by Matt Levine
We’ve all heard the famous adage, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” What often goes unsaid, though, is that comedy is also culturally specific to a daunting degree; perhaps no other genre relies so heavily on the values and predilections of a particular time and place. A tragedy by Euripides, timeless in its abject agony, might affect us in the same way it was originally intended; yet a comedy by Aristophanes mostly would not receive the same audience reception as in ancient Greece. Comedy is hard— especially when you have a long-term shelf life in mind.
Director: Lowell Sherman
Producer: William LeBaron
Writers: Harvey Thew, John Bright
Cinematographer: Charles Lang
Editor: Alexander Hall
Music: John Leipold
Cast: Mae West, Cary Grant, Owen Moore, Gilbert Roland, Noah Beery Sr., David Landau, Rafaela Ottiano, Dewey Robinson, Rochelle Hudson, Tammany Young
US Theatrical Release: February 9, 1933
US Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Since cinema is a younger art form than theatre by about three millennia, this dictum has numerous exceptions in the movies. Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd—the silent comedians of a century ago were inventive and acrobatic enough to achieve a brand of comedy that truly seems timeless. The same applies to the dizzying verbal fireworks of screwball comedy (The Philadelphia Story, His Girl Friday) or the surreal insanity of the Marx Brothers: somehow, Cary Grant’s winking wordplay and Harpo’s rampaging Id will never get old.
But these comedies remain prominent today because they provide exceptions to the rule (or, at least, the hypothesis) that some kinds of comedy have an expiration date. Case in point: the hammy burlesque of Mae West. I can’t think of another comedic superstar from Hollywood’s yesteryear who translates so poorly to modern audiences. Both her sledgehammer-heavy double entendres and insipid showtunes are clearly indebted to the vaudeville scene that provided her with her roots—and which (as Chaplin, also a former vaudeville star, noted) was already outdated by the advent of sound cinema in the late 1920s.
There is very little that’s cinematic about She Done Him Wrong, West’s second feature film (after 1932’s Night After Night). Adapted from West’s own successful Broadway play “Diamond Lil,” both the dialogue and staging are steeped in theatrical tropes: each line is declaimed with an obviousness that resounds to the proverbial rafters, and the actors often awkwardly perform to the camera, as though an invisible audience is seated right behind it. The director, Lowell Sherman, also began as an actor in vaudeville and on Broadway, which partially explains his disinterest in visual innovation.
She Done Him Wrong mistakenly assumes that more plot naturally leads to a more engaging story: even at 64 minutes, the film is crammed with more dead-end subplots than it can ably develop. The action centers on West’s Lady Lou, a vaudeville star at a Bowery barroom in the 1890s. Her rotating cavalcade of male paramours, along with her eye-popping wardrobes and extravagant jewelry, seem to reaffirm Lou’s reputation as a diamond-loving gold-digger who uses men for sex and money—but only when their companionship suits her. She’s married to the owner of the bar, Gus Jordan (Noah Beery Sr.), who naively assumes Lou is faithful to him; apparently he doesn’t notice Lou’s lascivious come-ons to the Russian assistant (Gilbert Roland) working with Gus on a business deal. There’s also Lou’s former man, Chick Clark (Owen Moore), a petty crook who was incarcerated thanks partially to Lou’s testimony; his escape from prison, suddenly introduced about halfway into the film, provides a desperate climax to the laborious affairs. This isn’t even to mention Dan Flynn (David Landau), a lecherous businessman who plots to steal both the bar and Lou away from Gus; Sally (Rochelle Hudson), a young woman who tries to commit suicide in the bar and who is nearly sold into prostitution by Gus; or Captain Cummings (Cary Grant), a preacher at the missionary next door who is the only man Lou fawningly lusts after, instead of the other way around. (It’s the uniform, Lou claims—though his miraculous ability to resist her advances also seems to stoke her desires.) The film might have been more successful focusing on one of these storylines rather than throwing everything at the audience in a hurry, hoping we’ll be too overwhelmed to notice how flat all of these subplots actually are.
To be fair, some scenes impressively convey the movie’s 1890s setting, especially the very first shots of the film: street scenes populated with horse-drawn carriages that seem to emulate documentary footage from the period (some of the very first films ever made). Unfortunately, though, once She Done Him Wrong moves to the barroom’s interior, it rarely leaves, thus stifling the movie’s interesting depiction of a historical setting. West’s bawdy Pre-Code innuendos are also intermittently amusing, as when she claims to be “one of the finest women that ever walked the streets.” Later, when Lou is asked if she’s ever met a man who could make her happy, she smilingly replies, “Sure—lots of times.” The movie’s wink-wink-nudge-nudge style makes such dialogue less subversive (and less funny) than in subtler scripts by Ben Hecht or Preston Sturges, but She Done Him Wrong undeniably provides a few mild laughs.
West’s provocative persona in the 1920s and ‘30s should not be understated: her earlier Broadway shows, such as the 1926 play “Sex” (which she wrote, directed, produced, and starred in), were heavily censored and occasionally interrupted by the police raiding venues during performances. An early supporter of women’s and gay rights, West strove to remove sex of its demonized stigma in an era when the Roaring Twenties were starting to give way to increased moral conservatism. She Done Him Wrong does provide glimmers of a self-aware progressivism, as when Lou says, “Men are all alike, married or single. I’m just smart enough to be able to play their game.” It’s also refreshing that Lou’s manipulation of men’s shallow carnality does not go vindictively punished at the end of the film (as it assuredly would have in later films after the Production Code became firmly entrenched): she continues to latch onto whichever man can bring her the most security and wealth, unabashedly using her sex as her greatest asset. Yet the movie’s depiction of the sexualized power struggles between men and women rarely rises above showboating one-liners; She Done Him Wrong is neither subtle nor ambitious enough to make anything intriguing out of its salacious subject matter.
The film’s indebtedness to outdated vaudeville stereotypes even extends to its lone black character: Lou’s maid, Pearl (Louise Beavers), who exists only to provide a naïve foil to Lou’s world-weariness. Speaking in the crude, offensive vernacular so common to black characters in American films of this period, Pearl is one of many unfortunate relics of an awkwardly dated comedic style; we’re supposed to find it funny when Lou casually calls her "8-ball." West was famous for featuring black characters in many of her Broadway shows (at a time when blackface was still acceptable and integrated casts were uncommon), but that means little if the roles they portray retain such noxious stereotypes.
As a public figure and provocative comedienne, West is justifiably celebrated: she represented progressivism and moral laxness in a period when the tide was flowing in the opposite direction. Yet unfortunately, in this case, her ideals and persona are more interesting than their cinematic manifestation. A 1933 audience more embroiled in the moral transfigurations of American society (and more accepting of a waning burlesque style) presumably found She Done Him Wrong a fiery, courageous comedy; eighty years later, however, the film mostly serves as a time-capsule indication of how much has changed—comedically, cinematically, and ethically—since the film’s original release.