I recently watched Lowell Sherman’s, She Done Him Wrong (1933) starring the incomparable Mae West. While watching, I couldn’t help but think of the film in regards to its connection to The Motion Picture Production Code ( also referred to as The Production Code, simply The Code or The Hays Code, after Hollywood’s chief censor at the time, Will H. Hays who was a former politician and first president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association of America.) I’d learned about the connection between Mae West’s film and The Code during a history of film course I took years back. So, here’s a rather laid-back look at – the film, The Code and the connection.
In brief – The Code’s history
Since the early days of the movie industry, which was recognized as hugely influential to public minds, censorship was handled by local boards on city or state levels. These governing bodies had often ordered the deletion of scenes or prevented film releases but there was no uniform code to adhere to from state to state. As a result, it was often the case that one city or state banned a film and another allowed its release. It seems the public and authorities in some parts of the country were not as easily offended as they were in other parts.
By 1922, in reaction to recent high-profile scandals involving Hollywood celebrities, people starting calling for federal guidelines in the motion picture industry. Mostly to give the perception of concern, motion picture producers convened and passed a set of rules or standards of morality that film content should adhere to. These standards were overseen by Will Hays and were nothing more than a voluntary agreement as no penalties were enforced if films didn’t follow them. Most producers followed the voluntary rules. At first. But as the years past they started to relax the rules and by the end of the 1920s, as sound was introduced in film, the “lax” treatment of crime, violence, sex, profanity and even nudity became alarming to some people. The cries for stronger censorship of content to “save” Americans’ morals grew louder and louder. No one shouted louder than Catholic Bishops.
In response to the growing outcry, Hays and company wrote a new set of stricter, more specific guidelines in 1930. These addressed specifics like sex, sympathy for criminals or criminality, nudity, adultery and a host of other attitudes and activities that The Code deemed unacceptable for public consumption, things that would “gravely lower the moral standards of those who see it.” As mentioned, these rules were enacted in 1930, but included no penalties if not adhered to until a 1934 addendum stipulated that films could not be released without certification from the Hays Office. After that, The Code was virtually the law in Hollywood. That vital addendum, which had a huge impact on all Hollywood productions, was spurred by the creation of the Catholic Legion of Decency in 1933 whose purpose was to identify objectionable content in motion pictures from the point of view of the Catholic Church. The Church threatened nationwide boycotts of films, which Hollywood studio producers could not ignore.
By the way, to this day, films that were produced between 1930 and 1934 are generally referred to as “pre-code” and they have a certain “flavor” if you will not found in films made after 1934 when the Code was strictly enforced. (If you’re interested in taking a look at some of these films, I suggest visiting the Turner Classic Movies (TCM) Shop, which has several great pre-code sets available.)
To continue – although the outcries for censorship began during the latter part of the 1920s, as mentioned above, there are a few films viewed as responsible for the 1934 addendum that changed the motion picture industry because they pushed the envelope of “decency” to an unacceptable limit. Or so the outraged believed. These included Alfred E. Green’s, Baby Face (1933), which was originally banned in some U.S. cities, Mervyn LeRoy’s, Gold Diggers of 1933, and Lowell Sherman’s, She Done Him Wrong (1933). The latter is the film I will take a look at below . The performance of its star, Mae West was the reason the Legion of Decency officials felt the formation of the organization was a “necessity.” The Legion was formed six months after the release of She Done Him Wrong.
Mae West plays Lady Lou in She Done Him Wrong, a liberated woman who enjoys her sexuality, a role she originated on Broadway in her 1928 play, Diamond Lil. West starred in and wrote the play and created a character that would all but cement her public persona. Diamond Lil was a scandalous stage play, which resulted in the film’s changed title but one has to give kudos to Paramount Pictures for producing it. The studio was highly rewarded for the film as its success not only saved it from bankruptcy but the film also received an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture (it lost to Frank Lloyd’s, Cavalcade).
The story of She Done Him Wrong takes place during the Naughty Nineties and was Mae West’s first starring role. It’s also her most famous role, the one that made her a star. I really like this succinct synopsis of the film by Hal Erickson at Rotten Tomatoes: “I’m the finest woman who walked the streets,” declares bejeweled, hip-swishing Lady Lou (Mae West) at the beginning of She Done Him Wrong. Lou works as a singer at the Gay Nineties saloon of Gus Jordan (Noah Beery Sr.), who plies her with diamonds to keep her by his side. She runs afoul of stalwart mission captain Cummings (Cary Grant), who warns her that she’s on the road to perdition.
