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18 November 2017

Unconquerable Mae West: She Done Him Wrong

Mae West's battles with censorship began before she ever hit Hollywood. In 1928 she had gained about a million dollars worth of free publicity when a play she wrote, entitled Sex (because it was about... sex), was closed by the New York City police on the grounds of indecency; she was arrested, charged, and tried in a spectacle that made the prosecutors look ridiculous, especially when they allowed themselves to be drawn into a courtroom debate about the nature of certain articles of women's underwear. She was convicted and sent to jail for ten days, during which time she dined every night with the warden and his wife, and it was somehow revealed to the press that her skin was so sensitive that she had to wear her own silk undergarments rather than prison issue; she also endowed the prison with a library upon her departure. Mae's cheerful and gracious demeanor in the face of all this earned her the respect, admiration, and future support of practically everyone of influence in New York. The City of New York in the 1920's and 1930's was not in the mood to return to 19th century values; the city's intelligentsia, opinion makers, and beautiful people prided themselves on sophistication and modernity. Raiding Broadway theaters and arresting actors was simply an embarrassment. So Mae became a celebrity. She really hit the jackpot with her next play, Diamond Lil, having hit on the happy notion of setting the story in the 1890's, which took edge off the sexual content. It was a popular and critical success, and a personal triumph for Mae. Hollywood beckoned.

Mae created a sensation in her first film appearance in a self-penned supporting role -- at least it was supposed to be a supporting role -- in a 1932 George Raft vehicle, Night After Night. And when she did, studio head Adolph Zukor took notice, because although it was one of the oldest established movie studios, by 1933 Paramount Pictures was in serious financial trouble. The very astute Zukor decided to take a chance and make a movie of her play Diamond Lil. Other studios had considered buying the play, but the difficulties of adapting it for a movie seemed daunting. Paramount's plans for filming Diamond Lil certainly disturbed the Hays Office, and to placate code enforcers it was agreed to change the title, the name of the main character, and a few minor plot points. This seems particularly senseless now, when it is perfectly clear to the viewer that the newly re-named Lady Lou is the mistress of Gus, the saloon owner, and that she has known many other gentlemen very well in her time, for which she is not the least bit sorry, which were the things that were found objectionable in the first place. The actual cuts in dialog that were insisted upon turned out to be an improvement, because Mae replaced exposition with wit. Her particular style of innuendo couldn't be as easily pinned down by censors as the scandalous events in the original play. There was something about Mae that drove proponents of purity to make fools of themselves; this was probably her positive attitude towards sex. Sex was not an occasion for guilt, shame, self-denial, regrets, or blame for Mae; sex was good clean fun. This was extremely difficult for the censorious mind to grasp, and the more they frowned, the more she laughed
A painting of Lady Lou - - right over the Free Lunch counter!

The title itself is a joke on the censors. It is little remembered now, but the song "Frankie and Johnnie," which was based on a sensational real life 1900 murder of a pimp by a prostitute, was considered extremely shocking through the 1930's; it was not mentioned in polite company, and was the sort of song a man wouldn't sing in front of his mother or sister. Not only does Mae sing it in the movie, as she did in the stage play, but, obviously, the film's title is a play on the lyrics; instead of "...he was her man, but he was doing her wrong," it became "she done him wrong." (Although of course the character, Lil, or Lou as she is now called, does not actually do any guy wrong.) But just playing the tune during the opening titles suggests risque doings to come, in a sly wink at the audience. But it also says something about Mae -- she flipped the emphasis of the popular melodramatic stereotypes she used to construct her play to showcase herself and the new kind of female character she invented. Although sexy, and certainly not anti-man, she did not play a traditional female role; she was the actor, not a re-actor, and she propelled the story. Her character the hero. She is never passive and she is never a victim.

