Mae West: Dirty Blonde is a feature-length historical documentary film developed by Peeled Grape Productions LLC for PBS’ American Masters. The film explores the extraordinary career and legacy of this complex cultural figure, who left an indelible imprint on American entertainment as a writer, performer, and agitator for social change.
When West arrived in Hollywood in 1932 to make her first motion picture, she was already a veteran performer and a lightning rod for controversy – a Broadway playwright and actress who had spent time in jail for “corrupting the morals of youth” with her groundbreaking play SEX. Her movies set attendance records across the country and made West the highest-paid woman in America. But her libertine attitude also brought the wrath of the Production Code censors, who saw West as a threat to traditional middle-class values.
The film traces West’s 80-year career: a full-time actress at seven, a vaudevillian at 14, a dancing sensation at 25, a Broadway playwright at 33, a movie star at 40, a Vegas nightclub act at 62, a recording artist at 73, a camp icon at 85. Unique in American culture, West created and embodied a character – the unrepentant sinner, the bad girl made good, the “girl who lost her reputation and never missed it” – who upended traditional notions of gender roles, social conventions, and class hierarchy, and whose legacy still reverberates today.