Sacred and Profane:
Mae West's (re) Presentation of Western Religion
Mae West and western religion may seem like an unlikely couple. After all, Mae, masquerading as Diamond Lil—the bowery's most famous fallen angel, epitomizes the antithesis of the west and of everything holy. An American cultural icon, she has come to symbolize the tough-talking "bad girl" of the urban slums of New York City. But despite this widespread and hardearned reputation, the press, studio, and even Mae often exploited links between her image and popular fantasies of the west. Publicists, journalists, and her studio often used catchphrases like "the Wild West," "West is West," and "Go West, Young Man" to promote Mae and her career. Western inscriptions easily fit her for, in many ways Mae, the author of books, plays, and many of her own films, constructed herself into a western landscape, resembling the contours so well-defined by Frederick Jackson Turner. She was wild and untamed, harsh and alluring, unpredictable and challenging. While she was not virgin territory, she did beckon exploration. The imagined west resonated so well with Mae, it inspired one journalist of the 1930s to write, "West is no longer a region; it's a woman. A brand new type of 'western' has suddenly appeared—nothing to do with cowboys and the great open spaces, but wild enough for all that. Mae West is a whole wild west show in herself."
Still it might be a surprise that Mae wrote and appeared in three films set in the west. And in one of these, Klondike Annie (1936), she even explored religion in a western context. In Klondike Annie, she created western space that facilitated a re-imagination of religion, allowing her to intertwine sex and religion with sin and redemption. And when West goes west, religious order triumphs through religious innovation.
An evaluation of Mae's construction of the sacred west/West and her ma-
nipulation of the western genre suggests possibilities for a reinterpretation of the core and substance of her work. Mae has been the topic of academic debate for some years. In the 1960s and 1970s, feminist scholars essentially resurrected the sex goddess from obscurity, some praising her for empowering women and others criticizing her for perpetuating patriarchy and male dominance. Since then, debates over Mae West have raged on inconclusively for, as many have discovered, the ambiguities that haunt her performance make it difficult to pinpoint its definitive meanings. My approach, which moves beyond an analysis based exclusively on gender, differs from these earlier assessments. In my view, an unraveling of her intentions and meanings requires a recognition of the layered and nuanced nature of her work.
Mae West was an extremely complex artist who grappled with a multiplicity of societal tensions and laced her work with a wide and conflicting assortment of messages. Much of this derived from her background. Born in 1893, she was raised in Brooklyn's turn-of-the-century working-class neighborhoods by a family subsisting on an uncertain and unstable income. As a maturing performer who became the family's breadwinner, Mae borrowed from a variety of trends present in American popular culture in the early 1900s. However, by her own account, her unique style developed most directly out of her contact with African American culture. Throughout her life, from childhood until her death in 1980, she maintained strong connections with the black community and borrowed extensively from African American culture, incorporating black music, especially the blues, and dance into her performance.
Her immersion in African American culture led Mae to what is known in the black community as the tradition of signifying. Defined by literary scholar Henry Louis Gates as "black double-voicedness," signifying derives from the language games of black trickster-heroes who through innuendo, double entendre, parody, pastiche, and numerous other verbal, visual, and literary tropes, mediate between the sacred and the profane. Pitting opposing forces against each other, tricksters (signifiers) revise and reorder a disorderly world by challenging and undermining the dominant powers. In signifying, Mae discovered a powerful tool of covert resistance that empowered her art and made her legendary for her double-voicedness. And she was conscious of herself as a signifier, for she often remarked, "It isn't what I do, but how I do it. It isn't what I say but how I say it and how I look when I do and say it."
