Directed by Lowell Sherman, She Done Him Wrong stars Mae West in her most iconic role as Lady Lou, an indomitable and seductive burlesque singer, and an early career Cary Grant as Captain Cummings, the local temperance league leader. It follows Lou as she contends with several troublesome past suitors, including a jealous and obsessive escaped convict (played by Owen Moore).
West’s play Diamond Lil – which she wrote with frequent collaborator Adeline Leitzbach – debuted at the Royale Theatre on Broadway on April 9th 1928. To the delight of theatre-goers worn down by years of prohibition, it was a racy melodrama set in the 1890s, centring on the eponymous Lil. It ran for 176 performances, garnering both acclaim and condemnation from the American public for its salacious content.
While the play continued to enjoy success on tour, there was trouble in Hollywood. A number of scandals had rocked the industry, and had significantly altered public opinion towards the movies and their stars. Hoping to restore the public’s faith in the picture business, Will Hays had formed the Studio Relations Committee in 1927, designed to implement a list of ‘Don’ts and Be Carefuls’ suggested by studio heads in order to preempt and thus avoid official government censorship measures. Whilst the code was not legally enforceable and generally had not been taken very seriously by film studios, pressure was mounting from various religious groups within the United States, who were outraged by the exploits of the movie people. However, Jason Joy – the head of the committee – was generally regarded to be lenient; “[he] wouldn’t want to take out too much, so you would give them five things to take out to satisfy the Hays Office—and you would get away with murder with what they left in” (Donald Ogden Stewart, MGM screenwriter).
Paramount bought the rights to the play in 1931, and spent much of the next two years working on how to get the material past the censors. Eventually it was decided: some of the content would be toned down for the film version, and both the picture and the leading lady would get a name change. In hopes of distancing the film from the play, Diamond Lil became Lady Lou – although for all intents and purposes they remained the same character. Songs include Frankie and Johnny, I Like A Guy What Takes His Time, and Easy Rider, many of which West had previously performed during her stage shows.
This was West’s first starring role, having appeared the year before in a cameo in Night After Night (1932) with George Raft, in which she had been allowed to re-write her own scenes. She was an experienced stage actress however, and production was completed in around 3 weeks, including rehearsal time. Her outfits for the film were designed by legendary Hollywood costume designer Edith Head, and the intricate and sparkling gowns she created for She Done Him Wrong represent some of Head’s finest work.
The film was a huge box office success; it was the fifth most popular movie that year, grossing $2,000,000 domestically on a $200,000 budget. Paramount had been declared bankrupt in 1933 after losses suffered during the monumental transition from silent to sound, and the profits from She Done Him Wrong were a significant factor in their renewed success. To express their gratitude Paramount named a building on their lot after West, which is still in use today.
The National Legion of Decency was formed six months after the film’s release. An organisation set up by representatives of the American Catholic Church, it aimed to help parishioners avoid what they deemed to be ‘objectionable content’. She Done Him Wrong – which depicted crime, drunkenness, and a flagrant disregard for the sanctity of marriage – was regarded as exactly the type of picture that made their existence a ‘necessity’. Just one year later in 1934, Will Hays would enforce the Motion Picture Production code, a moral guide for film making which would have a colossal impact on the American film industry for decades to come, and push women like West to the fringes of Hollywood.
She Done Him Wrong was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture (then known as Outstanding Production), ultimately losing to Frank Lloyd’s Cavalcade (1933). At a running time of just 66 minutes, it remains the shortest film to be nominated in this category, and the only Mae West picture which would be nominated. In 1996, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
The performance given by Grant so early in his career provides an interesting contrast with his later persona, revealing a younger side who seems slightly unsure of himself on screen. There is no doubt though that this is West’s picture – her intoxicating portrayal of Lou remains hugely iconic and recognisable. The world Lou inhabits is that of a late Victorian melodrama, and yet the woman herself is so firmly grounded in the spirited world of pre-code Hollywood, and it is in this contradiction that the key appeal of the film can be found. Lou rarely encounters a problem that she can’t handle with a quip (written by West herself) and a wink, but when she does, she’s never the damsel in distress. Even when she doesn’t have control, Lou always has agency, and is perfectly comfortable in expressing her sexuality. Though at times the plot gets a little carried away with itself, the decisive sensuality and out-of-time nature of West’s performance makes She Done Him Wrong a memorable experience.
West would remain active in show business for the rest of her life, making films right up until Sextette (1978) at the age of 85. After She Done Him Wrong, she would be paired with Grant again in I’m No Angel (1933), the most financially successful film of her career. However, Mae West will always be best remembered for her role as the effervescent Lady Lou. She was, in the words of the woman herself, “the finest gal to ever walk the streets”.