Spotlight: Sexy Pre-Code West (Post Two)

Welcome to another Film Friday! Today we’re continuing our look at the Pre-Code (and no promises, but perhaps some Post-Code) work of Paramount’s lightning-in-a-corset, the iconic Mae West!

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Mae West was born Mary Jane West in Brooklyn on August 17th, 1893. Her father was a prizefighter and eventual PI; her mother was a former fashion model. West’s professional career began in vaudeville at the age of 14. In 1911, she made her Broadway debut after secretly marrying and jilting a fellow vaudevillian four years her senior. (A scandal erupted after Mae became a star in which she erroneously alleged that though they had indeed married, they never lived together. The divorce was finalized in 1943.) West finally got her big break dancing the shimmy in a Shubert Brothers revue called Sometime (1918). Her first starring role was in the notorious Sex (1926), which West also wrote, produced, and directed under the alias “Jane Mast.” For this shocking play, West was prosecuted on morals charges, and later spent eight days in jail. The publicity helped Mae’s career and she continued to write shocking pieces like The Drag (1927) and The Pleasure Man (1928). West struck gold with her play Diamond Lil (1928), in which she played the titular character.

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She came to Hollywood in 1932 after being signed by Paramount. Her first role was a supporting character in the George Raft vehicle, Night After Night (1932). Mae was a smash success and began starring in her own films, She Done Him Wrong (1933) and I’m No Angel (1933). The enforcement of the Production Code in 1934 stifled Mae’s creativity, but she continued to make films with regularity until 1937. She made two more films — one for Universal and the other for Columbia — before returning to Diamond Lil and the stage in 1943. She headlined her own Vegas show in the ’50s and made various appearances throughout the ’50s and ’60s. She returned to the screen in 1970 for the controversial adaptation of Myra Breckinridge. She made one more film in 1978 that flopped. She died of complications following a stroke in 1980 at the age of 87.

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Last week we featured Night After Night (1932). Today we’re highlighting She Done Him Wrong (1933).

 

She Done Him Wrong (1933)

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A saloon singer fights off smugglers, an escaped con and a Salvation Army officer out to reform her.

Starring Mae West, Cary Grant, Owen Moore and Gilbert Roland. Written by Mae West. Screenplay by Harvey Thew and John Bright. Directed by Lowell Sherman.

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Mae’s first starring vehicle was a thinly veiled screen adaptation of her hit play, Diamond Lil (1928), which was deemed unfit for talking pictures. (Read: too risqué.) So with a few alterations to appease the censors — including a name change: Diamond Lil to Lady Lou — She Done Him Wrong shows audiences the closest example of the West we would have seen on Broadway in the late ’20s. She’s in rare form here, set in one of her favorite decades — the ornate and gaudy 1890s.

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In 1892, in New York’s Bowery, singer and femme fatale Lady Lou (Mae West) is mistress to saloon proprietor Gus Jordan (Noah Beery, Sr.), who is running for sheriff, but maintains a counterfeit money racket. Jordan’s rival, Dan Flynn (David Landau), intends to expose Jordan and win the office of sheriff, as well as Lou. When pretty runaway Sally (Rochelle Hudson) tries to commit suicide in Gus’s tavern, Lou comes to her aid, and Gus and his accomplices, Serge Stanieff (Gilbert Roland) and Russian Rita (Rafaela Ottiano), give her a job picking pockets on the Barbary Coast. Later Lou visits her jailed ex-lover, Chick Clark (Owen Moore), whom Flynn helped send to prison for stealing diamonds for Lou, and Chick demands that she remain faithful to him. Lou falls for Captain Cummings (Cary Grant), the handsome and pious preacher of the mission next door, however, and arranges for his mortgage to be paid.

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A string of incidents then puts Lou in a tight spot: after Flynn tells her a new detective in town called “The Hawk” is going to expose Gus, Cummings demands to know Sally’s whereabouts, but Lou swears she knows nothing of Gus’s business. Chick then breaks out of jail and nearly chokes Lou, begging her to run away with him. Next, Serge answers Lou’s long-standing invitation to visit her boudoir and, in Rita’s presence, confesses his love for her, while giving her a diamond brooch that belongs to Rita. In a jealous rage, Rita attacks Lou with a dagger, and Lou accidentally kills her, then orders her henchman, Spider (Dewey Robinson), to dispose of the body. As Lou performs that night, Chick comes to pick her up and hides in her room, while Lou gives Flynn a signal from the stage to meet her there as well. Chick shoots Flynn dead just as Cummings, who is really The Hawk, raids the saloon, arresting Serge, Gus, Spider and Chick. Cummings then escorts Lou, who insists on wearing her wrap, to the police wagon, but lifts her into a coach instead. There, he removes her diamond rings and replaces them with one of his own, telling her, “I’m gonna be your jailer for a long, long time.” (This summary brought to you courtesy of TCM.)

This fast-paced film runs little over an hour, and West is on screen for probably 90% of it. The film is quite certain never to let anybody — especially the other females — take rank over its star, who as the author, purposely writes and casts with one motive: making Mae look good. As a result, the supporting cast is largely adequate, and besides Mae, Grant is the only performer recognizable to today’s average viewer. (West later enjoyed telling interviewers that she discovered Grant, but that was not the case. In fact, this wasn’t even his first film.) While some of the characters may lack depth, the story is quite engaging, as Lady Lou seemingly makes EVERY SINGLE MAN in the picture fall for her. But I have to hand it to Mae — the plot trucks along for all 65 minutes, with some genuinely unexpected twists. (The accidental murder of Rita becomes unintentionally hilarious when the campy West tries to shake her back to life, and then, to cover up the murder, combs the hair over the corpse’s face to pretend like she’s brushing it.)

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Like everything Mae does, the film is a spoof of the Gay Nineties, but She Done Him Wrong screams early ’30s. Lady Lou is a quintessential Pre-Code heroine. She’s a saloon singer having an affair with a counterfeiter, surrounded by all sorts of seedy characters (whose dealings she’ll DENY knowing a thing about), who falls in love with a cop and accidentally shanks a woman, but of course, gets absolved without a hitch. Naturally, what makes this even better, is the wit and wisdom of West, who in her three Pre-Code films tosses off more one-liners than in all of her Post-Code films combined. Here are some of my favorites:

*Lady Lou: “You know, it was a toss up whether I go in for diamonds or sing in the choir. The choir lost.”

*Captain Cummings: “Haven’t you ever met a man that could make you happy?”

Lady Lou: “Sure, lots of times.”

*Serge Stanieff: “I am delighted. I have heard so much about you.”

Lady Lou: “Yeah, but you can’t prove it.”

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In addition to those delicious quips, Mae gets a few songs loaded with double entendres, like the bouncy “I Wonder Where My Easy Rider’s Gone.”

West and Grant have adequate chemistry, but Mae doesn’t need him to shine. She can handle that all by herself. It’s more than her words — it’s her presence. She sashays around the screen and commands it. Even if we were given the opportunity to appreciate someone else in the film, we wouldn’t want it. It’s all about Mae. She Done Him Wrong is more than a camp-tastic film, it’s an excellent representation of the Mae West phenomenon. Especially because, uncensored by the Hays office, viewers get the rare chance to see West how she’s supposed to be seen — in all her glitteringly bad glory. Come up sometime and see her. You won’t regret it, especially in She Done Him Wrong. 

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Come back next Friday for another Mae West film! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week on That’s Entertainment! 

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