When Mae came to Los Angeles in 1932 to appear in her first film, she arrived prepared to signify. She immediately challenged Hollywood's power, questioned its prestige, and established herself as a rebellious presence, remarking in one of her first interviews, "I'm not a little girl from a little town making good in a big town. I'm a big girl from a big town making good
in a little town." Indeed, Mae had already achieved national fame on stage, becoming widely celebrated for her distinctive style and controversial productions. As early as 1927, she had set New York City abuzz with her play SEX, a production that won her much publicity as well as ajail sentence for staging an immoral production. Despite continuous opposition from New York's police, censors, and moral guardians, she continued to write and produce plays focusing on some of the most contentious topics of the era, ranging from miscegenation to homosexuality. But it was the character of Diamond Lil, the wise-cracking prostitute from New York's Lower East Side, that brought Mae real fame. In 1928, after a smashingly successful run on Broadway in Diamond Lil, she toured the nation with the play, attracting accolades from critics and audiences across the country.
By February 1936, when Klondike Annie premiered, Mae West reigned as one of Hollywood's brightest stars. She had made several blockbuster films and had achieved national and international recognition as America's first lady of the screen and streets. Although she had attracted a massive following of loyal fans and her films had saved Paramount from bankruptcy, her struggle with censorship had followed her west. With a little help from her studio, throughout her early years in the film industry, she continually fought off attempts to suppress and alter her work. Klondike Annie was no exception and embroiled her in one of the hardest fought battles of her career.
The earliest versions of Klondike Annie, presented to the censors in an outline form, told a tale of spiritual regeneration in the west during the 1890s. Mae plays the Frisco Doll, a gambling palace "hostess" in Shanghai, who accidentally kills her Chinese employer while fighting off his advances. Fearing retribution and arrest, Doll escapes to San Francisco where she secures passage to the Klondike on a frigate. On board she meets a young female evangelist named Soul Savin' Annie. Doll "becomes intensely interested and impressed by the girl and her work." They establish a warm friendship and when Annie falls ill, Doll remains faithfully by her side. Despite Doll's efforts, Annie dies before they reach Nome.
Eluding capture in Nome, Doll assumes Annie's identity. But she soon "becomes a changed woman," embracing Annie's cause, leading a religious revival from Nome's mission, and awakening the spiritual conscience of the entire settlement. In the end, her deception revealed, she resolves to stand trial for her crime, believing her faith will sustain her and that she will be exonerated on the basis of self-defense.
While the original plot attempted to show the redemption of Frisco Doll (alias Diamond Lil), censors refused to permit the moral regeneration of Mae's imagined self. The proposed story flagrantly violated the Motion Picture Production Code by depicting prostitution, miscegenation, and mur-
der. Additionally, Production Code officials branded it a "burlesque" of religion. The censors went to work, busily cutting portions of the script and later of the film. They firmly excluded any hint of sexual intimacies, especially between the races. Furthermore, they prevented Mae from being either too bad or too good, forbidding her to portray either a prostitute or a missionary. The censors insisted: "We believe it to be imperative to make it clear throughout the script that Doll is not in any sense masquerading as a preacher or any other character known and accepted as a minister of religion ordained or otherwise. Rather her assumed character should be that of a social service worker." They prohibited Mae from wearing "religious garb," handling and quoting from the Bible, singing hymns, and preaching. They demanded that she substitute a settlement house for the mission, recommending: "Shots of Doll playing games with the rough miners, teaching them Mother Goose rhymes, etc. Settlement workers make it a practice to gather children around the settlement house to cut out paper dolls or play charades. Why not have Doll giving the rough miners a bit of the same instruction?" Additionally, they suggested the inclusion of a temperance message, transforming Doll into a "sort of Carrie Nation, cleaning up the saloon."
But the censors underestimated Mae's ingenuity, the studio's tenacity, and the power that Diamond Lil had over the public's imagination. Combining these forces, Mae presented, or signified, her original story. Regardless of the censors' dogged interference, the film retained most of its original content.
In the final version, Doll appears as an entertainer who sings in a San Francisco casino owned by a wealthy Chinese prince, Chan Lo. Captivated by Doll's beauty, Chan Lo keeps her virtually a prisoner. She grows restless under his obsessive attentiveness and schemes to run away. When Chan Lo attempts to stop her and punish her with torture, she stabs him to death. She flees San Francisco on a freighter bound for the gold fields of the Klondike and captures the heart of its captain, Bull Brackett.
