She Done Him Wrong: Mae West’s career died for your sins.
This week we go West, Mae West, for a pair of saucy comedies: one’s pre-code, the other isn’t.
She Done Him Wrong (1933)
Across town at 20th Century Fox, it was child superstar Shirley Temple keeping the studio in the black, while Paramount used pre-code sex to foot the bill. At a time when monogamy governed Hollywood, Mae West had more lovers in a single picture than most did in a lifetime. Based on West’s scandalous stage play Diamond Lil, this was to be her second feature and first starring role. For two years, West and screenwriters Harvey Thew and John Bright grappled with a way to get it past the censors. Within months of its release, the Catholic Legion of Decency was formed, largely in response to the perceived threat West posed to the male libido.
The film is set in the 1890s — a period in the not-so distant past that West felt most comfortable in. Apart from a nude painting strung up over the bar just that morning, we don’t get to see Lady Lou (West) in the flesh until 10 minutes into a picture that runs a scant 66 minutes. Similar to a slice of Universal horror, the opening passage is spent establishing local color as well as determining the opposition; all the word of mouth gives extra drama to the monster’s big unveiling. (Ladies of the Bowery plug their noses the moment her horse-drawn carriage nears; menfolk doff their hats, craning forward for a look.)
West’s approach to the opposite sex was simple: married or single, it’s a man’s game. Lou “happens to be smart enough to play it their way.” Apart from Cary Grant (and W.C. Fields), West’s lineup of leading man were fully operational targets, set in line for West to knock down. Other slabs of meat on the menu, just waiting for West to butcher them, included David Landau, Noah Beery, Sr., and the pristine and preeminently arrogant Gilbert Roland. With a load of lumber like this to play off, is it any wonder that Grant’s next-door missionary turns out to be an undercover cop for West to fall for at picture’s fade? The cheapest cut of ham is Owen Moore as Lou’s locked-up ex, Chick Clark. Hardcore romanticist Chick expresses his love for Lou by threatening to kill her if she so much as looks at another man. Judging by his muddleheaded performance, Moore’s “method” is allowing the liquor to do the acting. But Lou’s visit to prison, complete with a sashay through the cell block like it’s old home week, is a highpoint second only to a hair-pulling match between Lou and Russian Rita (Rafaela Ottiano, reprising her role from Diamond Lil.)
The film was directed by Lowell Sherman, a man Andew Sarris said was “gifted with the ability to express the poignancy of male lechery when confronted with female longing.” Much of what made it on the stage wasn’t suited for mass consumption at the movies; still, what’s here is probably the closest to undiluted West as the Golden Age of Hollywood would allow.
Belle of the Nineties (1934)
Paramount in the ‘30s, the right place and right time for Leo McCarey, the only director fortunate enough to work with the studio’s behemoths of comedy, that triple-helping of absurdity The Marx Bros., W.C. Fields, and Mae West. (And he did them all in a row, too, from Duck Soup to Six of a Kind to Belle of the Nineties.) For the first time in her career, West received sole screenwriting credit, and it was she, not McCarey, calling the shots.
Unlike her slow rollout in She Done Him Wrong, West’s quick-to-arrive first musical number is a gawker’s paradise. “My American Beauty” amounts to little more than an immobile West positioned center frame, hands planted firmly on hips that can’t stop gyrating, performing from within a quintet of costumier Travis Banton’s tightest — legend has it West had to be sewn into her costumes — and most outlandish creations. She doesn’t even sing. (That chore goes to one of her stud muffins.)
This isn’t a musical as much as it is a series of stage performances by West interspersed between bits of melodrama. The one deviation occurs when she steps out on the balcony for a smoke and observes an all-black revival meeting being held practically in her backyard. These numbers were quite popular in the day, but there is something particularly off-putting about this stereotypical mix of fire and brimstone and bayou hoodoo. It was enough to make Jean-Pierre Coursodon call the sequence “an immensely tasteless” number in which West sings along with a “black chorus going through grotesque contortions in a repulsively Hollywood display of religious ecstasy.”
And what better way to end the film that introduced the world to jazz standard “My Old Flame” — Duke Ellington and his orchestra are on hand to accompany West — than by having a flicked butt, tossed by careless smoker West, miss the fireplace and literally bring the house down? West appeared in but a dozen features, and I suggest you see them all, including Myra Breckinridge. Make that especially Myra Breckinridge!