Thursday, October 20, 2011

She Done Us All Wrong

Film: She Done Him Wrong
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

Mae West was a Hollywood icon in the early days of talking pictures. Despite the fact that I haven’t seen a lot (or any) of West’s films before today, but even I knew what the stereotypical Mae West performance looked like, and most especially sounded like. What’s fascinating here is that West didn’t have a huge career in the films. She acted in only 13 films, and only 11 during those golden early years.

She Done Him Wrong was her second film, and her first major film. It was also the first major break for Cary Grant, which makes it pretty interesting. However, the most interesting thing about the film is that it’s one of the last films to appear before the Hays Code, and was one of the movies that proved to be instrumental in the creation of the Code. In many ways, the Hays Code and the years of censorship happened as a reaction to this film and similar ones. Oh, there were others, of course, but the far more open sexuality of this film certainly raised a lot of eyebrows.

In She Done Him Wrong, West plays Diamond Lou, or perhaps Lady Lou, who is the epitome of the character that she was known for. Lou is called “Diamond Lou” because she more or less collects diamonds, and more importantly collects the men that come with them. When the film comes, Lou has a metric ton of diamonds, and a metric ton of men she’s keeping on the string, but true to form, she doesn’t feel like she’s got enough of either of them.

There are plenty of guys to talk about here. Captain Cummings (Cary Grant) runs the mission next door to the bar where Lou sings, and he’s persona non grata at the bar for everyone but Lou. Also in the running is Chick Clark (Owen Moore), who starts the film in prison for stealing diamonds to give to Lou. He’s the jealous type, and threatens Lou with danger should she run around with other men, which she does, and which is why he breaks out of prison in the middle of the film. We’ve also got Serge Stanieff (Gilbert Roland), who is a criminal in the employ of Lou’s current flame Gus (Noah Beery), who runs her club as well as thievery, counterfeiting, and prostitution rings. And if that weren’t enough, there’s also Lou’s bodyguard Spider (Dewey Robinson), who says more than once that he’ll do anything for Lou. There’s at least one more, but I can’t be arsed to care at this point.

If we want to peg the title here, the man she (Lou) is doing wrong is Chick, but since he’s a wild-eyed criminal, it’s hard to care.

So let’s talk about the real point of this movie. The entire point is to put Mae West and as much sex as possible on the screen. West wears a series of form-fitting dresses that emphasize her figure, her cleavage, and do as much as possible to force her to walk with itty bitty steps and swing her generous hips back and forth. The problem is that, really, she’s not very appealing. Every guy in the film is wild about her, but I spent the bulk of the film with a sort of confused expression on my face, wondering where the sex appeal was supposed to come from.

More importantly, the entire film is a loosely connected series of vague plot points that are supposed to add up to a whole, and don’t. Nothing in the film ties together well, and a big part of this more than likely comes from the extremely short running time of just over an hour. While I’m not trying to add to my own pain here, this is a story that could use either about half the number of characters or another 50% in the running time. There’s too much to try to fit into this small package, and the conclusion feels rushed and unsatisfying because of it. Lou literally gets away with murder and no one really cares too much about it—another no-no after the Hays Code showed up.

In many ways, this film is a tremendous disappointment. West belts out a couple of songs, and she does this unsatisfyingly each time. The exaggerated walk looks less sexy and more like parody the more she does it. Even Grant’s unique speaking style comes off less like his trademark accent and more like affectation. Seriously, for a film that caused the Hays Code to be enacted, or at least was a significant part of it, I expected a hell of a lot more than this mildly saucy film and a couple of tight dresses.

In short, this is a big “so what.” It’s shocking to me that evidently this was such a thin year for films that this thing was nominated for Best Picture. I never thought I’d be bored by Cary Grant, but this film has proven me wrong. In a short list of things done right in this, the ultra-short running time is, ultimately, the best simply because it reduces the amount of suffering.

Why to watch She Done Him Wrong: Everyone should be at least a little familiar with the Mae West stereotype.
Why not to watch: It’s shocking that this is the best of Mae West’s career.

6 comments:

  1. She made her final film at the age of 85, still doing the glamorous/sexy thing. Creepy.

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  2. Yeah--more than creepy. At some point, you just can't do sex kitten any more.

    Evidently, she spent the bulk of the 40s and 50s doing stuff on stage.

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  3. I agree - it's difficult to see why West was held for long as such a popular sex symbol. I'm guessing that the exaggerated movements and persona were meant to be tongue-in-cheek - and struck a nerve during the era.

    To a lesser extent, I see the same thing with Marilyn Monroe's performances (although her work is considerably more nuanced). Still, i doubt either would have reached the heights they did if they were just starting out today.

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  4. It was a different era. I think perhaps the appeal of West was that she was simply extreme--she went further with the innuendo and sex than anyone else did, which made her fascinating.

    Current cognate? Lady Gaga. Thirty years ago, Madonna.

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  5. As a horror movie this works well. Mothers telling their young boys, if they don't behave, Mae West will come and take them. In that sense this is more scary than Frankenstein and Dracula combined...

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    1. Now I want to watch this again in that context.

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