Pre Code Confidential #27: Mae West in SHE DONE HIM WRONG (Paramount 1933)

Bawdy Mae West had scandalized Broadway with her risque humor, and struggling Paramount Pictures snapped her to a movie deal. Her first was a supporting part in 1932’s NIGHT AFTER NIGHT, where she was allowed to rewrite her own dialog, and stole the show by purring sexually charged lines like “Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie”. Mae’s presence helped refill Paramount’s coffers, and raised the hackles of censorship boards across America. It wasn’t long until the Production Code became strictly enforced, thanks in large part to Mae, but before then, she was given the spotlight in 1933’s SHE DONE HIM WRONG, based somewhat on her stage success DIAMOND LIL.

Like the play, SHE DONE HIM WRONG is set in The Bowery during the 1890’s, but here Diamond Lil is called Lady Lou, because the censors wanted to whitewash all vestiges of the ribald play. Diamond Lil or Lady Lou, Mae is still Mae, and no one could deliver sexual innuendo like her! Lou is, according to her, “One of the finest women ever walked the streets”, a saloon singer who attracts men like a magnet. Owner Gus Jordan keeps her adorned in diamonds, Russian gigolo Serge Stanieff is infatuated, even prim Salvation Army reformer Captain Cummings has a crush on her. When Lou visits her ex-lover Chick Clark in stir, he’s driven so mad with jealousy he escapes to make sure Lou’s being true (fat chance!).

The plot revolves around some shady white slavery business involving Gus, Serge, and Russian Rita, but that takes a backseat to Mae and her ribald double entendres. This is the film where she coos to a young Cary Grant (playing the reformer!), “Why’ncha come up sometime and see me”. Cary asks if she’s ever met a man that could make her happy, to which Mae replies, “Sure, lots of times”. Or this little gem: “When women go wrong, men go right after them”. She also gets to sing three hot numbers, “I Wonder Where My Easy Rider’s Gone”, “A Guy What Takes His Time”, and “Frankie & Johnny”.

Mae always claimed to have ‘discovered’ Cary Grant, but he’d already made seven films by this point, including the Pre-Code classic BLONDE VENUS with Marlene Dietrich. Grant was 29 at the time, while Mae was approaching 40, but a little thing like age never stopped Mae West, and the sexual heat between them is believable. Gruff Noah Beery Sr. plays saloon owner Gus, oily Gilbert Roland is the oily Serge, and Owen Moore the jealousy-driven Chick. Other cast members include Rafaela Ottiano as Russian Rita (reprising her stage role), Dewey Robinson as Lou’s loyal bodyguard Spider, and the delightful Louise Beavers as Lou’s maid Pearl. Familiar Faces abound in lesser parts: Arthur Housman , Rochelle Hudson , Tom Kennedy , Fuzzy Knight , David Landau, among others.

Though the prudes were outraged at Mae’s onscreen behavior, SHE DONE HIM WRONG  packed ’em in around the country, and was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar that year (the shortest movie ever nominated, clocking in at 66 minutes). The Production Code clampdown a year later watered Mae’s earthy persona down considerably, but even watered down Mae West was better than none at all. She still found ways to sneak some in (as in this from MY LITTLE CHICKADEE: “I was in a tight spot, but I managed to wiggle out of it”), but Mae’s shocking one-liners mostly found themselves on the cutting room floor. Mae West never gave in or gave up though, and continued to be her raunchy self for years to come. She was Hollywood’s first Liberated Woman, and SHE DONE HIM WRONG represents the immortal Mae West at her lustful best!

Pre-Code Confidential #1: James Cagney in LADY KILLER (Warner Brothers, 1933)

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Pre-Code Hollywood movies like LADY KILLER are always fun to watch. They’re filled with risqué business, sly innuendos, and are much more adult in content than post-1934 films. This little gem features James Cagney in one of his patented tough guy roles as Dan Quigley. Dan’s a brash, cocky movie usher who gets fired for insulting his patrons. While indulging in rolling some dice at a hotel lobby, he sees Myra (Mae Clarke)  drop her purse as she’s leaving. Ladies man Dan follows her to her apartment with it, hoping for some afternoon delight.

