Thursday, July 21, 2011

She Done Him Wrong (1933)

Mae West, one of Hollywood’s most iconic and stylized performer/character, was a late bloomer. For those that may not know, the blonde, confident beauty with the liberal use of double entendres was, in fact, a gifted comedic writer and intelligent actress. Her famous persona and style of speech would become clique and reminiscent to a different age, harkening to the old west, but Mae West was one of a kind. She would help develop a woman character that was strong, confident, and sexy, which seemingly gave her all the power. To break into the movies West would make use one of her popular stage shows and turn it into She Done Him Wrong. The picture would catapult West to stardom, give a push to the career to a young Cary Grant, and help make censors crazy.

She Done HHHHimh      Him Wrong is the story of a provocative singer, her relations with many different men that surround her bawdy lifestyle, and the messes it causes, set within New York during the 1890s. Lady Lou (West), a singer in a Bowery barroom, has more male friends than any normal woman should. In her grand following are her employer and sugar daddy, Gus (Noah Beery, Sr.), her former boyfriend and current convict, Chick Clark (Owen Moore), fellow entertainer and crooked associate to Gus, Serge (Gilbert Roland), and the new handsome young man from the mission next door to the saloon, Captain Cummings (Cary Grant). Lou is full of double entendres, bringing laughs into the picture along with the cheekiness in her sense of humor. With Lou’s seductive nature, most men fawn over her, giving her things she love, which is mostly diamonds, and a lot of them. That is everyone, but Cummings. Things start to go awry when all the men, sans Cummings, get into a mix up trying to win the affection of Lou, ending with all of them paying for their crimes, including Lou, at the hands of the Cummings who is in fact an undercover federal agent. Cummings too gives Lou special treatment while taking her away, sharing his own infatuation for blonde singer.

The picture is an enjoyable film and perfect setting for Mae West to display he own personality. Based on a play written by West herself, this story takes place almost entirely in one location, Gus’ saloon. The film is quick and sharp. The characters, even the gaudy Lou, have a wide range of emotions. Being a vehicle for Mae West, she comes off as very intelligent, despite being a user of men and a materialist. With no moral to the story, the film is fun and keeps you entertained for all 66 minutes. (Yes it is that short.)

As mentioned before, this film was based off a stage play written by West. Originally entitled “Diamond Lil,” the story went through minor changes in the screen development process, including the title character’s name. West began in vaudeville and graduated to the stages of Broadway, both as a writer and performer, eventually landing a contract with Paramount Pictures in her late 30s. Her first film would be in a small role in 1932’s Night After Night. Her liberty with her small character in the film made her stand out enough with her brief time on the screen that Paramount would green light her own feature based off her most popular stage play while she was at age 39. The rest, you can say, is history. Audiences would soon love her risqué sense of humor, creating a persona of the old-west style saloon singer that would be parodied for decades to come.

West loved to comment that she discovered Cary Grant. She would say that her eye spotted him walking the studio lot one day, and his handsome looks impulsively made her cast him opposite herself in the film as well as in her follow up picture, I’m No Angel. Well, it is no doubt that his roles in Mae West’s film helped him boost his career, but the truth is he had been in Hollywood for a little while, even starring opposite Marlene Dietrich the previous year in Blonde Venus. To say West discovered Grant is a little bit of a stretch, but for the British born actor born Archibald Alexander Leach, with the help of a name change and a blonde star, Grant would be on his way to a long life in the movies.

Fellow contributors to the film would include small cast of Paramount players. Lowell Sherman was an actor turned director who helped bring West original work to the screen in a reasonable manner, creating a late nineteenth century New York environment that still a little untamed. Noah Beery, Sr. was the brother of the Oscar winning actor Wallace Beery. Ever the character actor, Noah, despite successfully making the transition to talkies, would never came near the success of his far more popular brother, but here you can definitely tell the relation. Owen Moore, another actor carried over from the silent days, was more popular for being the first husband of Mary Pickford than for his acting credits. Maybe that is why he plays the jealous ex-boyfriend so well in this picture. Then there is Gilbert Roland, a Mexican born actor who, too, changed his name for professional purposes. His common role in films, including this one, was as a Latin lover. Roland would also be cast in a number of Spanish speaking versions of many Hollywood productions, but made a great deal of money off of the role of “the Cisco Kid” during the 40s. So you can see the supporting cast and crew was simple rag-tag group of Paramount players.

She Done Him Wrong was film with suggestive material placed so masterfully that censors could not remove too much of it. It would be this type of humor that would attract audiences, making it a box office success, making over ten times their money back in domestic sales. Critics on the other hand looked down on the film, seeing it as a quick push for West and nothing else. The picture did, however, win its due, receiving a nomination for best picture (the shortest movie to ever be nominated for the prize), giving a real shot in the arm to its star and the studio. The film evens stands well through time, as the film is recognized as one of the greatest comedies of all time (listed at #75 on AFI’s list) and being added to the Library of Congress’ list of culturally significant films.

This film marked the beginning of Mae West becoming an icon in popular culture. She brought with her a completely different kind of demeanor that would be copied many times over throughout the years. She Done Him Wrong has the distinction of being a fun feature that, though short, is very entertaining. The double meanings of its star makes for a humorous movie that lasts far beyond its time.

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