She Done Him Wrong is a short movie, clocking in at just over an hour. (This turned out to be a good thing, because exhibitors could put on more showings.) The story is straightforward, and doesn't seem that raunchy today. Very intelligently directed by Lowell Sherman, it opens with nostalgic scenes of the Bowery in New York in the 1890's and moves on to a group of men reverently discussing the beauty and allure of Mae's character (Mae always set up her entrance this way). Lady Lou is the mistress of Gus Jordan (Noah Beery Sr.) the owner of a saloon and dance hall, where she also performs. As the story opens, Gus' business partner "Russian" Rita (played by the wonderful Venetian-born Rafaela Ottiano, who had originated the role on Broadway, and who also looks fabulous in 1890's costume) has arrived to meet with Gus. Unknown to Lou, Gus and Rita, besides running a counterfeit money ring, have been enticing down-and-out girls to San Francisco's Barbary Coast to work as pickpockets and burglars (one of the changes from the original, where the girls were obviously being forced into prostitution).

Rafaela Ottiano as Russian Rita

We first see Lou being driven up the street in her own carriage, with a coachman and a footman, clad in skin-tight lace with a feathered hat and parasol. We also see two stuffy ladies sniff and look away, as several gentlemen raise their hats to greet her enthusiastically. She descends and proceeds to Gus's place, greeted by admiring passers-by, and as she enters she chats kindly with the scrubwomen at work in the saloon. Lou welcomes Russian Rita, obviously completely innocent of Rita's wicked ways. She is particularly happy to greet Rita's new assistant, Sergei, too, since he is played by a mustache-less but extremely hot Gilbert Roland, who makes his admiration plain, fervently kissing her hand.

"Take a look at this, Gus, and learn something," Lou says, though Rita looks none too pleased.

Lou gathers up her skirts and mounts the stairs to her private luxury apartment, with every male eye following her progress. As she enters the apartment, she calls to her devoted maid, Pearl, played by Louise Beavers. (Mae and Beavers had a decades long friendship; Mae had her reprise this role in her stage act, wrote specialty material for her, and made sure she was cared for when she became ill.) 

"Yes'm, I's coming," Pearl replies.

"Well, come on, honey," Lou says.

As they chat, and Lou begins to change her clothes, They hear a sudden scream and commotion from downstairs -- a young girl has tried to commit suicide. Lou has the fainting girl, Sally Glynn (Rochelle Hudson), brought to her rooms by Gus' henchman Spider, and cares for her, with smelling salts, a sip of brandy, and a rest on her luxurious divan. Then, in a scene of female solidarity, Lou and Pearl find her some new clothes, style her hair, and Lou shares some of her philosophy of life.

With Dewey Robinson as Spider and Rochelle Hudson as Sally

"The guy's not dead, is he?"

"How did you know it was a man?"

"It takes two to get one in trouble," Lou says.

"Oh, you know everything about me."

"Next time, pick a good one," Lou advises.

"Who would want me after what I've done?" Sally asks mournfully.

"Say, listen," Lou tells her, "when women go wrong, men go right after them."

Sharing a laugh with the gals

Pearl suggests that Sally needs more petticoats, and Lou says none of them would need petticoats if the furniture wasn't stuffed with horsehair.

"If there was an accident, I wouldn't want no policeman to catch me without any petticoats," Pearl says.

"No policeman?" Lou says. "How about a nice fireman?"

The three of them all laugh at this, and Lou tells Sally,

"There, you see? Just keep smiling and you'll do all right, sister!"

Sergei demonstrates his technique

Just then Rita and Gus come up, and Rita offers to find a job for Sally. When her visitors leave, Lou changes into her stage gown. Pearl observes that Lou has become fascinated by Captain Cummings, a handsome young man who runs a mission nearby to help alcoholics, petty criminals, and the poorest of the poor (he wears a uniform but is never officially called a Salvation Army man), played by the magnetic young Cary Grant.

"I'm surprised at you, Miss Lou, with all your spirit, casting eyes at a preacher. You know, preachers ain't giving away no diamonds. You ain't thinking of reforming, is you?"

"He ain't a preacher; he just runs the Mission."

