In 1913, Adolph Zukor was a successful businessman and immigrant from Hungary who had been a partner in a chain of movie houses for several years. Expanding his business, he set up the Famous Players Film Company. This company was first intended to distribute European films — since they were all silent, this was a lot easier then — but very soon began production in New York. The studio joined with producer Jesse Lasky to become Famous Players-Lasky, and Zukor’s business acumen led to the acquisition of many smaller production companies and theaters around the country.
|Adolph Zukor circa 1913|
Renamed Paramount, the company continued to expand throughout the twenties; but with the depression, the distribution business could not support the cost of production, and after decades of success Paramount was essentially broke.
Zukor was not willing to give up. He decided on one last throw of the dice. Broadway star and playwright Mae West had appeared in a “supporting” role in a George Raft vehicle, Night After Night, to sensational effect. Dissatisfied with the script, Mae would only agree to appear if she could write her own scenes (and be paid $5,000 a week!) — which not only display her to great advantage but clearly stand out as the best written, sharpest scenes in the whole movie, funny, sexy, and original.
Zukor knew that Mae West was a big name on Broadway and had been a successful playwright for years, reliably creating for herself, and performing in, vehicles that were popular with the public. Her hit play, Diamond Lil, was considered extremely racy but drew crowds. Paramount Pictures announced its intention to produce it as a major motion picture, sparing no expense in the production of a film set in the 1890’s, with elaborate sets and beautiful costumes.
|Frankie and Johnny-- how shocking!|
The story was retitled She Done Him Wrong. (This title was slightly racy in itself, since it paraphrased a line from the song Frankie and Johnny, which at that time was considered very shocking, for some mysterious reason. Just seeing it or saying it would have caused a slight feeling of naughtiness in the ultra-respectable.) Mae’s contract said that everything must be done “to her satisfaction” — a clause never seen before or since in any artist’s contract. It meant Mae had the final say on everything, from casting to music to costumes.
The director was Lowell Sherman, a director and actor of taste and vast experience (he was the villainous cad who betrayed Lillian Gish in D. W. Griffith’s 1920 Way Down East). The sumptuous, entirely original gowns were by Travis Banton’s studio, which in this case meant that they were designed — in close consultation with Mae — by Banton’s chief assistant, Edith Head. Often, no screen credit was given to art direction at this point, but an excellent job was done by Robert Usher, who went on to be Art Director on many important films — for credit — including This Gun for Hire and The Road to Morocco.
|A typical early 1930s gown worn by Norma Shearer|
And that’s how Mae saved Paramount.