Dan and Myra
Dan and Myra

Myra’s grateful, and offers him a drink (Her: “Chaser?” Him: “Always have been!”). Myra’s “brother-in-law” Duke (Douglass Dumbrille) emerges from the next room, and invites Dan to play a little poker. Losing all his dough, Dan leaves the apartment. He comes across a gentleman holding another purse in the hallway looking for Myra. Realizing he’s been set up, he storms back in and demands his money back. Yet another sucker comes in with a purse, and Dan muscles his way in on the con. Soon he’s leading the gang, and they make enough to open their own speakeasy, the Seven-Eleven Club. The gang branches out into burglary, targeting a rich widow. Dan fakes a car accident, weaseling his way into her home to get a layout of the joint. Things go awry when a maid is “brutally slugged” and dies. One of the gang squeals and gets iced by his pals just as the cops raid the Seven-Eleven. The gang takes it on the lam, with Dan and Myra ending up in LA. The coppers pick him up at the train station for questioning, and hold him on bail. He calls Myra at their pre-arranged hotel room to post bond, but the devious dame has hooked up with Duke scramed to Mexico, leaving Dan high and dry. Dan’s released when “New York can’t get the goods” on him, with a warning to find employment in 48 hours or get out of town. At a pool hall, Dan’s discovered by a Hollywood producer looking for new faces, and begins working as an extra in a prison picture.

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LADY KILLER now shifts gears to give us a backstage look at Hollywood. Cagney does bits as a con and an Indian chief (!) as the tone turns from gangster pic to comedy. He meets up with leading lady Lois Underwood (Margret Lindsey) and becomes a star in his own right. Seems the studio’s looking for the “rough and ready” type, and Dan writes bogus fan letters extolling his popularity! Now a star (complete with pencil-thin moustache), Dan and Lois start dating. She facetiously tells him she wants “a crate of monkeys, Tyrolean yodelers, and an elephant” for her birthday party, and wise guy Dan obliges in a hysterical scene.

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Dan’s still the same street kid he’s always been, as we see where he makes a critic literally eat his words (an actor’s dream!). Dan brings Lois to his apartment, only to find Myra waiting in his bed! Lois storms out. In a scene that could only happen in a Pre-Code movie, he drags Myra out by her hair and kicks her ass out the door! It’s not the first time Cagney brutalized Clarke on screen. Film fans all remember the classic grapefruit scene in PUBLIC ENEMY.

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Next day, we find the old gang back in town (including Myra), wanting Dan’s Hollywood contacts to set up more robberies. Dan gives then ten grand to keep away from him and leave Hollywood, but Duke and his boys take a guided tour of star’s homes to do their own dirty work. Lois’s house gets robbed and a cop is killed during the escape. Dan busts in on their hideout, gun in hand, and demands the loot to return to Lois. The cops then arrive and arrest him, allowing the gang to flee. They bail him out, and Myra is waiting for him in a car. She confesses to Dan he’s being set up by his old pals who plan to bump him off on the highway. But Dan’s no dummy. He’s alerted the coppers, and they’re in pursuit. A wild car chase with tommy-guns blazing sets up the final shootout. Dan is exonerated, and he and Lois fly to Yuma for their wedding.

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LADY KILLER is fast paced fun, loaded with snappy dialogue. One of the gang asks Dan where he’d like them to go, and he replies with a smile, “Need I say?” Offering one of them some fruit, Dan slyly says, “You like fruit. That I know.” In one scene, he sneakily kisses Myra on the breast (through her dress). The film’s director Roy Del Ruth got his start as a Mack Sennett gag writer. The veteran also worked with Cagney in BLONDE CRAZY, TAXI, and BLESSED EVENT. Other films include THE BABE RUTH STORY, the noir RED LIGHT, and horror entries PHANTOM OF THE RUE MORGUE and THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE. Del Ruth was by no means a top-flight director, but he did some interesting films and his career deserves a second look.

LADY KILLER abounds with familiar faces, Besides Dumbrille (who’s good as Duke), the gang members are Raymond Hatton, Leslie Fenton, and Russell Hopton. Others in various roles are Henry O’Neill, Luis Alberni, Herman Bing, George Chandler, Edwin Maxwell, Dewey Robinson, Sam McDaniel, and Dennis O’Keefe. While not a classic, LADY KILLER is a great example of Pre-Code filmmaking, with an energetic performance by Cagney. Pre-Code fans, gangster buffs, and movie manques looking for a peek at the soundstages of 30s Hollywood will all enjoy this well made time capsule.