Math and science classes taught me one thing: I hold dear those academic subjects in which questions can have more than one answer. From middle school algebra to statistics courses in college, every single math class was its own sliver of fire and brimstone for those of us who couldn’t focus if a word problem lacked panache. Remember those ghastly scenarios involving trains, joggers, rowboats, and loose change? Fine, so Train A is going one direction at a certain speed; Train B is going another direction at another speed . . . Seriously, what kind of boring I’m-going-to-fall-asleep-during-this-test storytelling do you math teachers call that? When it came to those lousy trains, I was concerned less about the time they would pass each other and more about a potential murder scenario involving Lauren Bacall and Ingrid Bergman. And don’t get me started on those infuriating answers that had remainders. Frequently my tests were red-penned to death because I neglected to include that useless remainder, and inside I stifled levels of anger and frustration that I never knew existed.
When asked to name my favorite film, book, food, wine, or dwarf (it’s Doc, by the way), I’m known to provide different answers at different times. If these were never allowed a certain degree of variation, my list of favorites would be limited to the movie Splash (1984), the book The Grouchy Ladybug, and a dinner of Kraft Mac and Cheese and Dr. Pepper. All high quality choices, mind you, but I kept too many lists of my top “such-and-such” under lock and key for so long, leaving little room for growth. As a member of the book industry (an industry that this economy refuses to allow me to break out of and escape to a greener career), I’m asked often to name my favorite writer. Interestingly this never happens at work; at work we speak in metadata and rarely discuss books, and therefore it makes perfect sense that my new favorite writer comes from the film industry. Thank goodness the talents of Mae West came into my life, but when it comes to that broad, we all know that “goodness had nuthin’ to do with it, dearie.”
I fell asleep three times when I first tried to watch Night After Night (1932), not because it was a disappointing film, but because Mae West doesn’t sashay in front of the camera until we’re 37 minutes in. In her first film, West plays a supporting role and, as expected, steals every small scene she’s in. Determined to improve his social behavior to win the affections of the beautiful Constance Cummings, leading man George Raft hires a hoity-toity tutor (a character delightfully named Miss Jellyman) to help him improve his speech . . . fitting that Joe also owns a speakeasy. And when there’s a 1930s speakeasy with single men (or married men, or engaged men, or young men, or rich men), there’s Mae West. Her character bonds immediately with Miss Jellyman, and the two ladies get properly smashed on bottles of champagne. A fearless playwright who later conquered an industry of businessmen, Mae West provided additional dialogue for Night After Night and went on to write the original stories and screenplays for her future films. After her first few bottles of bubbly, Miss Jellyman asks, “Do you really think I could get rid of my inhibitions?” to which West replies, “Why, sure. I got an old trunk you can put ‘em in.”
Never again would Mae West the actress play a supporting role . . . under no conditions would Mae West the writer dare to pen such a small part for her favorite film star. It’s simple math: West + West = Scorching Success.
Go up sometime and see her: Add Night After Night to your queue.