She Done Him Wrong Review

People with an aversion to older films tend to complain about stiff acting, shaky plots, and an overall flatness to the storytelling. In general, I've never shared this opinion, instead believing that most any studio film from the '30s or '40s remains, on average, as entertaining as current Hollywood product, and frequently more so. However, look around long enough and you'll come upon a picture from the glory days that was wildly successful at the time, but now grinds along on little more than reputation and a recognisable face or two. As evidence of this, I present She Done Him Wrong, the 1933 Mae West vehicle that was largely responsible for keeping Paramount in business.

When the studio needed a hit to avoid bankruptcy, they got it with this pre-Code genre medley. Paramount had signed Mae West in 1931 with the intention of filming her successful Broadway play Diamond Lil. At 38, West was fairly well-preserved, but still a bit long in the tooth for a movie debut. It would take another two years before She Done Him Wrong actually got made. In the interim, West took her first screen role, a supporting part, in Archie Mayo's Night After Night and Paramount brought in a pair of screenwriters to adapt the play so that it would get by the censors. The Production Code still wasn't in effect at this point, but there were obviously limits even to what the largely ineffective code of conduct in place at the time would allow. To avoid association with the play, West's character name was changed to Lady Lou, and the film was given a new title. Though it now seems very mild in terms of shocking dialogue or innuendo, She Done Him Wrong remained a point of contention even after it was released. The industry censors would use the movie, along with West's next picture I'm No Angel, as examples of why the Production Code was necessary.

What they really probably wanted to tone down was West herself. After all, the film is based on a play she had written, and her character, who is essentially an embodiment of the persona we now associate with the performer, is the one who has all the lines that could be deemed questionable. Lady Lou is brassy, bold, liberated, and remarkably forward. "Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?" There are a dozen or so more of those kinds of lines. I don't know if they're particularly funny now, though. Without being shocking, titillating, or humourous, that kind of dialogue fizzles. Even as a curiosity for those interested in pre-Code Hollywood, She Done Him Wrong remains lacklustre, partly because it's all talk and all from the same character. It just builds her status as this kind of woman with loose morals. In short, she's "Mae West."

By contrast, the best pre-Code films utilise their fleeting naughtiness to develop plot and characterisation. In She Done Him Wrong, every other role is filled forgettably. The second lead is Cary Grant, but he's more Archie Leach than the movie star he'd become, and his screen time is minimal. No one else stands out at all. The plot is strictly that of a middling crime drama and vastly underexplored. Lady Lou sings at an 1890s saloon in New York's Bowery. The owner of the bar, Gus, is also Lou's sugar daddy, but she doesn't realise he runs prostitution and counterfeiting rings. A nearby mission director (Grant) frequently checks into the bar while Lou flirts and offers herself up to him. (Hence the famous line, "Why don't you come up sometime and see me?") Meanwhile, Lou's former boyfriend is holed up in prison sitting on another 15 years, but escapes to the saloon, leading to a neatly violent climax followed closely by an inexplicably quick happy ending. Pretty convoluted stuff, especially for a movie that only runs 65 minutes.

Then there are the five or six songs, expanding the film's genre to make that strangest of mixtures - a musical comedy crime drama. Certainly fans of West and musical numbers in general will warm to the songs more than I did, though I'll admit to seeking out the lyrics to "I Wonder Where My Easy Rider's Gone" (also known just as "Easy Rider") for research purposes. In the scheme of watching a Mae West movie, it all probably fits. Those looking for more of a classic comedy type of film may be better off elsewhere. That's really the major concern with She Done Him Wrong. Its humour, which almost entirely consists of the West double entendre one-liners, doesn't play as very funny and the plot is all over the place. Mae West was great at playing herself, meaning the persona she created, but it hasn't withstood the test of 75 years.

The Disc

The full frame image here is weak. It's on a dual-layered disc and the transfer is progressive, but it's difficult to hide the lack of restoration done on this print. Always watchable, the image is nonetheless plagued by mostly mild grain, frequent vertical lines of damage, and contrast that's on the poor side. It's by far the softest of Universal's four simultaneously released Cinema Classics comedies (the others being Easy Living, Midnight, and The Major and the Minor) and looks the worst (though it is the oldest). There's also an odd effect I noticed where the top of Mae West's platinum blonde hair frequently looks to have a thick halo-type of glow. It doesn't seem to be a result of anything done in the transfer, and could possibly be inherent in the original film. The glow can easily be seen in the screenshot below:

A two-channel English Dolby Digital mono track is unambitious, but mostly free from distracting crackles or pops. A very low hiss can be heard. Dialogue is a little muddled, but it's rare to find a film of this age in significantly better condition in terms of audio. Volume levels are consistently adequate and it's an overall acceptable track. There are subtitles in French and English for the hearing impaired, white in colour.

In addition to the introduction by Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne (2:18), there's also a Walter Lantz cartoon starring Pooch the Pup on the disc. "She Done Him Right" (7:56) is a black and white short from 1933 that parodies Mae West with a character named Poodles, who also performs the song "Minnie the Moocher." It's transferred progressively, with relatively excellent detail and sharpness. This is a nice little addition by Universal and more of their vintage cartoons would be most welcome inclusions with their classic releases.

I'm always happy when Universal turns their attention to the Paramount library they acquired decades ago, but I can't find a very good film here. Though She Done Him Wrong is priced reasonably, it does retail for just $12 less than the Mae West Glamour Collection, which features a total of five films with very similar quality transfers.

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Last updated: 18/04/2018 23:16:28

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