship before it even starts, Morgan tips off the press to where Mavis and Harrigan are dining, and they’re immediately inundated by reporters in one of the film’s funniest and most harrowing situations.

Then their car — a fancy Rolls-Royce — breaks down in Pennsylvania en route to Mavis’s final personal appearance of the tour at Harrisburg, and they end up stuck in a small town (the material on this movie identifies it as Valley Forge but that’s not specified in the film itself), with Mavis staying in the boarding house owned by Mrs. Strothers (Alice Brady from The Gay Divorcée and Young Mr. Lincoln) and her sister Joyce (Margaret Perry). The Strothers sisters also have a star-struck maid who sees the presence of a movie star as her own ticket to act in Hollywood, but the main romantic intrigue centers around a gas station next to the boardinghouse owner, and its proprietor, young, blond, hunky Randolph Scott (billed third) as Bud Norton, mechanical whiz who’s just invented a device for improving the standard of sound-and-film synchronization. Of course Our Mae is instantly enthralled by him, even though he’s already got a girlfriend, a local woman named Gladys (played by Isabel Jewell, who usually was cast either as a villainess or a down-and-out piece of human flotsam and brought an interesting “edge” to what was intended by West as a sympathetic character à la Rochelle Hudson’s part in She Done Him Wrong). Towards the end there’s a scandal in which, thanks to a misunderstanding, the police think Mavis Arden has been kidnapped and they send a squad of cars to bring her back; also Mavis sees someone at the boarding house knitting a baby-sized article of clothing and leaps to the (wrong) conclusion that Bob and Gladys have had premarital sex and he’s knocked her up — and that ultimately drives her out of town and into the arms of Morgan, who’s supposedly been in unrequited love with her all movie (though there’s been no hint of that until the end). Go West Young Man is an odd film indeed, showing how difficult a time all concerned were having balancing West’s unique appeal with the Production Code strictures; the opening film-within-a-film is marvelous, and there are some surprisingly Sternbergian shots from director Henry Hathaway (an odd choice indeed for a Mae West movie; his most famous previous credit was the action film Lives of a Bengal Lancer, starring Gary Cooper, and in later decades he would be the person you called when you had John Wayne signed for your movie and John Ford and Howard Hawks were unavailable), especially one in which she’s in Bob’s workshop as they’re listening to the radio and she starts dancing and singing along to the song being played (another Johnston-Burke piece called “I Was Saying to the Moon”) and she’s being bathed in shadows of vines the way Sternberg habitually shot Dietrich.

But the rest of the film is just acceptable entertainment, and oddly virtually the same plot had been done three years earlier and far better by MGM as Bombshell, with Jean Harlow as the restive star upset by the pressures of fame and Lee Tracy as the press agent who goes so far as to hire out-of-work actor Franchot Tone to romance Harlow and then jilt her, so she’ll return to her career and give up her fantasies of finding a man who can Take Her Away from All That. In 1935 RKO made In Person, a similar story with Ginger Rogers as the spoiled star escaping the pressures of fame and hiding out in a mountain village, where she meets and falls for George Brent, and in 1938 and 1939 RKO took up the theme again for two films, The Affairs of Annabel and Annabel Takes a Tour, which cast Lucille Ball as the spoiled screen star Annabel Allison and Jack Oakie as her press agent — though the Annabel movies are also precursors of I Love Lucy, albeit with Oakie as the flighty “Lucy” character while Lucy is the more down-to-earth of the two the way Desi Arnaz was in I Love Lucy. Go West Young Man is a nice, entertaining movie, but it takes place in the 1930’s present rather than the 1890’s (which was West’s favorite period because it was the time at which her physical type — buxom and heavily corseted — was considered the acme of female sexiness) and loses something from that; it’s also Mae West “under wraps” in more ways than one, not only kept by the censors from the kind of wild, uncompromising sex comedy she’d played in She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel but wriggling uncomfortably in a modern-dress story the less self-assured but more convincingly raucous Jean Harlow had played better.