At a stopover in Vancouver, the frail and, in this version, aging Sister Annie Alden boards Brackett's ship. Bound for a settlement house in Nome, she tells Doll of her determination to "provide material and spiritual guidance" to the wild and unruly townsfolk. Sharing a room with Doll, Annie learns of Doll's sordid past and sweetly but firmly urges her to repent. "It takes courage to be good, but I know you have the courage," Annie says. "If you'd try you could resist every temptation." Doll puffs a cigarette and drawls, "What's the good of resisting temptation? There'll always be more."
Annie, sensing the challenge of an unconverted soul, continues her campaign to win Doll over to her cause. She insists that Doll study a book entitled Settlement Maxims. Despite her reluctance, Doll accepts the book and
over the course of the long voyage develops affection and respect for the fragile settlement house worker. But the trip is hard and while Doll blossoms, Annie declines, eventually suffering a serious heart attack. Compassionately, Doll nurses the failing evangelist, wiping her brow and feeding her spoonfuls of soup. As their ship pulls into Nome's harbor, Doll returns Annie's book, admitting, "I've begun to see things different now . . . you know I actually enjoyed readin' it." In her last dying breath Annie gasps, "I won't need it any more. May it keep you in the path of righteousness all the days of your life."
Doll has only a brief moment to grieve, for Nome's handsome police inspector, Jack Forrest, has boarded the vessel with a warrant for her arrest. In a state of desperation, she switches places with Annie. Slipping on Annie's bonnet and modest black dress, she convinces Forrest that the Frisco Doll died en route to Nome.
Once in Nome, Doll unhappily discovers that she must continue her masquerade until Bull's ship receives clearance and they can depart. But after convincing the other settlement house workers that she is Sister Annie, guilt overcomes her. She realizes that she has benefited from Annie's death, and to repay her fallen friend, she decides to transform the struggling settlement house into an active agency of social uplift. Enthusiastically, she proclaims to her co-workers: "You people have been on the wrong track an' I'm going to steer you right. You'll never get anywhere 'cause you don't know how to wrassle the Devil. . . . You got to know him, know his tricks. I know him. And how I know him." She organizes a town meeting, invites the entire community, and solicits support from a scantily clad and tightly corseted saloon owner named Fanny Radler. When Radler balks, Doll warns her, "Listen you, I speak your language too. . . . Any time you take religion for a joke, the laugh's on you and if you know what's good for you, you'll be there."
The following Sunday night the settlement house overflows with happy celebrants and merry tunes. The crowd cheers as Doll appears on the rostrum. She sings a rousing temperance song and the auditorium grows quiet as she speaks: "You know folks, I once made the mistake of thinking that religion was only for certain kinds of people. But I found out different. I came to realize that you don't have to go around lookin' sad and wearing a long face to be good. I want to show you that you can think right and do right every day of your lives and still have a good time in this world."
Overpowered, a member of the audience rises, offers a confession, and Doll miraculously reunites him with his wife. At the end of the evening, the congregants eagerly fill the collection plate and happily recess for cake and punch served by Fanny Radler and her dance hall girls.
The entire town marvels at Doll's extraordinary talents, one settlement worker exclaiming "Sister Annie has accomplished the impossible! They're
shutting down the town on Sundays and promise law and order will be restored!" Single-handedly, Doll has saved Nome and uplifted its residents. Furthermore, her love life improves. Bull waits in port hoping she will join him on the high seas. But she has also attracted the affection of Jack Forrest who, after discovering her true identity, offers to resign his post and help her escape.
What will Doll do? Choose Brackett or Forrest? Remain a saint or a sinner? "Caught between two evils," she muses, "I generally like to pick the one I've never tried before." After this reflection, Doll sheds Annie's dowdy attire and emerges in full Diamond Lil regalia. "Sister Annie," exclaims Brother Bowser, one of the settlement workers, "what is this transformation?" Towering above her brother-in-the-spirit, she announces her departure. Looking downcast, she remarks, "That's the way I do things—sudden like—or I don't do them at all." She instructs the flock to use the collection money for a new building and a large sign reading "Sister Annie Alden's Settlement House" and swaggers off screen and out of town.
