Beginning in November 2019, I embarked on the Old Hollywood Best Picture Challenge, where I will endeavor to watch all 270 films that were nominated and/or won for Best Picture at the Academy Awards between the years 1927-1969. For a list of all films and reviews, please see my original post.
- Film & Year: She Done Him Wrong (1933)
- Standing: Nominated for Best Picture (Outstanding Picture) of 1932/1933
- Type: Pre-code, Comedy
- Other AA Nominations: 0
- Other AA Wins: 0
- Director: Lowell Sherman
- Studio/Producer: Paramount Pictures / William LeBaron
- Cast: Mae West, Cary Grant,Owen Moore, Gilbert Roland, Noah Beery Sr., Rafaela Ottiano, Rochelle Hudson, Louise Beavers
- Production Notes: Based on the play Diamond Lil by Mae West. She also gave input to the screenplay for the film written by Harvey F. Thew and John Bright, Cinematography by Charles Lang, Costumes by Edith Head
- Viewing Order: 28 / 270
Summary & Viewing Experience:
While Lady Lou (Mae West) sings to barroom patrons, her boss Gus Jordan (Noah Beery Sr.) unbeknownst to her runs a seedy underground side hustle involving counterfeiting and turning young ladies into thieves and prostitutes. One of these ladies is sweet and naive Sally (Rochelle Hudson) who Lou befriends and who later cooperates with the Federal Government against Jordan.
Jordan is one of several men who wants to see what’s under Lou’s skintight diamond studded gown. Also on that list are Jordan’s rival Dan Flynn (David Landau), Lou’s jealous jailbird ex-boyfriend Chick Clark (Owen Moore), Sergei Stanieff (Gilbert Roland), a suave Russian who enrages his girlfriend Rita (Rafaela Ottiano) when he falls for Lou’s charms, and Captain Cummings (Cary Grant), a tall drink of water posing as a missionary but who is in actuality a Fed monitoring Jordan’s dealings.
She Done Him Wrong was Mae’s second film and first starring vehicle and she wastes no time in dominating every aspect of the film and smoldering all over the pretty thinly laid story, which was based on her own play, Diamond Lil. Aside from Mae’s double entendres and diamond clad curves, there’s really not much to the 66 minute long film (the shortest ever to be nominated for a Best Picture academy award), which is clearly an excuse to show her off and little else. Not that anyone seemed to mind. Despite it being the Great Depression, the film was a huge hit, was the 10th highest grossing film of 1933 at over 2 million dollars (10 times its budget), and saved Paramount from bankruptcy. Somehow, Mae even managed to squeeze in 3 songs, among them a fabulous rendition of “Frankie and Johnnie.”
Actor Cary Grant as Captain Cummings was also handpicked by West. Grant started in pictures just a year before in 1932 like Mae, but that year was very different for each. Mae made only one film in 1932 and She Done Him Wrong was her first of 1933. Grant, meanwhile, had made 8 films in 1932, primarily in supporting roles. His role as Captain Cummings would be one of his first as a leading man, helping to boost an already promising career. I don’t know if I can imagine a more mismatched couple than Mae West and Cary Grant, but I can’t say I hate it! This really only works because Cary allows himself to be trampled by her larger than life presence. The fact that he doesn’t seem to mind and that he completely submits to being man-eaten alive helps.
Mae West surfaced in films in just the nick of time. Her long and successful Broadway career as actress, writer, and producer of her own material earned her a Paramount contract at age 39, an unlikely age for a 1930s sex symbol. That in itself made her a completely unique figure. Add to that a wit second to none with a penchant for well-placed double entendres that would not have been half as successful had she missed the boat on the pre-code era of film, when censorship guidelines were mostly ignored. Perhaps no other actor personified the sexy, rule breaking essence of pre-code Hollywood like Mae West. Once the Production Code began to be enforced in 1934, it became much harder to squeeze those fabulous one liners in. Mae’s steady film career was mostly over by 1937, though she would make a couple films in the 1940s and then a couple more in the 1970s.
Behind the Scenes:
Mae’s buxom, corseted, wasp waisted look in the film was a nail in the flapper style’s coffin. Just as the 1890s look had been booted when flat chested uncorseted flappers took over, Mae and her curves were determined to fight back in the battle of hips and boobs. Soon women were rushing to emulate Mae and tight skirts and picture hats were back in.
Why was it nominated for Best Picture?
It’s hard to ignore a film that does as well as She Done Him Wrong did at the box office. Also, audiences clearly enjoyed being titillated by Mae. Most reviews of the time raved about her and barely even mentioned anything or anyone else in the film. She was hypnotic.
How does it hold up today?
Mae’s clever and fabulous one liners (written and sometimes ad libbed by Mae herself), including the famously misquoted, “Why don’t you come up sometime ‘n see me?” still pack a punch.
However, though West often went against the grain and tried to give black actors work in her plays and films when others weren’t and the censors pushed at her not to, the ultimate portrayal of black actress Louise Beavers as her maid Pearl left modern audiences cold. Sort of like this film, Mae’s intentions were larger than life and in the moment, though she sometimes missed the big picture.
The likability of the film really hinges on whether or not you like Mae herself, as evidenced by the mixed user reviews.
- IMDb rating= 6.3 out of 10 (with 5,136 ratings)
- Rotten Tomatoes rating= 91% fresh by critics (20 fresh votes vs 2 rotten) and 53% fresh user ratings (out of 2,239 ratings)
Would this be my pick for 1932/1933 Best Picture?
While there was too little going on in the film (aside from West, of course) to justify a Best Picture win, it certainly was fun to watch Mae strut her stuff!
*My full 1932/1933 ranking will be updated after all films from the year are watched
I’m not a big Mae West fan. I remember her from the seventies as a very weird caricature of herself.
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I imagine it would be interesting to see an early version of Mae in film.
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Love this! Can’t wait to see the full ranking.
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You’re right that the story is thin and crafted around opportunities to show off Mae, but how it accomplishes its goals! That setup before we see her alone is brilliant. So many comedies pale over time, and this one is still so funny. I’m OK with thin plot with lines that good tying it together!
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Agreed! The plot line is secondary. Mae and her one liners are the movie!