COLUMN TWENTY-SEVEN, NOVEMBER 1, 1997
(Copyright © 1997 Al Aronowitz)
[In Toronto, Canada, Reg Hartt, a lifelong movie buff and film collector who shows prints from his collection and gives lectures about them, has written an autobiographical pamphlet called The Night They Raided Rochdale. As Reg has written, "Rochdale College was an experiment in counterculture self-education. For some that concept was a joke. For most it was something we struggled to make a reality. Rochdale was also the only place on the face of the earth where one could legally do hashish, LSD, marijuana and mescaline. It was 18 floors. The higher up you went, the higher you got."
From 1970 to 1975 Reg Hartt served as Director of Cinema Studies at Rochdale. Following is an excerpt from The Night They Raided Rochdale.]
. . . I was at Rochdale showing Mae West in her first starring film, the picture that had saved Paramount from bankruptcy, She Done Him Wrong.
Mae West began her career at the age of six in an amateur contest. She had asked for a spotlight. When she did not get it, she threw a tantrum (have you ever noticed how uncool successful people are? They are forever throwing tantrums. Unlike the people who bend over backwards to be loved, they put their foot on the asses of the supplicators and kick hard).
The worst thing that can happen to a truly creative person is to be sent to school. For years people thought Einstein was retarded. When the author of Catcher In The Rye, J. D. Salinger, was offered millions to teach writing he replied:
"Writing is a gift. It can't be taught. All I could do by teaching it is to destroy it in myself and damage it in those I would be teaching."
I am aware there are thousands of teachers who will not agree with that, but they teach as an avocation---to make money---and they were never offered that kind of bait. Mae West had learned by doing and earned while she learned. She was nearly 40 when she hit Hollywood.
"She's too old and too fat for the movies," said the bitches of the press.
In New York, Mae's plays (which she wrote herself---she was the first to put sex on the stage with a play called Sex "What can Mae West possibly do to follow Sex?" sniped the critics. Her next play, The Drag, was the first to feature all-out homosexuality. It had a live band and a drag queen ball on stage. It was a hit. "What can Mae West possibly do to top queers?" sniped the critics---whom someone described as "eunuchs in a harem---they know how it is done; they see it done every day; they just can't do it."---so Mae wrote the first play in which a black man kissed a white woman live on stage and did not get lynched for it. She did it first with a white actor in black face in New York but for the Washington, D. C., performance she went all the way and used a black actor. The miracle is that SHE was not lynched) had hit big with the public. It can be safely and truthfully said that she did more to emancipate women and people of color than any other revolutionary. She was constantly being thrown in jail for her art. That is what makes a real revolutionary.
Owney Madden, a notorious gangster who was Mae West's financial backer in the theatre, sent his "bag boy" nightly to the theatre to pick up Madden's share of the door. The bag boy caught Mae's eye. The two of them started peeling off their clothes as soon as they got near to each other. They made love in closets, backs of cars, everywhere. . .
The bag boy went to Hollywood and became a movie star named George Raft. Paramount, at George's request, offered Mae West $5,000.00 a week to come to Hollywood to make a cameo in the flick.
"I am not a small girl from a small town comin' to a big town," Mae told the press, "I am a BIG girl from a BIG town comin' to a small town."
Mae sat and watched how Hollywood made movies and was so disgusted by what she saw she tried to give back the money they'd already given her (at the birthday party the studio threw for her).
Realizing she did not fear their lawyers, they gave her carte blanche---a blank cheque---and let her re-write her part.
She walked on screen dressed to the nines in furs and diamonds, sauntered up to the hatcheck girl who said, "Goodness, what lovely diamonds," to which Mae shot back, "Honey, goodness had nuthin' ta do with it," and she stole the picture.
What hardly anyone knows is that she had had to re-invent her character. On stage she had a completely different style from her later screen persona. Mae knew her career in the theatre was over. The powers that were at that time could forgive sex and faggotry. They could not forgive the notion that interracial fornication (as much as they might be doing it in private) was a good thing.
Her stage character moved slow while all around her moved fast. Mae watched the other actors---each was slower than the last in their scenes. "If I slow down to be slower then them, I'll look like a corpse," she thought to herself. She sped up her character and re-created herself.
Paramount was so close to bankruptcy they were considering selling their Famous Players theatre chain to MGM.
The studio got an avalanche of mail as a result of Mae's impact in Night After Night.
But. . . she was a difficult woman.
So the studio sunk two million bucks in a picture with a fat radio singer named Kate Smith. They called the flick, Hello, Everybody! but later said it ought to have been called Hello Anybody 'cause nobody went to see it.
They called Miss West.
She laid down her terms. They would film her play Diamond Lil.
"It is banned by the Catholic Church, we can't."
"You will or I won't."
They did. It was retitled She Done Him Wrong and the mission priest was made a Salvation Army officer which was cool with the Catholic Church because the Salvation Army (again most do not know this) then, as now, teaches that the Pope is the Anti-Christ and all good Catholics are going to burn in Hell.
She laid down more conditions. She wanted the film done HER way.
"But Miss West, you know nothing about making films. It takes three months to make a picture."
"I can do it in three weeks."
They did not give her two million bucks, they gave her $150,000.00. They figured she'd fall on her ass, learn her lesson and start being a "good girl."
Thankfully, there were no film schools around so Miss West could not waste five years of her life being taught by people who only know how to copy (and who, as a result, despise originality). "Film students should stay as far away as possible from film schools and film teachers," said director Bernardo Bertolucci, adding, "the only school for the cinema IS the cinema."
Miss West brought her picture in in 17 days---ahead of schedule---and at $117,000.00, under budget.
It went out and made millions.
She, personally, saved Paramount Picture's ass. ##
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