She Done Him Wrong
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 there was usually one leading man who was given exclusive rights to her by the film's conclusion, she was the one doing the giving, with the veiled suggestion that she could always withdraw her approval if things didn't work out. More than any innuendo, more than the tightly corseted gowns she generously overflowed, this was what excited the censors' ire. Not only did she treat sex as an act of pleasure without any undue consequences, but also her attitude exposed the unwritten code by which many men operated, even after they were married. Little wonder she was often credited as the woman who brought stricter censorship to Hollywood. She wasn't, but as Pauline Kael once said, if she was, the delights she offered on screen more than made for the later depredations of censorship.
In the early '30s, the major Hollywood studios gave lip service to the Production Code, a set of rules for what could and could not be done on screen enforced by Will Hays of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA). Originally, Paramount Pictures was very good about following the Code. They hadn't done much to follow the trend toward gangster films spearheaded by Little Caesar in 1931. But by 1932 the studio was running $21 million in the hole. By that time, there was a new genre challenging the censors, the sex film (also called "women's pictures"), which dealt with women who stray from the straight and narrow and pay for it tearfully by the film's end. Paramount had flirted with the genre with its early Marlene Dietrich films like Morocco (1930) and Blonde Venus (1932), but they mostly let the other studios blaze new sexual trails and reap the box office rewards, at least until Mae West showed 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 from the female impersonators of the day and night-club queen Texas Guinan. She'd scored some huge hits on Broadway, particularly with the controversial Diamond Lil, in which she played a saloon singer on The 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. The play was off limits, and when Universal suggested hiring West to write something new for them, he talked them out of it. Meanwhile, West fell on hard times when her follow-up play, The Constant Sinner, closed after only eight weeks. The 39-year-old sex star began to wonder if she wasn't over the hill.
Then old friend George Raft came to the rescue. There was a juicy part for an older woman playing his ex-girlfriend in Night After Night (1932) at Paramount. The studio wanted to cast Texas Guinan, but he talked them into giving West a chance. She almost turned the role down when she saw how poorly it was written. Instead, however, she got producer Harry Le Baron, another old friend, to agree to let her re-write her lines. Loading the script with comic innuendo, she, in Raft's words, "stole everything but the cameras." Exhibitors were clamoring for another film with West, and Paramount decided to take a chance on bucking the censors.
When the studio approached her about making another film, she considered her options, then insisted on adapting Diamond Lil. Rather than buck Will Hays outright, they suggested changing the title and enough details to make it seem like a new story. But when Hays found out, he tried to shut the film down. Studio head Adolph Zukor made his case to Hays' New York board of directors, and won the concession that they could redo the script with a new title and new character names (Diamond Lil became Lady Lou). Other demands made by the Hays Office included making the leading man (Cary Grant) a mission worker with no specific affiliation to the Salvation Army and cutting overt references to prostitution. They also changed the nationality of West's female nemesis from Brazilian to Russian, since there was little market for U.S. films in the Soviet Union.
In some ways, Hays' demands actually improved the film. Screenwriter John Bright, who had scored a hit with The Public Enemy (1931), was assigned to collaborate on the screenplay, but he didn't click with West, and her script didn't impress him either. He thought it was a creaky old melodrama filled 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 with her. Then one of Hays' associates suggested that the film might be more palatable if played for comedy. That was the excuse she needed to cut Bright's additions and return many of her laugh lines (eventually she had him replaced by Harvey Thew). When Hays suggested toning down references to Lou's past affairs, West added a maid character (played by Louise Beavers) who knew of her past so the two could discuss it in a series of veiled references.
Those references -- and West's ability to make even the most innocent lines sound risque - made the film a hit and made her one of the world's most quoted writers. Early in the film she describes herself as "one of the finest women ever walked the streets." When a young woman complains about losing 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 the Salvation Army officer, "You can be had," which West repeated at the end when the two hooked up. Hays thought it was too raw, so West replaced the line's second appearance with a comic exchange. Grant chastises her with "You bad girl," to which she coyly replies, "You'll find out." Another line, however, only sounded racy in West's patented delivery - the line where she 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 of which went to West for writing and starring, it returned $2 million domestically on its initial release and another $1 million in international markets. That wasn't enough to pull Paramount out of the hole, but it raised studio morale and their image enough to help them edge back toward profitability. The film made West a household name and boosted the career of co-star Grant, who was just starting in films. He would later claim that he learned most of what he knew about playing comedy from watching West at work.
She Done Him Wrong also changed fashions, bringing back the hourglass figure, and encouraged a run of films set in the 1890s. But there was also the inevitable backlash. West's suggestive song "I Like a Man That Takes his Time" was so heavily cut by censors that Paramount called back all release prints to cut the middle stanzas. Other lines were cut by local censors, and the film was banned outright in Java, Latvia, Australia and Vienna. It also triggered renewed cries for national film censorship 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 her characters. Even in the more liberated era of the '70s, West amazed audiences with her sexual forthrightness when she returned to filmmaking after decades off-screen for a small role as a predatory agent in Myra Breckinridge (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), Owen Moore (Chick Clark), Gilbert Roland (Serge Stanieff), Noah Beery, Sr. (Gus Jordan), Rafaela Ottiano (Russian Rita), Rochelle Hudson (Sally Glynn), Fuzzy Knight (Ragtime Kelly), Louise Beavers (Pearl).
BW-65m. Closed captioning.
by Frank Miller