Universal Home Video
Cast: Mae West, Cary Grant, Owen Moore, Gilbert Roland
Extras: Introduction, Bonus Cartoon
In pre-code 1930s Hollywood, before the Hays Office and the Catholic Church began enforcing a system of self-censorship on Hollywood films, sex was a frequent ingredient in popular movies. And nobody brought sex to the movies like Mae West. A vaudevillian and Broadway star, West was known for her racy shows and curvaceous figure, and her larger-than-life persona quickly made her a sensation in Hollywood. Marking only her second film appearance and first starring role, "She Done Him Wrong" turned West into an unlikely sex symbol and a major threat to conservative social mores, effectively drawing the ire of the censors and carving her own niche in American pop culture.
Set in the Gay Nineties, "She Done Him Wrong" features West as Lady Lou, a New York saloon singer with a heart of gold and a lust for men and diamonds. A philanthropist who cannot turn her back on a poor soul in need, Lou nevertheless spends most of her spare time racking up gentlemen friends and flaunting the diamond-encrusted jewelry they give her. Her newest potential conquest is Captain Cummings (Cary Grant), the handsome mission director from next door, whose steadfast morals prevent him from yielding to her sexual invitations but do not keep him from returning to the saloon night after night. Perhaps the only man who can look past Lou's wanton allure, Cummings hopes to reform her, but she has her own plans to reform him, and they don't involve sermons.
As in so many of the personality comedies of the 1920s and 1930s, such as those of Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers, the story often takes a backseat to the central comedian's performance. The film gets off to a rather slow and talky start and only picks up when West makes her grand entrance. With plot threads involving a jealous escaped con and girls being sold into prostitution (!), there may be a little too much story for a film that barely lasts more than an hour, and much of these threads aren't very clear or particularly interesting. The film works best when it delivers exactly what the audience wants: Mae West, front and center. Whether belting out a torch song or inviting a man up to her room, she gives the film all its energy and heat.
Loosely adapting her notorious Broadway play, "Diamond Lil," Mae West and co-screenwriters Harvey F. Thew and John Bright were forced to tone down some of the saucier material to appease the steaming censorship boards. In spite of a considerable amount of changes made in order to distance the film from the play, however, the movie is still rife with bawdy comedy. West's classic bid for Cary Grant to "come up sometime and see me" became THE seduction line of the decade, suggesting both an eagerness and readiness to engage in unspoken sexual activity. Between West and co-star Rafaela Ottiano in tight corsets, there is also no shortage of exposed cleavage. With such brash and outright disregard for the moral concerns of the Hays Office, "She Done Him Wrong" was considered a direct basis for the strict enforcement of the Production Codes shortly thereafter.
While Mae West's almost cartoonishly curvaceous figure and frank delivery may be difficult for some contemporary viewers to swallow, it is important to remember that even by 1930s standards, she was never anyone's ideal of physical perfection. Nearing 40 and slightly heavyset, West provided a sharp contrast to the slender ingénues who typically headlined movie marquees. There was absolutely nothing refined about her, nothing delicate, and above all, nothing subtle. Even when she dropped innuendos, the double meanings certainly did not lie far below the surface. Her comic quips were to the point and startlingly blunt. For instance, after hearing of a young woman's recent man trouble she memorably responds, "When women go wrong, men go right after them." She used her body image and caustic tongue to sharply poke fun at socially conservative attitudes toward sex, breaking through the sexual barrier set for women and proving that women could take the upper position. In the words of Lady Lou, it was a man's game, but she was smart enough to play it their way.
Making its debut on DVD, "She Done Him Wrong" is presented in its original fullframe aspect ratio. Considering that the film is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, the image looks quite good for its age. There is plenty of good film grain throughout, sporting a very nice texture. There are some vertical lines and occasional scratches on the picture, but in general the film does not appear to be badly damaged or severely worn. Gray tones look good, and the image never appears washed out or faded. It is not especially sharp and perhaps a bit murky, but given its age, the transfer is up to snuff and makes for an adequate presentation.
Audio is delivered in a Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track. There is nothing outstanding about it, but it gets the job done. Dialogue is easy to understand, and there is no background hiss or distortion. The film certainly does not require anything more sophisticated, and any weaknesses in the sound are a due to the source material. English captions for the hearing impaired and French subtitles are also available.
Universal Home Video has released the film as part of their Cinema Classics collection, and like previous releases this one contains a brief introduction by Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne. The only other bonus feature is an eight-minute cartoon short, "She Done Him Right." Made in 1933 at Universal and featuring Pooch the Pup, this black-and-white cartoon is a delightfully weird (and slightly risqué) spoof of "She Done Him Wrong." I must say I enjoyed this almost as much as the movie, and though I would have liked some more substantial features, the cartoon was a most welcome inclusion.
Though perhaps not Mae West's best film (I would reserve that title for "I'm No Angel," released later the same year and also co-starring Cary Grant), "She Done Him Wrong" is a classic of the pre-code era. Some of it is creaky, most of the storyline is either confusing or dull, but West is a gas, and her repartee with Grant is still tantalizing. Try not to smile as she bumps and sashays across the screen, undresses men with her eyes, and propositions them with her thick Brooklyn accent. Her persona was a product of its time, a brazen response to still puritan values of American society, but that boldness carried with it a spontaneity and edge that hold up well to this day. West fashioned a screen personality just as brassy and daring as those of W.C. Fields and Groucho Marx…but much sexier.