Proof That It’s Pre-Code:
- The Old West is full of horseshit. Literally. We see a guy cleaning it up.
- Produced at the tail end of Prohibition, this film gets away with showing a great deal of beer (which photographed almost pornographically) and even has a drunk cop on the job.
- Robbery. Murder. Counterfeiting.
- The all-too-rare instance of white slavery.
- People are trading porno cards around. Very collectible.
- There’s a violent and unruly cat fight followed by our protagonist killing a bitch. Which–and I don’t know if you’ve noticed this as a theme for Pre-Code films yet or not–she gets away with easily.
- Some choice Mae West quotes:
On materialism: “Diamonds is my career.”
On morality and sex: “When women go wrong, men go right after them.”
On a lady’s reputation: “I am delighted. I’ve heard so much about you.” “Yeah, but you can’t prove it.”
On fidelity: “Haven’t you ever met a man who could make you happy?” “Sure, lots of times.”
- And, for shits and giggles, we have a discreetly covered painting of West:
The swagger. The shoulder rolling. The drawl of a euphemism that’s given its final kick with undulating emphasis. Mae West is a cultural icon, a woman whose complete lack of sexual subtext made her an easy symbol for representing the female libido run amok.
West’s position in pop culture sits somewhere above the Betty Boop level and maybe two or three notches below Marilyn Monroe: she’s not an emblem of pure sex, but the desire and embrace of it. She’s also noticeably and undeniably materialistic to a fault, almost making the entire gaggle of the Sex and the City girls pale in comparison.
What’s surprising about it is how handily West managed to do this–her sudden grip on the American psyche happened after a controversial career on Broadway that sent her to prison on obscenity charges and put her name in the headlines. Her most famous play, Diamond Lil, written by West herself, ended up going through the screenwriting mill a few years after that to create She Done Him Wrong, giving her her first starring role in Hollywood.
Now, you’re probably curious why I gave you all of this back story, and it’s not just to waste room. It’s because West’s background is infinitely more interesting than She Done Him Wrong in practically every regard. The film is the portrayal of a collusion of thieves, pimps, prostitutes, booze halls, criminals, and one stacked lady (Mae West), She Done Him Wrong wallows in a sea of sins with little to show for it.
I don’t blame West for it entirely–apparently her act was too risque for even Pre-Code Hollywood to show uncensored–but the film’s cracks show early and often. As such, West is the only one worth watching here, which makes things worse since she takes ten minutes to even show up in the damn film. To make matters even uglier, consider that West saved all the good, almost good, and ‘anything worth saying’ lines for herself. She does sing a few musical numbers, though, and let’s just say there’s a reason why before this sentence you didn’t know that she sings.
Cary Grant shows up here in one of his earlier roles as a missionary who works next door to the bar where West plies her trade. He’s intent on bringing down the bar’s owner, who’s involved in prostitution and not that usual, happy-go-lucky 1930’s prostitution, either. He’s more into the kidnap-and-sell variety, if you get whatever it is I’m trying to pass off as subtlety.
(Sidenote: using the word ‘subtlety’ in a review of a Mae West movie feels wrong somehow.)
A lot of West’s mannerisms remind me of Female from a year later–both have the woman as the sexual dynamos who control the relationships, and both end with the woman settling down at the end of their films. Mind you, both films end with them forcibly settling down–in Female because women can’t run businesses apparently, and here because it helps her escape a murder rap. West gets the better end of the deal of the two, but it’s still fascinating to see the stereotype of men being the aggressor flipped so blatantly.
But talking about the ending brings me back to the serious aspects of the film, of which there are a surprising amount. Most of the plot’s trouble comes from battling beaus, all of whom have one form of claim on West or another. Sorting out this tangled mess of bland men isn’t quite rewarding, but it underscores the fragility of the male egos involved, all belonging to people whose criminal careers have brought them wealth but no brains.
I mean, come on, don’t women have all the power in the battle of the sexes? Why shouldn’t they take advantage of this? They’ve hidden this power behind the powder puff for a century; Mae West rolls her shoulder and nods, telling any woman watching them to throw their powder puff into in the trash.
West’s persona completely outshines the belabored gears of She Done Him Wrong. This leads to the biggest flaw, namely the fact that reading a page of the film’s best quotes is an improvement on watching the film itself. West is a good gag writer, but, she’s still watered down here, and it feels like you just aren’t getting the full product.
I may be a little biased since I’ve seen her Post-Code movies Myra Breckinridge and Sextette, both of which are also bogged down by insane plots but at least have room for her innuendo to shine. Neither demanded West pay a price for who she wants to be; this movie extolls that at the cost of both West’s charms and the film’s strangely (but necessary even for this time) puritanical coda.
It’s bizarre to even imagine a film such as this to be remembered as much more than a curiosity, but it has another distinction: it was nominated for Best Picture. The reason why may not be too hard to explain, since, besides some well directed moments, the film was a box office smash. Controversy creates profits, and Mae West, no matter how diluted she was, was still some serious, crazy controversy.