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.
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?]
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.”
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…
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.