"He ain't gonna run that for long, from what I hear. I hear they're gonna take it away from him 'cause they can't pay the rent."

Spider tells Lou about her old boyfriend Chick

Spider comes in to talk to Lou about her former boyfriend, Chick Clark, who is now serving a stretch in prison for armed robbery. Lou agrees to visit Chick. As Lou goes downstairs wearing in her stage dress, she finds Captain Cummings in an altercation with a policeman, who has pursued one of the down-and-out petty criminals into the bar. Cummings gives the man an alibi, and Lou, standing on the stairs in a knockout gown of shimmering flame-colored sequins, breaks in and confirms it. Cummings thanks her, and she invites him to come up and see her anytime -- she's home every evening. He puts up quite a bit of resistance, saying that he's busy every evening.

"Say, what are you trying to do, insult me?" she replies.

She likes a man in a uniform

We see Lou and Spider traveling upstate to visit Chick. When she gets there she finds a disconcerting number of old acquaintances behind bars, causing her to complain, "What is this, old home week?"

She is allowed to talk to Chick, played with scary intensity by Irish-born veteran actor Owen Moore, whose career began with D.W. Griffith in 1909, and who incidentally was Mary Pickford's first husband. Chick seems to have lost a few marbles since she last saw him. He demands that she swear to be true to him, which she does, knowing that his sentence still has at least a year to run, and hoping she'll think of something by then.

Owen Moore as Chick Clark

Lou sends her friend Frances to get Jacobson, the landlord (Lee Kohlmar, a very experienced and useful actor, in a stereotyped characterization that was not seen as, nor intended to be, anti-Semitic) of the building the Mission is housed in. Lou knows him, and he knows her, and she points out that she is known for honesty and fairness, which he agrees with. They bargain a little bit, and eventually Lou buys the building for cash in the form of a diamond necklace, saying "Take care of it, it's only my heart!" and asks him to keep her purchase a secret and make it look like the Mission owns the building now.

The audience is chanting "We want Lou!" and Lou takes the stage, following a performance by singing waiters and an enthusiastic if uncoordinated chorus line. She takes the stage in shimmering black satin, an ostrich feather boa, and a large feathered hat, and launches into "I Wonder Where My Easy Rider's Gone?", thus causing more palpitations amongst the censors. Though the song seemed to tell a story about horseracing, which was bad enough, they knew there was some sort of euphemistic reference to sex going on, but they couldn't quite put their finger on it. They had to let this one pass. But her later rendition of "A Guy What Takes His Time" was heavily edited -- even the Hays office could figure that one out, and the actual "Frankie and Johnny" barely gets started before it is interrupted by some major action.

There's actually a lot of action for such a short movie; as a playwright, Mae had a pretty strong grasp of how to establish character quickly, and how to set up conflicting motivations. She was also skilled at using the conventions of melodrama as a kind of shorthand that the audience would understand without a lot of talk. The plot winds up pretty fast. first, the handsome Captain Cummings comes looking for Sally Glyn; all Lou can tell him is that Rita found her a job, and goes on to challenge his philosophy. He leaves, but not before demonstrating that he's just as attracted to her as she is to him.

Spider comes to tell Lou that Chick actually has escaped, and warns he to look out for him. After he goes, Chick does comes in the window, and to put him off Lou promises to meet him later. Then Sergei arrives, bringing Lou a gift of a diamond brooch; while they are flirting, Rita bursts in, angrily berating Lou.

A brief but stunning fight between Rita and Lou

"So, this is where I find you -- making love to another woman!"

"What did you expect he'd be doing?" Lou says. "Why, a boy with a gift like that should be working at it!"

Lou sends Sergei away, and Rita furiously attacks her with a knife, which Lou wrests away from her. But in the struggle, Rita falls on the knife and dies (a very striking moment from Rafaela Ottiano), collapsing into a chair next to the dressing table . Lou stands horrified and Gus comes in; thinking fast, Lou pushes Rita;s body forward so her dead face can't be seen, and pretends to brush her hair for her.

