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She Done Him Wrong. Who he is, of course, is anybody's guess.
By the 1930s, Mae West had already made herself a Broadway legend. Her 1926 play, Sex, which she wrote, became so notorious for its bawdy humor that she was arrested on obscenity charges, ultimately serving eight days of a ten-day sentence. West's 1928 followup, Diamond Lil, also featured her trademark raunchy humor.
West made her screen debut in 1932's Night After Night. Though the film was intended as a vehicle for star George Raft, West rewrote her relatively small part and effectively stole the film. For her next film, Paramount bought the rights to Diamond Lil. That's when things got interesting. The Hays Code had been established in 1930, but it lacked a viable means of enforcement (it would not attain its full clout until the establishment of the Production Code Administration in 1934); there was, however a semi-formal production review process. As soon as word got out that Paramount had acquired the rights to Diamond Lil, the board said flat out that Diamond Lil, with its explicit discussions of sex, simply could not be made into a movie. West responded by changing the title to She Done Him Wrong, changing the name of her character to Lou, and changing most of the raunchy dialogue into double entendres—leaving a few blatantly obscene lines in place so that the code would excise them instead of the more subtle references. She also insisted on casting Cary Grant as the leading man. West didn't discover Grant, as she later claimed; he had already made a handful of pictures at this point, but this was one of his first leading roles.
The result was a smash hit. It didn't just make money; it rescued Paramount from the brink of bankruptcy, made West a screen star, and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture (losing to Cavalcade). Universal Studios now brings this film to DVD, and court is in session to determine exactly who done who wrong.
Facts of the Case
A bawdy saloon singer, Lady Lou (Mae West, My Little Chickadee), is currently being kept by bar owner Gus Jordan (Noah Beery), who keeps her dripping in diamonds. But Gus has a nasty little secret. To pay for those diamonds, not only does he run a prostitution ring, not only does he send stranded girls to San Francisco to be trained as pickpockets, but he also runs a counterfeiting ring with Russian Rita (Rafaela Ottiano) and her lover Serge (Gilbert Roland). Further complicating matters is Lou's ex, Chick Moore (Owen Moore), a vicious criminal currently in prison for stealing diamonds (for Lou, obviously). Next door is a mission, run by the dashing Captain Cummings (Cary Grant, Charade), to whom Lou is attracted despite herself. In fact, when she learns that someone has plans to tear down the mission, she quietly arranges to buy the building herself. On top of everything else, word on the street is that a secret federal agent, only known as "The Hawk," is undercover, looking to take Gus down.
During a visit to Chick in prison, he threatens to kill Lou if she cheats on him, not knowing that boat has already sailed (repeatedly). From that point, things go south in a hurry: Chick escapes from prison and turns up at the saloon, trying to get Lou to run off with him. After Serge flings himself at Lou, Russian Rita goes berserk with jealousy and pulls a knife on Lou, who accidentally kills Rita in self-defense and has her bodyguard dispose of the body. Finally, in the middle of Lou's rendition of "Frankie and Johnnie," Chick starts shooting, bringing the cops and The Hawk, who turns out to be none other than Captain Cummings. While the others are loaded into the paddy wagon, Cummings puts Lou into a horse-drawn carriage, where he removes all of her rings and replaces them with a single wedding ring.
"Where'd you get that, dark and handsome?" Lou asks.
"You bad girl."
"You'll find out."
Some classic comedies—such as Bringing Up Baby and It Happened One Night—have aged well. This one hasn't, for two main reasons. To begin with, Mae West herself turned the Mae West vamp act into caricature long ago. Secondly, and more importantly, all the sexual innuendoes and situations are commonplace in today's entertainment. Actually, there's very little innuendo left; it's pretty much all on the screen and on the radio. The sort of risqué humor here is nothing compared to, for instance, the comments and antics of Dan Fielding in Night Court.
Pretty much everything in the movie—including the plot—is subordinated to establishing the Mae West image. I can't help but wonder if West, who was 38 when the movie was filmed, was starting to feel a little self-conscious about her looks. The first ten minutes is one part exposition plus three parts of having just about every male in the greater metropolitan area gush about how incredibly, amazingly, astonishingly beautiful Lou is, that any man would be glad to have her, before she finally makes her grand entrance. That ten minutes is a lot of time, particularly since the movie is only 66 minutes long to begin with.
Your amazing bit of movie trivia: The costumes were designed by none other than the legendary Edith Head, who started her career at Paramount in 1923.
Video is pretty good, all things considered—there isn't any notable film damage, and the grain is about what you'd expect. The overall contrast is a little off, though; you don't get too many different shades of gray.
Extras are pretty slim. Apart from a brief introduction by TCM's Robert Osborne, the only extra is a Walter Lantz (Woody Woodpecker) short, "She Done Him Right," which parodies the film. The sad thing is that Universal missed some real opportunities in this area. For instance, given the censors' concerns over the original stage play, why not include that script for comparison?
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The acting is pretty good, actually. West delivers her lines with her trademark panache, and the other actors fill their roles capably. The weak link is, amazingly, Grant. While his trademark presence and easy charm are already in evidence, his line delivery is a little stiff. Basically, he's acting like Cary Grant instead of simply being Cary Grant. The pair has good on-screen chemistry; her platinum brashness plays nicely off of his smoldering good looks.
The short running time is a benefit; once Lou shows up on screen, the plot proceeds at a furious pace. You've barely registered one conversation when we're off to the next. Apart from that, the main thing that commends this film is its place in film history. It's the early stages in the careers of two true icons—West and Grant—and the film has value for that if nothing else.
She Done Him Wrong is an important piece of film history, but I'm afraid to say that it just isn't a particularly good movie. Mae West fans will certainly want it, and some Cary Grant fans may want to see one of his early starring roles.
Guilty of overreliance on dated comedy, but I'm pretty sure the statute of limitations has expired on this one.
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Scales of Justice
• Introduction by Robert Osborne
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