17/12/2012

She Done Him Wrong (1933)


The picture that made a star of Mae West, brought in enough box office receipts to save Paramount Studios from bankruptcy and led to the tyranny by censorship that was the Hays Code, She Done Him Wrong turns out to be something of a muddle in execution. Based on West's own hit Broadway play Diamond Lil (1928) and giving the actress top billing and a writing credit for the first time, the film is set in New York during the Gay Nineties and concerns bling-fixated Bowery saloon singer Lady Lou (West) and her romantic entanglements with various shady suitors. These include her boss Gus Jordan (Noah Beery, brother of Wallace), an aspiring politician with a sideline in prostitution and counterfeiting, his rival  Dan Flynn (David Landau), convict Chick Clark (Owen Moore), a Russian stage turn (Gilbert Roland) and Salvation Army director Captain Cummings (Cary Grant), the latter with a great deal more going on than first appears.

As always, Mae is something to behold and the adapted screenplay by Harvey F. Thew and John Bright is packed with zingers for her to fire off at will, my favourite coming when Lady Lou is complimented on the nude portrait of herself exhibited in the saloon: "Oh, yeah, I gotta admit that is a flash, but I do wish Gus hadn't hung it up over the free lunch". Overall though there's at least three two many lovers to keep track of (you can just hear Mae's response to that) and not enough time devoted to fleshing them out as characters by director Lowell Sherman. A young Cary Grant already brings real presence - Mae claimed to have discovered him here, in spite of his already having appeared opposite Marlene Dietrich in Blonde Venus (1932) - and there's some excellent songs by Ralph Rainger, John Leipold and Stephan Pasternacki for the heroine to belt out. These include 'Frankie & Johnny' (which gives the film its title), the highly suggestive 'Easy Rider'  and, of course, the almost pornographic 'A Guy What Takes His Time', which quickly became Mae's signature anthem.

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