Monday, March 31, 2014

She Done Him Wrong (1933)

Director: Lowell Sherman                                  Writers: Harvey F. Thew & John Bright
Music: John Leipold                                         Cinematography: Charles Lang
Starring: Mae West, Cary Grant, Owen Moore and Gilbert Roland

The Great Depression was a brutal awakening for an industry that had been awash in cash just a few years earlier. Fortunately most of the studios delivered big hits early on in the decade that saved their studios. For Universal it was their horror pictures Dracula and Frankenstein. For RKO it was the western Cimarron, And for Paramount it was the Mae West comedy She Done Him Wrong. It’s an 1890s musical comedy that began as a Broadway play called Diamond Lil that Mae West had written herself. When Paramount bought the rights, however, the production code office sent a memo saying that there was no way they would let it be made it into a film. So West got together with two writers, Harvey F. Thew and John Bright and managed to turn the racy dialogue into innuendo and double entendre and with a change of title it became one of Paramount’s biggest box office hits ever, and was even nominated for an Oscar. Produced for only two hundred thousand dollars, the film made the studio over two million.

The action revolves around a nightclub owned by Noah Beery. But he’s involved in some illegal activities with Rafaela Ottiano, and David Landau is sniffing around trying to get evidence to have him arrested. In the bargain Landau hopes that Beery’s girlfriend, Mae West, will allow him to become her new protector. Next door to the club is a mission run by Cary Grant whom West has taken a liking to, but she sees little chance that he would be interested in someone like her. To complicate matters, her old boyfriend Owen Moore is in prison, though he still thinks she’s loyal to him, and he goes so wild when she comes to see him that he breaks out to take her on the run with him. Now it’s decision time for West. She knows she doesn’t want to be with Moore, but if she lets him know that he could do something crazy like kill her. And to top it off she knows Beery is in the middle of something illegal but doesn’t know why, and things are coming down around him too. In between there are Can-Can girls on the stage, a singer with a handlebar mustache, and West herself singing “Frankie and Johnny.”

It’s actually difficult for me to figure out why this film was so popular. Of course Mae West has some great lines, but in the context of the film they seem few and far between. Cary Grant has little more than a supporting role, which makes the ending somewhat of a head-scratcher. And the 1890s setting seems so forced that the film almost borders on disappointing. If I had to speculate it would be because at the time, the 1930s, the turn of the century was only forty years away, like the seventies would be now. But even with that there are some great moments in the film. When West goes to see her boyfriend in prison and knows all of the men in the cells before she gets to his cell is priceless. But the high point of black comedy comes when West accidentally kills a woman and she hides her crime by brushing the dead woman’s hair in front of a mirror when people show up. That was absolutely the best moment in the film. She Done Him Wrong is certainly a pre-code film, especially considering that Mae West gets away with murder. But in terms of all the films of that era it doesn’t hold up nearly as well as others for me. Still, West is a great talent and it’s a perfect role for her that could have been better if she’d written it herself . . . because she did.

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