The film ends with Doll aboard Bull Brackett's ship, determined to return to San Francisco and turn herself in. She tells Bull of a dream where "Annie spoke to me. I heard her say 'Go back and do the right thing.' " Certain the jury will accept her plea of self-defense, Doll explains "I've got to make up for my past." But Bull objects to her reformation and as she reclines on a couch, she takes him in her arms. "You're no oil paintin'," she purrs, "but you sure are a fascinatin' monster." The scene fades out with a passionate kiss.
Klondike Annie arrived at the theaters with much hoopla. Before the film's release, the studio began a publicity campaign that undermined the censors' efforts to eliminate religion and sex from the production. A studio synopsis identified Sister Annie as "going to Alaska to join a band of missionaries" and Doll's activities in Nome as "prayer meetings." Advertising highlighted the film's sexual susurration, publicists creating slogans out of traditional Westian innuendos. "Come up and see me again fellows, thar's more gold in them thar hills," exclaimed one lobby poster. Another read "Out where the whiskers grow just a little bigger, out where the he-men are faster on the trigger, out where the gold's awaiting the digger, that's where the west begins." Additionally, a studio contest encouraged fans to submit lines for Mae written in Westian double entendres, tutoring the public to encode and decode her double meanings and to recognize when and what Mae signified.
As a result most, if not all, the audience left Klondike Annie with the impression that they had just seen a film about sex and religion. Several reviewers understood Doll to be what one called a "prostie." Despite the censors' meddling, Mae was Diamond Lil and Diamond Lil was every role she played. Mae affirmed this, declaring "the character I created in She Done Him
Wrong [the film version of Diamond Lil ] is the one I'm still using and it seems to be doin' alright." Many also perceived Doll and Chan Lo as engaged in an intimate relationship, signified by Mae's performance of "I'm an Occidental Woman in an Oriental Mood for Love." Furthermore, the public discerned the picture's religious content. Kindled by visual signification, viewers immediately recognized Doll's settlement house frock as that of a Salvationist; critics identified Sister Annie as a missionary and Mae as an evangelist, hearing her singing hymns and delivering sermons. Alliteration even led one reviewer to compare Mae's Sister Annie to the era's most famous and flamboyant female evangelist Sister Aimee Semple McPherson. Soon the censors realized that their efforts had been thwarted, their New York boss, Will Hays, lamenting, "My worst worry is not the alleged salaciousness, but the producer's failure to avoid the impression that it is a mission house picture and the Doll is masquerading as a missionary."
Objections quickly surfaced around the country. In a letter to Paramount Studios, the San Francisco Motion Picture Council complained "any picture that represents its heroine as a mistress to an Oriental, even as murderess, then a cheap imitator of a missionary jazzing religion is not in harmony with the other educational forces." The Catholic Church's Legion of Decency condemned Klondike Annie, calling for its boycott. A postcard arrived at Paramount, addressed to both Will Hays and Mae West and bearing a scrawled message, "Shame on you."
Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst joined the protest. In an internal memorandum to his editors, he declared the film "an affront to the decency of the public." He ordered editorials assailing the picture and its star and banned advertisements for the film from his papers. "After you have had a couple of good editorials regarding the indecency of this picture," he wrote, "then DO NOT mention Mae West in our papers again while she is on the screen." Commentary attacking Mae appeared in Hearst papers nationwide and several editors called on Congress to take action against the star.
The furor actually stimulated even more public interest, drawing record crowds to see Klondike Annie. New York City's Paramount theater added extra showings of the film, beginning at 8:30 A.M. and ending at 2:00 in the morning. The box office returns outdistanced Mae's previous effort and ran far above the industry's average. Although the film generally received negative reviews, some critics charging that it was morally offensive and others complaining because Mae had gone "soft," attendance remained high. Mae was already an American institution and fans clamored to follow not only her career but Diamond Lil's as well.
