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!

Happy 100th Birthday Kirk Douglas: THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (MGM 1952)

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Today is the 100th birthday of movie legend Kirk Douglas! Like Olivia de Havilland earlier this year, Kirk is one of the last living Golden Age greats. Bursting onto the screen in film noir classics like THE STRANGE LOVES OF MARTHA IVERS and OUT OF THE PAST , he first received top billing in the 1949 boxing noir CHAMPION, earning an Oscar nomination for his performance. Later, Kirk starred in some of the best films Hollywood has to offer: ACE IN THE HOLE, 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA , LUST FOR LIFE (his second Oscar nom, though he never won the statue), PATHS OF GLORY, SPARTACUS, LONELY ARE THE BRAVE. One of my personal favorites is 1952’s THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL.

One of those Hollywood movies about making Hollywood movies, THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL is expertly directed by insider Vincent Minnelli, who knew this material like the back of his hand. Aided tremendously by DP Robert Surtees’s  B&W  photography, with a fine score by David Raskin, Minnelli directs Charles Schnee’s roman a clef screenplay about an ambitious producer who’ll stop at nothing to get his artistic vision onscreen. Classic film fans will have a blast figuring out just who is based on who, some obvious, others not.

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Movie star Georgia Lorrison, director Fred Amiel, and writer James Lee Bartlow have all turned down former mega-producer Jonathan Shields’ request to participate in his comeback film. All three are summoned to the office of studio exec Harry Pebbel (Walter Pidgeon  ), who knows why the trio hate Shields so much. Flashbacks tell us each of their tales, beginning with Amiel (Barry Sullivan), who was an “AD on Poverty Row” making “four-day quickies” when he first encountered Shields. Jonathan’s father was a former studio chief who was so hated by Tinseltown the son had to hire mourners for dad’s funeral, including Amiel. Determined to restore the Shields name to its former glory, the pair begin producing and directing low-budget “B’s” for Pebbel. Given a script for a horror shocker called “Doom of the Cat-Men”, they turn an average potboiler into a masterpiece of quiet terror, and the movie becomes a surprise hit. When Pebbel wants a sequel, Shields pushes to make Fred’s adaptation of the book “The Far Away Mountain”, asking for a million dollar budget. He secures the services of Latin heartthrob Victor ‘Gaucho’ Ribera (Gilbert Roland, basically playing himself), and gets his wish- but there’s a catch. Shields hires big-name German director Von Ellstein, leaving poor Fred out of the picture.

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Next up is Georgia, daughter of the late matinée idol George Lorrison, who Jonathan knew back in the day. Georgia is played by Lana Turner, and she’s absolutely fabulous! The movie star’s daughter is a hot mess, a boozer and a “tramp” with suicidal tendencies working as an extra, but Shields is determined to make her a star. Her insecurities cause Georgia to get smashed and almost stop production on his latest epic, and Shields confronts the drunk and self-pitying Georgia in her apartment, a scene that’s pure Hollywood dynamite! When she confesses her love for him, Jonathan strings her along to get the performance he wants out of her. The preview is another hit for Shields, but he doesn’t show up for the celebration. Georgia leaves the party and drives to Shields’ mansion, catching him dallying with extra Lila (Elaine Stewart). Heartbroken, Georgia flees in tears, vowing never to have anything to do with the man who made her a star again. This is without a doubt my favorite segment of the movie, and Kirk and Lana are terrific together!

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Finally we come to James Lee (Dick Powell ), a college professor whose novel ‘The Proud Land’, a Civil War saga “liberally peppered with sex” is a best seller. Shields desperately wants to adapt it to the screen, with Bartlow writing, but he’s reluctant to go to Hollywood. His Southern belle wife Rosemary (Gloria Grahame in her Oscar-winning role) is another matter, and she persuades hubby to fly to the West Coast for two weeks as a courtesy to Shields. Two weeks turn into months as James Lee works on the script, but Rosemary, star-struck and blinded by the Hollywood lights, becomes a distraction. Shields talks him into leaving for Lake Arrowhead so the two can work in peace, getting his randy old pal Gaucho to “squire” Rosemary around town. Tragedy strikes when Gaucho and Rosemary die in a plane crash as they’re heading for Acapulco. Shields tries to keep Bartlow busy with work, but their film suffers a blow when Von Ellstein walks off the set, causing Shields himself to take over the director’s reins. The movie bombs, and it’s soon revealed Shields set up Gaucho with Rosemary, knowing the notorious ladies man would sweep her off her feet, freeing Bartlow to write. The ending finds all three still refusing to work with Shields again, but they all eavesdrop on Pebbel’s conversation with the producer, listening intensely as he describes his latest vision over the phone…

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THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL is filled with stars, but Kirk Douglas is the one who shines brightest as the ruthless Jonathan Shields, destroying anything in his path that gets in the way of his artistic vision. He’s the Super-Glue that holds the film together, and at the top of his game. There are so many Familiar Faces in this one your head will spin, like Leo G. Carroll as the Hitchcockian Henry Whitfield, Paul Stewart as Shields’ yes-man, plus Stanley Andrews, Barbara Billingsley (Mrs. Cleaver!), Madge Blake, Vanessa Brown, Francis X. Bushman, Louis Calhern (the voice of George Lorrison), THEM’s Sandy Descher, Steve Forrest, Kathleen Freeman, Ned Glass, Dabbs Greer, Kurt Kaszner, Paul Maxey, May McAvoy, Jeff Richards, Kaaren Verne, Ray Walker, and of course the ubiquitous Bess Flowers !

Winner of five Academy Awards (besides Grahame, the picture also won for Best Art Direction, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, and Costume Design), THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL is a must-see for all classic film lovers, and fans of the great Kirk Douglas. Happy 100th Kirk, here’s to a hundred more!!

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