Among other liabilities, the Mae West who emerges from the understandably soft-focus haze of "Sextette" is saddled with a lackluster name: Marlo Manners. It sounds like the unfortunate child of Marlo Thomas and Manners the Butler. Scarcely calculated to inspire the sort of tribute offered by W. C. Fields in "My Little Chickadee," in which West was identified as "Flowerbelle Lee" and fields gushed, "What a euphonious appellation!"
In "Sextette," making belated appearances at the Capitol Hill and K-B Studio, West may be regarded with patronizing affection as a plucky survivor. She was 85 when she consented to lounge and baby-step her way through this inept, unflattering comeback vehicle a couple of years ago. It would have been better if she'd said no, but she remains a trouper. It's impossible to forgive the slovenly film-making mercenaries who lured her back to the screen.
A moronic musical bedroom farce, "Sextette" introduces West as a movie siren who checks into a posh London hotel with her sixth bridegroom, a titled young nincompoop played by Timothy Dalton, heroically surviving the most humiliating role in the show. Dalton's character, a colossal twit, is so native that he has no idea that he's making trouble for himself by affably confessing to Rona Barrett (appearing as her inimitable self) that the term "gay" suits him to a T.
Despite such self-evident ordeals as a vocal on "Love Will Keep Us Together," Dalton managed to transcend this ignominious assignment. After this film, he created an incisive, dashing impression of aristocratic masculinity as Col. Archibald Christie in "Agatha," and even in "Sextette," Dalton is the most attractive and versatile actor. Perhaps the wittiest single line reading is his wounded, sincerely mystified, "Who is this woman?" upon hearing Miss Rona liben him on the air.
The honeymoon hotel is also the site of a United Nations-like international political powwow. Several delegates, including Tony Curtis as the obstructionist representative of the Soviet Union, have enjoyed dalliances with Marlo Manners in the past. Always a patriotic soft touch, Marlo is prevailed upon by her manager (Dom DeLuise), who also happens to be a government agent, to smooth the agenda by using her wiles on the stubborn Slav.
Ringo Starr, George Hamilton, Alice Cooper and the late Keith Moon turn up to provide the star with additional masculine foils. Moon, going whole hog with the caricature of a swishy dress designer, is the only one who distinguishes himself, in a manner of speaking. Several anonymous, interchangeable musclemen flex biceps and pectorals for West's jaded amusement in one mind-boggling sequence, which outboggles Jane Russell's production number with "the Olympic team" in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," thanks to a vocal beau geste that finds West serenading a cherubic gymnast to the tune of "Happy Birthday, Sweet Sixteen."
Every so often West negotiates a suggestive bump or flounce, but she can no longer sashay with the insinuating, fluid rhythm that made her very locomotion a sexual innuendo. Now you're conscious of how precarious her steps are, anxious lest she take a tumble before some off-screen bodyguard could rush to her aid.
In a similar respect, the distinctive insinuating drawl hasn't disappeared, but her voice sounds hoarse, and comes out of a waxen face. Only her mouth and eyelashes seem capable of mobility; makeup and plastic surgery have turned the rest into a Mae West mask.
The script requires West to reiterate a number of trademark lines. Indeed, to the extent that this motley enterprise can be credited with a raison d'etre, the spectacle of West repeating characteristic wisecracks one last time will have to suffice. Some were immortalized in her starring vehicles at Paramount in the '30s -- for example, "When I'm good, I'm very good, but when I'm bad, I'm better." Others were too outrageous to get past movie censors when West was in her delightful racy prime. Perhaps the most outrageous: "I'm the girl who works at Paramount all day and Fox all night."