Sunday, May 18, 2014

She Done Him Wrong (1933)

Director: Lowell Sherman

Summary (With Spoilers, if that matters):

A popular and self-serving but caring cabaret singer, Lou (Mae West) in 1890s Manhattan Bowery finds herself in between various power-hungry local politicians and criminals who seek to flex their muscles and win Lou's affections. Lou breezily plays them off one another and even manages to help out the charity center next door to the cabaret, but not without the help of an undercover Federal agent known as "The Hawk" (Cary Grant). In the end, The Hawk rounds up all of the crooks, and instead of hauling Lou into prison for her self-defensive murder of another dastardly dame, he puts a ring on her finger and vows to marry her.

How sweet.

Did I Like It?

She Done Him Wrong is fun enough, but not exactly a stunning classic film that with give you much to take with you. The plot is pretty thin, sensational and visceral stuff; the primary characters, aside from Lou, are all either penny dreadful, 1-dimensional bad guys or the knight-in-shining armor; and the dialogue is comprised of mostly pulp-novel cliches and silly colloquialisms. These latter can actually be quite amusing at times, if only for their dated silliness.

No, the attraction has nothing to do with plot, character depth, stunning dialogue, or dazzling acting. It's all about Mae West. She was, truly, a wonder. With a breezy and careless sultriness, West dominates every scene. Despite playing what amounts to a prostitute with extremely loose ideas when it comes to men's affections, West is in complete control in virtually every scene. In films from the 1930s, especially the pre-Hayes Code era, the only other woman who I find as naturally strong and magnetic as West was Barbara Stanwyck.

Not unlike the characters she played in vaudeville and films,
West inspired lust, attraction, and admiration, as well as
derision and jealousy in both men and women. And she
seemed to have a hell of a good time doing it all.
This is, of course, what makes the conclusion of She Done Him Wrong a little disappointing. Having her fat inexplicably pulled out of the fire by a "white knight" like a very young and dashing Cary Grant takes some of the strength out of West's character and the appeal of the movie. But the movie is played in such a playful way, that it's hard to take it too seriously. This is unlike a film like Baby Face, which had much more gravity to it, making the happy "Hollywood" ending much more disappointing. These unsatisfying endings do, however, serve to remind that the 1930s were still very much a part of "a man's world."

She Done Him Wrong is a fun, quick look back at how bawdy and entertaining films could be in the 1930s, before the film industry got scared of the conservative majority and started to censor itself - a constricting force that wouldn't start to loosen its stranglehold for over two decades.