The key to Mae's appeal rested in the complexity and fluidity of her messages. Certainly, many filmgoers were drawn to Klondike Annie because of its promise of risqué humor and its lampooning of religion. But Klondike
Annie is a signifying vehicle that possesses two voices that simultaneously mock sectarians and secularists. Humorist James Thurber recognized the dualism. In an illustration accompanying his review of the film, he drew Mae with wings and halo soaring "invisibly above the bad boys and girls who she goes to Alaska to join but remains to save, or darn near."
Thurber's rendering captures the central ambiguity of Klondike Annie —is Doll a saint or a sinner? The answer is yes. She is both Frisco Doll and Sister Annie. Playing the Doll, Mae becomes the ultimate signifier, for Doll is a doll, a plaything that is forever representational of something it is really not. Open to all roles and meanings, she becomes a conduit, channel, and mediator. As a signifier and trickster, Mae erects Klondike Annie as a trickster's trickster tale. Soaring on Thurber's wings, between the heavens and "the bad boys and girls," Doll transmits and translates sacred intentions to the world of the profane. In the role of the trickster/signifier, Mae creates chaos and then reorders the world, only to eventually generate chaos again.
But despite the confusing fluctuations in Mae's work, her confrontation with the signified prostitute, Fanny Radler, functions essentially as a good old western showdown with her other self, revealing the trickster's central message. Bilingual, Doll can speak in both sacred and secular voices, reminding Radler, the spectator, and even herself, "Whenever you take religion for a joke, the laugh's on you." This is the trickster's voice, signifying on hedonists and puritans who both (mis)interpret her endeavor as a travesty of religion. By reversal and revision, Klondike Annie transforms ridicule of religion into a morality play. And the signifier Doll's redemptive ability becomes so powerful that she converts not only a whole godless town, but its most hardened sinner, herself. "I didn't feel anywhere near as damned at this movie as I did, when I was a young man, at Rain, " testified James Thurber. "For in Rain a religious man goes sexual, and that disturbed me, but in Klondike Annie a sexual woman goes religious, and that gave me a sense of peace." Despite everyone's efforts, Diamond Lil had been saved.
The trickster accomplishes this transfiguration by exploiting societal polarities and upsetting the normal balance of power. At the heart of signification is the issue of power. In trickster tales, the trickster (signifier) occupies a position of weakness within the community structure and gains power by initiating conflict between those who possess strength and status. In Klondike Annie, Doll, as a performer, is a woman who makes a living by selling her (imagined) self and thus lacks power and control over almost everything including her own body. She fights this by consistently wreaking havoc everywhere she goes, undermining all conventions and everyone's expectations and securing power by redirecting it.
By turning the world on its head, the trickster/signifier passes through three stages (or in the case of Klondike Annie, three acts) that closely follow the motif of a conversion tale. In the first stage (Act One), Doll appears
in a state of sin. Drawing from white society's racist assumptions, Mae presents Doll in what the dominant culture of the 1930 considered a degraded state; Doll is a white woman living among the Chinese in San Francisco's notorious Chinatown, a community whites consider to be pagan and heathen. But immediately, Doll, the trickster, commences signification through inversion and reversal. Manipulating a series of polarities, Doll rebels against her powerlessness by exploiting the offensive racist stereotypes affixed to Asians by white Americans. In Klondike Annie, Asian characters appear as either docile, subservient, and ingratiating, or inscrutable, devious, and violent. While Mae's work reifies the racism ingrained in American society, at the same time, it also undermines at least some of its components. Verbally Doll spurns the overtures of Chan Lo, but the manner of her rendition of "I'm an Occidental Woman in an Oriental Mood for Love" implies that at some level she not only finds men of another race attractive but has engaged in intimacies with them. This enactment of a white woman who yearns for the Asian male operates as a pivotal element in Klondike Annie, for it scrambles the proscriptions for racial segregation and explodes the assumption that white women only involuntarily participate in interracial sex. As Doll thanks one of the Chinese men who helped her escape from Chan Lo, she murmurs, "I wish I could reward you somehow," glancing just below his waist. It is within this rupture of expectations about race, gender, and sex that the signifier first attempts to seize power by triggering binary oppositions and challenging authority.
