She Done Him Wrong – 1933
Director – Lowell Sherman
Starring – Mae West, Cary Grant, and Owen Moore
Growing up, my window to the greater world was through cartoons. Through this window, I was able to get a handle on how people interacted with one another, the attraction of the sexes, and I was given a clear visual definition of the difference between good and evil, hero and villain, right and wrong. It wasn’t until my exposure through daycare, and school that I learned that people don’t really act like that. There is no man in a top hat, twisting his mustache, plotting the destruction of someone else, no luscious club singer that men are willing to cheat, shoot, and destroy each other for just so they might possess her…at least not that I’ve ever seen.
Apparently in 1933, when She Done Him Wrong was released, cartoons actually were real, or so this film would have us believe. In the thirties, everyone is larger than life, uses zero subtlety, and schemes as easily as the people of today breathe, check their emails, or text. Mae West is the most broadly painted caricature of them all, and functionally plays the same role as she does in every movie she has ever done. That voice you get in your head when you think the line “Oooh, big boy, why don’t you come up and see me some time!” isn’t an exaggeration. That’s how she actually sounds.
The story behind the movie is ludicrous enough that there is really no reason to explain it except to say that the local vampy nightclub singer (West), who inspires such jealousy in all the women, and equal amounts of lust in all the men, manages to find her way into and then out of a lot of mad-capped trouble with a rogues gallery of supporting characters. One of those characters actually does have a top hat, twists his mustache, and plots the downfall of some of the other characters. Needless to say the plot, if you could call it that, is just a dab of glue that holds a bunch of set-piece performances together. Comedic bits, singing and dancing numbers, and an action packed finale come together just as if it were released as a Looney Tunes cartoon featuring the original Daffy Duck, the one who was crazy, not the one who was mostly angry.
Now you may have noticed that one of this film’s stars is the very famous, very popular star of numerous Hollywood classics, Cary Grant, and you’d probably think, “Great! I love Cary Grant’s charm and charisma”. In fact, he only makes a handful of appearances in this film, and when he does he is almost instantly blocked from the spotlight by the film’s real star, Mae West. As Lady Lou, as with every other character she’s ever played, she spends the entire movie strutting around with her trademarked walk, spouting bawdy one-liners, singing, and luring men in by the boatload, and we love her for it.
She sneers out raunchy, suggestive, innuendo in between costume changes from one low-cut, spangly gowns, and an enormous, feather laden hat, to another. Painted just shy of being a criminal herself, she effortlessly steals other women’s men, leads on and strings along still more men, and tries her damnedest to corrupt any other men who don’t know any better than to avoid her.
Behavior, that would in most other circumstances, annoy the hell out of me, instead has me rapt with attention. The fact that none of the other characters get much screen time or leaves any impression at all, is actually more of a testament to Mae West’s magnetism, and screen presence, than it is to the quality of the other actor’s performances. Each of the other actors plays the part they are required to, but it is all in service of the centerpiece that is Mae West. So much so, after the movie is over you’ll probably say…”Oh, yeah. I guess Cary Grant was in that.”
Since the film is so heavily based on the performance of its lead actress, the cinematography, directing, screenwriting, and other acting performances cannot be accurately judged or critiqued without diminishing the impact of the film such that it is. None of these elements is particularly special, or worthy of critique or praise, if it’s even there in the first place.
Enjoy this movie for what it is, a great piece of funny, sexy, escapist comedy in the vaudeville tradition. See where the cartoons got their inspiration and their flavor, however prepare yourself for the limited depth that’s in store for you with She Done Him Wrong. A great watch and completely different from anything else you’re likely to see from this time period.