A job she never did before. Notice the extremely cool mirror shot.

"Just doing a job I never did before," she remarks to Gus.

Next Lou has to make her way to the stage for her next number, and on the way arranges with Spider to get rid of Rita's body. She sashays out to center stage and launches into "A Guy What Takes His Time," which is missing a couple of verses. such as "A hurry-up affair, I always give the air/Wouldn't give any rushin' gent a smile/ I could go for any singer who would condescend to linger a while."

Lou's next song is actually "Frankie and Johnny" but she has just begun when a commotion erupts upstairs -- Chick, on the lam from the police, has come back for Lou and, discovering his worst enemy, Dan Flynn, shot him dead. The audience screams and flees for the exits, and just at that moment police whistles are heard and officers raid the premises. In short order, Gus, Spider. and Sergei are arrested and bustled out to waiting paddy wagons. Lou goes up to her apartment and finds Chick there, and he attacks her -- only to be shot by Captain Cummings, who is revealed to be not a Salvation Army man, but an undercover police investigator known as The Hawk.

Lou is very angry at being deceived -- especially since she was successfully deceived,

"Stealing the confidence of people!" she says. "The lowest kind of a thief!"

"I'm sorry you think so," he replies calmly.
"Hands ain't everything."

He takes out some handcuffs, and she says, "Are those absolutely necessary? You know, I wasn't born with them."

"A lot of men would have been safer if you had," he says.

"I don't know... hands ain't everything."

Assuming he's taking her to jail, Lou stalks out, but instead he hails a cab and the two of them get into it. She's still irate, but she's beginning to suspect he might have  something else in mind. Cummings attempts to take her hand, but she pulls away.

"Can't I even hold your hand?"

"It ain't heavy. I can hold it myself."

"Where did you get that?"

He takes her left hand in his and removes several enormous diamond rings, replacing them with one small one with a modest solitaire.

"Where'd you get that?" she says.

"I'm your jailer, and I'm going to keep you locked up for a long, long time," he says, "You bad girl."

"You'll find out," Lou purrs.

"You bad girl." "You'll find out."

This movie was a huge smash hit, and is credited with actually saving Paramount Pictures from bankruptcy. It was one of the top-grossing pictures of the year, and also made many critics top ten. It was held over much longer than the average hit movie, and some theaters even instituted midnight showings. This is not so surprising -- it's funny, it's exciting, it's sexy, it's fast moving, and it's good to look at.

Some commentators, then and now, tend to ascribe Mae's success to raunchiness, but this is silly. She wasn't a porn star. Her approach to sexiness, like her approach to everything, is good natured. No one could call this or any other of her scripts nasty, demeaning, or mean spirited. In fact that was the problem she presented to censors -- sexual freedom was her character's only sin. Apart from that, she was kind, honest, loyal, and generous.  So when they insisted on repressing her, what they were saying was that sex was bad in itself, an idea that became less widely believed as the 20th century moved on.

Letters and notes between those officials charged with deciding how exactly to make She Done Him Wrong fit for public viewing show that they were divided among themselves about what, exactly, was acceptable drama, and what the public must be protected from. On the one hand, they declared that the play Diamond Lil itself was banned; but on the other hand, the film had essentially the same characters and the same plot, and was allowed to proceed. One official wrote disapprovingly that the film contained "ribald comedy," yet another wrote that Mae gave "a performance of strong realism." The New York Times warned that, "to be convinced that she is a breeder of licentiousness and an exponent of pornography is to be unusually blind to her precise qualities as an actress."

Despite the film's success, Joseph Breen, of the Production Code Administration, succeeded in the end, because when She Done Him Wrong was presented for re-release in 1935, it was denied credentials and banned. The same thing happened to Mae's next huge hit, I'm No Angel. These two films went unseen after their initial release in 1933 until they were finally allowed to be shown on television in the early 1970's, when a whole new generation began to discover Mae West, the auteuse.

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