The struggle for empowerment ensues over Mae's and Doll's attempt to control what feminist film critics have identified as "the male gaze." These scholars contend that American cinema, ruled by notions of patriarchy, is constructed to sustain and promote male supremacy and female oppression. To further this agenda, Hollywood movie moguls manufacture spectacles purposefully tailored to the male gaze, allowing men to visually identify with film heroes and through them to participate in a cinematic suppression and domination of women. Hence filmmakers construct the female character to be gazed upon and thus controlled.
However, Mae, who oversaw everything from the scripting to the cinematography of her films, successfully manipulated the gaze, ultimately transforming it into a visual form of signification. As Doll performs "I'm an Occidental Woman in an Oriental Mood for Love," the camera pans over the crowd, revealing an audience of Chinese men who gaze upon her performance with desire and yearning. This serves the traditional purpose of establishing Doll as an object to be dominated by the men in both the fictional and real audience. But it is quickly countered by the next shot revealing that Doll, with equal desire and command, gazes back at the male spectator. By assuming control of the gaze, Mae/Doll successfully signifies interracial mixing.
Furthermore, while Doll's whiteness is highlighted—she is an "Occiden-
tal Woman," a "pearl of pearls," and a "white doll"—her racial identity is also covertly contested. Doll's contacts are confined to the Chinese community and she comfortably conforms to and adopts elements of that culture. She speaks Mandarin, occasionally wears Asian dress, and maintains positive relationships with the others, all Chinese, who also work for Chan Lo. Like Doll, all of those employed by Chan Lo are completely under his control and she shares more camaraderie with them than anyone else, Chinese or European American, in the film. And it was only within this western setting—turn-of-the-century San Francisco—that Mae could dream up such an amalgamation. In the west, racial identities could be somewhat destabilized and racial boundaries, although still rigid, could sometimes be crossed.
Significantly, the next stage (Act Two) of Doll's transformation, where she repents and is converted, occurs during a voyage. The ocean setting signifies references to Christian symbolism; as Doll crosses over the waters to freedom, she is liberated from Chan Lo's enslavement and reborn into a new life through a baptism on/in the waters. Again, Mae reinforces the ideology of racism; she does not begin the process of spiritual renewal until freed of all Chinese ties signaled when her maid, Fah Wong, disembarks just before Sister Annie boards.
With the arrival of Sister Annie, forces of binary opposition lock horns as Doll and Annie engage in a verbal struggle over spirituality. But, despite Doll's impervious sacrilegious surface, she signifies a positionality that belies the obvious. At one level, "what's the good of resisting temptation, there'll always be more" fatalistically rejects the notion that true spiritual purification can be sustained and that such a state of grace is even desirable. But it also signifies two other possibilities. First, Doll's response questions the assumption that goodness can be achieved only by resisting temptation. Conversely, she also invokes Sister Annie's position that the greatest goodness results from the most difficult of all challenges—the denial of all temptation. Such paradoxes characterize the vagaries of Mae's work but also create the confusion that leads to order.
In the final stage (Act Three), Doll, like most ideal communicants and/or tricksters, assumes the role of the missionary dedicated to spreading the word. But as signifier, Doll has revised the gospel and, in turn, pits tradition against convention. The settlement house workers of Nome are a joyless, lackluster bunch, a small band of odd-looking characters given to off-key singing and dull sermonizing. But, masquerading as Sister Annie, Mae revitalizes the faith espoused by her co-religionists in Nome. She excises its dreary conventionality, introducing a spiritual energy that reflects the newness of the frontier. Doll's faith is western—raucous, demonstrative, and emotional. Formality is shed and hymns sound more like barroom tunes than sacred standards. A Turnerian ghost haunts Mae's deconstruction and reconstruction of religion; she democratizes the worship process, breaking
down ecclesiastical rule and leading the congregation into a more participatory worship process. This disruption of religious tradition creates a sacred space of empowerment that Doll seizes when she takes the podium to address the congregation. Posing as Sister Annie, Doll constructs a more egalitarian faith where a woman, through her connections to sacred forces, assumes the traditionally male position of religious authority and becomes the most powerful person in the community. Throughout the conversion tale, Doll has grown more powerful and it is her signifying gaze from the podium that reinvigorates the entire town's spirituality.
