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She Done Him Wrong

She Done Him Wrong(1933)

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"Men's all alike -- married or single -- I happen to be smart enough toplay it their way."
Mae West in She Done Him Wrong

Mae West played at sex like a man. She used her partners for pleasure and,with most of them, discarded them as soon as she got bored. Though therewas usually one leading man who was given exclusive rights to her by thefilm's conclusion, she was the one doing the giving, with the veiledsuggestion that she could always withdraw her approval if things didn'twork out. More than any innuendo, more than the tightly corseted gowns shegenerously overflowed, this was what excited the censors' ire. Not onlydid she treat sex as an act of pleasure without any undue consequences, butalso her attitude exposed the unwritten code by which many men operated,even after they were married. Little wonder she was often credited as thewoman who brought stricter censorship to Hollywood. She wasn't, but asPauline Kael once said, if she was, the delights she offered on screen morethan made for the later depredations of censorship.

In the early '30s, the major Hollywood studios gave lip service to theProduction Code, a set of rules for what could and could not be done onscreen enforced by Will Hays of the Motion Picture Producers andDistributors of America (MPPDA). Originally, Paramount Pictures was verygood about following the Code. They hadn't done much to follow the trendtoward gangster films spearheaded by Little Caesar in 1931. But by1932 the studio was running $21 million in the hole. By that time, therewas a new genre challenging the censors, the sex film (also called "women'spictures"), which dealt with women who stray from the straight andnarrow and pay for it tearfully by the film's end. Paramount had flirtedwith the genre with its early Marlene Dietrich films like Morocco (1930)and Blonde Venus (1932), but they mostly let the other studios blaze newsexual trails and reap the box office rewards, at least until Mae Westshowed up.

West had been developing her act since the early days of the 20th century,when she sang bawdy songs in vaudeville, creating a delivery copied fromthe female impersonators of the day and night-club queen Texas Guinan.She'd scored some huge hits on Broadway, particularly with thecontroversial Diamond Lil, in which she played a saloon singer onThe Bowery in the 1890s who sets out to seduce a Salvation Army officer.Universal Pictures had proposed bringing the play to the screen in 1930,when she toured it to Los Angeles. Hays issued a firm edict, however. Theplay was off limits, and when Universal suggested hiring West to writesomething new for them, he talked them out of it. Meanwhile, West fell onhard times when her follow-up play, The Constant Sinner, closedafter only eight weeks. The 39-year-old sex star began to wonder if shewasn't over the hill.

Then old friend George Raft came to the rescue. There was a juicy part for anolder woman playing his ex-girlfriend in Night After Night (1932) atParamount. The studio wanted to cast Texas Guinan, but he talked them intogiving West a chance. She almost turned the role down when she saw howpoorly it was written. Instead, however, she got producer Harry Le Baron,another old friend, to agree to let her re-write her lines. Loading thescript with comic innuendo, she, in Raft's words, "stole everything but thecameras." Exhibitors were clamoring for another film with West, andParamount decided to take a chance on bucking the censors.

When the studio approached her about making another film, she consideredher options, then insisted on adapting Diamond Lil. Rather thanbuck Will Hays outright, they suggested changing the title and enoughdetails to make it seem like a new story. But when Hays found out, hetried to shut the film down. Studio head Adolph Zukor made his case toHays' New York board of directors, and won the concession that they couldredo the script with a new title and new character names (Diamond Lilbecame Lady Lou). Other demands made by the Hays Office included makingthe leading man (Cary Grant) a mission worker with no specific affiliationto the Salvation Army and cutting overt references to prostitution. Theyalso changed the nationality of West's female nemesis from Brazilian toRussian, since there was little market for U.S. films in the SovietUnion.

In some ways, Hays' demands actually improved the film. Screenwriter JohnBright, who had scored a hit with The Public Enemy (1931), was assigned tocollaborate on the screenplay, but he didn't click with West, and herscript didn't impress him either. He thought it was a creaky old melodramafilled with cheap jokes and tried to make it more of a straight crime film.West hated his ideas, but had a battle getting the studio to side withher. Then one of Hays' associates suggested that the film might be morepalatable if played for comedy. That was the excuse she needed to cutBright's additions and return many of her laugh lines (eventually she hadhim replaced by Harvey Thew). When Hays suggested toning down referencesto Lou's past affairs, West added a maid character (played by LouiseBeavers) who knew of her past so the two could discuss it in a series ofveiled references.

Those references -- and West's ability to make even the most innocent linessound risque - made the film a hit and made her one of the world's mostquoted writers. Early in the film she describes herself as "one of thefinest women ever walked the streets." When a young woman complains aboutlosing her virtue, West quips, "When women go wrong, men go after them."One of the play's most controversial lines was part of her come on to theSalvation Army officer, "You can be had," which West repeated at the endwhen the two hooked up. Hays thought it was too raw, so West replaced theline's second appearance with a comic exchange. Grant chastises her with"You bad girl," to which she coyly replies, "You'll find out." Anotherline, however, only sounded racy in West's patented delivery - the line whereshe tells Grant, "Why don't you come up some time, see me?"

She Done Him Wrong was a huge hit. Made for just $200,000, half ofwhich went to West for writing and starring, it returned $2 milliondomestically on its initial release and another $1 million in internationalmarkets. That wasn't enough to pull Paramount out of the hole, but itraised studio morale and their image enough to help them edge back toward profitability. The film made West a household name and boosted the career ofco-star Grant, who was just starting in films. He would later claim thathe learned most of what he knew about playing comedy from watching West atwork.

She Done Him Wrong also changed fashions, bringing back thehourglass figure, and encouraged a run of films set in the 1890s. Butthere was also the inevitable backlash. West's suggestive song "I Like aMan That Takes his Time" was so heavily cut by censors that Paramountcalled back all release prints to cut the middle stanzas. Other lines werecut by local censors, and the film was banned outright in Java, Latvia,Australia and Vienna. It also triggered renewed cries for national filmcensorship that led to the strengthening of the Production Code in 1934.That, in turn, would create even more battles for West and the censors,though they could do nothing to diminish the sexual independence of hercharacters. Even in the more liberated era of the '70s, West amazedaudiences with her sexual forthrightness when she returned to filmmakingafter decades off-screen for a small role as a predatory agent in MyraBreckinridge (1970).

Producer: William LeBaron
Director: Lowell Sherman
Screenplay: Mae West, Harvey Thew, John Bright
Based on the play Diamond Lil by Mae West
Cinematography: Charles Lang
Art Direction: Robert Usher
Music: Ralph Rainger
Principal Cast: Mae West (Lady Lou), Cary Grant (Capt. Cummings), OwenMoore (Chick Clark), Gilbert Roland (Serge Stanieff), Noah Beery, Sr. (GusJordan), Rafaela Ottiano (Russian Rita), Rochelle Hudson (Sally Glynn),Fuzzy Knight (Ragtime Kelly), Louise Beavers (Pearl).
BW-65m. Closed captioning.

by Frank Miller

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