(1933) Directed by Lowell Sherman; Written by Harvey F. Thew and John Bright; Based on the Play Diamond Lil, by Mae West; Starring: Mae West, Cary Grant, Owen Moore; Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming
Rating: *** ½
“When women go wrong, men go right after them.” – Lady Lou (Mae West)
The early to mid-1930s marked a unique phase in Hollywood history, when the short-lived pre-Code era gave way to restrictions enforced by the Hollywood Production Code. While several films could be collectively contributed to this shift, one of the straws that broke the proverbial camel’s back was Mae West’s first starring vehicle, She Done Him Wrong. The film’s debut sparked increased pressure from various citizens’ groups to stem the flow of film content that was deemed to be immoral and corrupting. This zelaous fervor to censor movies from the Hollywood studio system resulted in the formation of the Catholic Legion of Decency, along with a more hard-lined approach to enforcing the Code. These ramifications would continue to be felt for the next three and half decades. As for the film that contributed to the furor, it would be locked away until the 1950s, when it found a new audience on television.
West herself was no stranger to being at the center of controversy. She Done Him Wrong, set in an 1890s bordello/saloon where anything goes, was based on West’s 1928 play Diamond Lil, and had once resulted in her arrest. The road from stage to screen was also arduous. According to Dawn Sova’s book, Forbidden Films, Paramount ordered a number of changes, including re-titling the film and its eponymous main character, and omitting references to human trafficking (referred to, as “the Barbary Coast” in the film). Despite all of the numerous concessions, She Done Him Wrong is rife with double-entendres that were obviously designed to sneak by the censors while raising the eyebrows of its intended audience.
She Done Him Wrong endures, thanks to West’s performance as the indomitable Lady Lou. From her entrance ten minutes into the film,* there’s no doubt that it’s Mae West’s show all the way. The paper-thin story is meant to showcase West and her one-liners. In an early exchange, Lady Lou describes herself as “One of the finest women who ever walked the streets.” In a later scene, she tempts Cary Grant’s unshakable Captain Cummings with the immortal, oft-misquoted line, “Why don't you come up some time and see me?” As the saloon’s star performer, she keeps several men wrapped around her little finger, while she collects diamonds as tribute.
* Not counting Lady Lou’s early introduction as a semi-nude painting at the bar.
Viewed from a jaded, cynical 21st-century perspective, it can be a little hard to see what all the fuss was about. The rapid-fire quips and saucy innuendos seem almost quaint by today’s standards, but they gleefully trespassed into dangerous territory at the time of She Done Him Wrong’s release. Similarly, the film’s star seems an unlikely candidate as a sex symbol. Neither as svelte, nor as young as many of her female contemporaries (West was 39 when the movie was filmed – 10 years her co-star Grant’s senior), West relied on her quick wit and exaggerated mannerisms as her weapons of choice. Everything about her libidinous on-screen persona was designed to provoke a response from the audience. She plays with our expectations, not as an object of men’s desires, but as a caricature. West’s character is ultimately empowering, because she uses her sexuality to manipulate men instead of becoming their pawn (“I happen to be smart enough to play it their way.”). She’s a product of a time when women had few cards at their disposal, and she happens to play her hand well. It’s impossible to ignore the fact that Lady Lou, a character from the late 1800s, was paradoxically ahead of her time in 1933, with her relaxed attitude about sex and refusal to be subservient in a male-dominated society.