Why SHE DONE HIM WRONG (1933) defines SEX

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What defines sexy in film? Is it watching a couple make out? Adonis and goddess bodies of perfection? Is it showy shots of skin? Is it something more taboo? If you ask, most people define sexy as not something so gratuitously obscene as pornography, but rather the suggestion of sex. What’s most hot, is usually what’s not. In other words, why let the camera do all the work, when our imaginative minds do wonders.

When I ponder a screen star that embodied sex, Mae West pops in my mind immediately. In more ways than one, SHE DONE HIM WRONG (1933) and her role in it defined sex so well that it made history.

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This was the film based on the play that West wrote and brought to the scandalous stage via ‘Diamond Lil’. Provocative as it was popular, Lowell Sherman’s SHE DONE HIM WRONG (1933) reprised her successful Broadway stage role Diamond Lil, now as Lady Lou. In the context of history, this film was made in the infamous ‘Pre-Code’ era of film (1930-1934) when William H. Hays set forth standards of moral decency for movies to censor everything from violence to sex. Standards that were written but rarely enforced.

Films continued to push the envelope during this time until the Catholic Church’s Legion Of Decency caused a ruckus, putting pressure on Hays to iron-fist enforcement of the code. SHE DONE HIM WRONG (1933) is one of the key films that ruffled robes for those Catholic Bishops and eventually ended the Pre-Code party. Too bad, because thanks to overwhelming box-office popularity, it’s also the very film that pulled Paramount Studios out of bankruptcy.

So what makes this film so definitively sexy? So rule-shattering and scandalously suggestive?

Mae West, of course: Here was a personae like none other. West came on the screen with confidence, a sexual aggressive air of authority and zero inhibitions. She never held back but she was never trashy. She knew just the right amount of suggestion to get the point across rather directly without ever actually showing us anything. Wrapped in humor, our imaginations go wild with delight. Her voluptuous, curvaceous figure is usually draped in shimmering, silken bedazzlement as she saunters slowly across the screen. She moans and purrs her lines under breath and gives the audience an occasional eye roll to suggest even further. She can be one tough cookie, too. Sex is just a fun game for West’s character with men as her pawns, but she’s always the queen in charge.

The premise: Lady Lou is a saloon singer with a panache for diamonds and a string male suitors in the ‘naughty nineties’. Criminal entanglements include the tavern proprietor Gus (a racketeer under the guise of running for sheriff), characters like “The Hawk”, and “Spider,” and a former suitor and jailer Chick Clark who gets bent out of shape expecting Lay Lou to be obediently loyal to him. Which of course, she’s not. To add into the mix, and into some on-screen chemistry, Cary Grant as Captain Cummings (a temperance leader of all occupations) heats things up a bit and ultimately saves the moral decay of the day by bringing down the hammer of justice. [Cary Grant could come save me any day… forbidden fruit, anyone?]

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The One-Liners: The zingers are sassy, bold, and hilarious. Mae West as Lady Lou knows how to deliver the double entendres with a sizzling snap. [quotes source: IMDb]

Old Woman: “Ah, Lady Lou, you’re a fine gal, a fine woman. 

Lady Lou: “One of the finest women ever walked the streets.”

——

Lady Lou: [handing over a diamond necklace] “Here’s your twelve thousand.” 

Jacobsen: “How do I know it is?” 

Lady Lou: “Because I say so. You never heard of me cheatin’ anyone, did ya?” 

Jacobsen: “No, no. Not about money.”

—–

Captain Cummings: “You bad girl.” 

Lady Lou: “Mmm, you find out.”

—–

Lady Lou: “You know, it was a toss up whether I go in for diamonds or sing in the choir. The choir lost.”

—–

Pearl: “I wouldn’t want no policeman to catch me without no petticoat.”

Lady Lou: “No policeman? How about a nice fireman?”

—–

Frances: “You know, ever since I sang that song it’s been haunting me.” 

Rag Time Kelly: “It SHOULD haunt you: You murdered it.”

—–

Lady Lou: “Yes, I wasn’t always rich.” 

Pearl: “No?” 

Lady Lou: “No, there was a time I didn’t know where my next husband was coming from.”

—–

And of course, the line this film made famous…

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This article was my contribution to the SEX! (now that I have your attention) Blogathon, hosted by Steve over at Movie Movie Blog Blog. To explore more sensual screenings exposed, read the complete list HERE.

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Salacious Sins in I’M NO ANGEL (1933)

MaeWest_CaryGrant_closeup Mae West was an original. Her personality was bigger than life and her sexuality was a powerful force of nature. In West’s second writing credit on film, Wesley Ruggles’ I’M NO ANGEL stands out as a definitive Pre-Code. Following the success of SHE DONE HIM WRONG released earlier that year, the even greater popularity of I’M NO ANGEL as the top grossing film of 1933 surely made William Harrison Hays sweat and squirm.

Sex and the Art of Seduction:

To wax-erotic if you’ll allow me some creative license, the tone and plot flows as sexually charged as its female lead. Mae West as Tira starts as a sideshow carney seducing men with song and hip undulations in a form-fitting sequined gown. The crowd is hypnotized.