Not surprisingly, much of Doll's power emanates from her signification on American society's relegation of sex and religion to the polar extremes of the moral spectrum. Throughout her career, Mae agitated for Americans to accept sex as natural, healthy, and enjoyable. In the film, Doll's success as an evangelist has as much to do with her sexuality as it does with her faith. Doll is not just a sexually experienced woman but one whose liaisons have crossed racial boundaries. And as her devotion to religious work increases, so does her erotic allure. The real Sister Annie, living an existence of physical denial, lacks Doll's strength. Doll succeeds where Annie fails because she possesses the best of both the spirit and flesh. In the evangelist's voice, Mae reminds us, "You can think right and do right every day of your lives and still have a good time in this world." In Mae's re-vision, the strongest of believers is both righteous and sexual.
Still, as the story closes, Doll calls into question even her own conversion as well as the amount of power she has successfully wrested from the male-dominated society. At the end, Doll really has only two options, to surrender herself to Jack Forrest or Bull Brackett. Doll signifies on the limited possibilities for women by labeling the police inspector and the ship captain as "two evils" not only for the carnality they offer but also because they represent male authority. Clearly her choices are limited; rather than pursuing a cross-class relationship with Forrest, Doll capitulates to Brackett, a pairing more suited to her real station in life. This serves to reinforce the strict class lines in American society. However, even as she succumbs to the appropriate match, she signifies on gender restrictions. In the final scene, as Bull hungrily sizes her up, she responds, "You're no oil paintin'." And as she returns his gaze, she calls him a "monster," indicating both a desire for and a resentment against him.
The western genre provided a convenient framework for Mae's attempt to signify on power and authority in American society. Most westerns focused on a male hero who arrived in town as a stranger and through his special talents saved the community by playing good against evil. This "Western" complied with the typical structure but substituted a woman in place of a man. Despite this revision, Mae in many ways reaffirmed the idealized west found both in popular culture and in the writings of Frederick Jackson
Turner. Klondike Annie advanced the assertion that the west functioned as a place open to religious experimentation. Such an assumption remained fully grounded in Turner's vision, implying that in the case of religion, the west was a spiritual void endowed with extraordinary democratizing potential. European Americans, like Sister Annie and/or Frisco Doll, therefore, assumed they could do three things in the west—first, misbehave (sin); second, renew spiritual commitment (convert); and third, proselytize and institute sacred authority (conquer). In this paradigm, white westerners who disregard and ignore the sacred life of indigenous peoples become immortalized as heroes in a struggle for religious freedom. As Sister Annie, Doll spreads notions of moral ascendancy and superiority in the west. From this perspective, Klondike Annie is a reminder of western realities, for it is not a tale of spiritual democracy but, rather, one of religious imperialism.
Mae envisioned the west as a religious tabula rasa where she could both sin and redeem. While mocking America's sacred institutions, she reinforced the necessity for religious order. As Doll, she rejected moral authority. But as the evangelist, Sister Annie, she instituted it, taming the wild west (and the wild West) with a new doctrine that seemed to make the west just a little less chaotic and a little more like the fantasied east. In Klondike Annie, West meets the west, offering us insight into the pervasiveness of our mythology about both the west and La West. It also reminds us of the contradictory and enigmatic qualities ascribed to the images of both the region and the star. But as Klondike Annie ends and Doll passionately kisses Bull Brackett, we are left with an uncomfortable sense that perhaps little has changed on this voyage from San Francisco to Nome and back. But it is nothing more than the trickster's signifying gesture that initiates the confusion that will again reestablish order.