Tira's gown leaves little to the imagination, to the delight of the circus crowd.

Tira’s gown leaves little to the imagination, to the delight of the circus crowd.

The superstitions of her more humble beginnings is reflected as she consults the fortune teller to predict her future. An opportunity* arises for Tira to climb from rags to riches when circus manager Bill Barton forces her to become the new lion tamer. She’s in the big tent as the main attraction and the hottest ticket in town. Now bejeweled in the most luxurious fabrics and bling, her entrance has been elevated atop an elephant in a grand procession to dominate the big cats under the big top. The foreplay continues as Tira utilizes her sexual prowness to tease the affections of as many men as there are signs in the zodiac.

ya know, just a typical glamorous lion tamer

ya know, just a typical glamorous lion tamer

The Men of Tira:

*While meeting one of her admirers, a slimy pickpocket Slick Wiley attempts to rob him by striking his head with a bottle. Assuming he’s killed the man, Slick flees, but he’s soon caught and arrested by the police. To avoid being betrayed by Slick, Tira asks for a loan from Bill Barton to escape. He only offers her the money if she agrees to become the new lion tamer and put her head into the mouth of a lion.

a seduction turns ugly

a seduction turns ugly

Tira lures Jack into her web of seduction

Tira lures Jack into her web of seduction

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As now the most sought after act in New York, one of her suitors visits her backstage, drawn in like a moth to the flame. Wealthy Kirk Lawrence is engaged to another woman but is so transfixed by her feminine wiles, he continues to pursue her and lavishes her with extravagant gifts. When we see his catty and pious fiancee confront Tira, she is no match for the confidence and wits of this lion tamer. We actually root for ‘the other woman’! But when she meets Kirk’s business partner Jack Clayton (Cary Grant), Kirk is yesterday’s news. This is the real deal. They fall in love and decide to get married.

The Climax:

For fear of losing his biggest asset and money-maker, Barton schemes with Slick Wiley (now out of jail) to corrupt the engagement. Slick shows up at Tira’s place just before Clayton arrives, as Slick asserts that he and Tira are old lovers and back together again. The cad! Without explanation, Clayton avoids Tira and coldly breaks off their engagement. But Tira has the upperhand yet again by taking him to court, suing for breach of contract. What follows is a climatic courtroom scene of Mae West at her empowered best.

a grand and glamorous wedding dress awaiting Grant!

a grand and glamorous wedding dress awaiting Grant!

on the set of I'M NO ANGEL for the brilliant court scene

on the set of I’M NO ANGEL for the brilliant court scene

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 The Lady Was a Progressive:

Mae West was a unique sex symbol, even in her day. When flat- chested, wispy thin, young ladies were dominating the silver screen, here sauntered in a 40 year old curvaceous provocateur, dropping double entendres with razor sharp humor. (See examples below.)

Some criticized Mae West for always writing in herself as the character with the best lines and the most on-screen attention. But frankly, who could blame her? Afterall, this woman was born to stand out. Something tells me if she was a man, this criticism would not be an issue.

Besides having the audacity to be a sexually confident female in charge of her career, West introduced another revolutionary first in I’M NO ANGEL. In several scenes, Tira is seen communicating with her maids in a way that is more similar to girlfriends chatting gossip at a sleepover. Granted, yes, these African American actresses are still being shown as domestic servants, as was typically the best on-screen role to be found. But it was actually more common for any speaking roles to be given to white actors in blackface. And even less common to display a nearly peer-like interaction between a wealthy caucasian female and her black maid/s.

the rapport between Tira and her maids was rather progressive for its time

the rapport between Tira and her maids was rather progressive for its time

This was a lady of style, of charismatic persona, of breaking boundaries and social codes (she even spent 10 days in jail for moral indecency for a risque role), of magnetic sexuality, and of highly intelligent humor. I’ll also submit that Mae West was an original take-charge feminist. All of this and the deliciously young Cary Grant too- all of the makings of the pinnacle Pre-Code that rocked the Hays code at its core.

SNAPPY DIALOGUE!

Tira: “Beulah, peel me a grape.”

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Tira: “It’s not the men in your life that counts, its the life in your men.” 

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Fortune Teller: “Keep this where you may consult it frequently.”

Tira: “Alright, I’ll take it to bed with me.”

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Clayton: “You were wonderful tonight.” Tira: “Yeah, I’m always wonderful at night.” Clayton: “Tonight, you were especially good.” Tira: “Well… When I’m good, I’m very good. But, when I’m bad… (winks at him) I’m better.”

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Director: Wesley Ruggles Producer: William LeBaron Screenwriting: Harlan Thompson and Mae West Cinematography: Leo Tover Cast: Mae West (Tira), Cary Grant (Jack Clayton), Gregory Ratoff (Benny Pinkowitz), Edward Arnold (Big Bill Barton), Ralf Harolde (Slick Wiley). B&W-88 mins.

->This post is my contribution to the PRE-CODE BLOGATHON hosted by Danny at Pre-Code(dot)Com and Karen at Shadows & Satin– peruse each of these sites for all the wonderful entries… precodebanner3

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