Old Woman: Ah, Lady Lou, you’re a fine gal, a fine woman.
Lady Lou: One of the finest women ever walked the streets.
One of the taglines of the film’s poster back in the day stated, ”Mae West gives a ‘HOT TIME’ to the Nation.” It’s easy to see how conservatives took issue with its content and implications, although when one is watching the film one notes little is implied. I thought it would be fun to take a look at specific scenes or aspects of She Done Him Wrong in regards to how they were in direct conflict with The Code.
“When women go wrong, men go right after them.”
I’ve seen She Done Him Wrong several times but it is only the second Mae West film I’ve seen in its entirety. The other is Edward F. Cline’s, My Little Chickadee (1940) in which West co-stars with W. C. Fields. Aside from those two films, I’ve seen countless Mae West clips here and there in film documentaries or shows. I can say, however, that from what I have seen I love her! She was fabulous and in She Done Him Wrong in particular, hilarious. Now to the matter at hand and a fair warning that SPOILERS LAY AHEAD.
The film and The Code
If pressed I’d describe the “moral” of She Done Him Wrong as “vices are fun!” That’s hardly a professional review but its accurate to a large degree. And while censorship gets my goat, it’s quite easy to see why this film raised the concerns of the prudish and ultra conservative to new heights. In particular during a time when they were on a mission to send a strong message as to what constituted decency.
The first thing that occurs to me regarding the code while watching the film is in one of the early scenes of the saloon. As the camera pans by saloon patrons, mostly (clearly) drunk men who are enjoying their drink, already to the point where it is difficult for them to hold their hands steady and the beer is sloshing and spilling all over the place. The Production Code states that the use of liquor is to be used in a film if it is required by the plot. Certainly, the message of a “good time” would have been clear with a lot less liquor and a lot less spillage. It is over-the-top and I believe this would have been downplayed had it been done after The Code was in effect.
Another thing that happens in this film that would have changed due to Code regulations is the fact that the Police Captain hides Pete, the crook. If the message of “crime doesn’t pay” is vital to Code rules and audiences could never be shown instances where criminals can get away with it, then this would not have happened a year later. It would not have been acceptable to have any law enforcement official aid a criminal running from the law. In the end, I must say, everyone that deserves it gets his/her due. But there is a lot of “bending” of laws that goes on all over the saloon (“bending” pun intended).
As I mentioned above, nearly everything Mae West says in the film would have been suspect by Code standards. She rarely says anything that doesn’t have double meaning or is not an innuendo and I would think it would all fall under the “obscene” category of the Production Code rules. She references little BUT sex, makes only sexual jokes and even sings songs full of suggestive lyrics. I loved it all but The Code and those who made the rules could not accept the meaning behind these innuendos. Although the whole of everything she says is funny and sexual, I’ll indulge myself to quote my favorite of all the lines in the film. When Capt. Cummings goes to put on the handcuffs on Lady Lou at the end she looks down at them and says “Are those absolutely necessary? I wasn’t born with them.” The Captain replies “No, but a lot of men woulda been safer if you had.” And Lou replies, “Oh, I don’t know, hands aren’t everything.” I just love that!
OK, to continue – aside from the actual dialogue Mae West utters, there are other aspects of her character that would have been unacceptable by the standards of The Production Code. One is the fact that adultery is not an issue and is presented all the time as a fact. Ms. West’s double-entendres are directed to all men, not just single men. The fact that men are married is of no consequence. Another is the fact that she is clearly the sexual aggressor in all situations, she shows her attraction to men with no holds barred and goes after what she wants – all of which are typical male behaviors in later films (and even then men weren’t as “aggressive” as she is here). God forbid a woman should ever enjoy her sexuality in films produced later in Hollywood! Worthy of at least a brief mention is that Lady Lou wears a couple of dresses/outfits that have quite a dipping neckline – although really tame by today’s standards I assume they raised quite a few eyebrows in “decency” circles. In short, had She Done Him Wrong been made a year later, after the Production Code was in full swing, it wouldn’t have been made at all. Mae West simply would not have had an act at all as it’s written in this film.
Worthy of note, by the way, is the fact that Lou doesn’t engage in any sexual activity. I mean, given the outrage that She Done Him Wrong caused, one would think it would be more overt sexual situations that caused it. All she does is kiss two men ever so briefly and we know she “give in” to advances for diamonds but we don’t see it. We all have our weaknesses, after all. Interestingly, the only scene during which she comes close to “having” Captain Cummings (Cary Grant), where she lures him in for the kill but then she fights him off just at the nick of time. It’s like a spider luring her prey into the web. She’s hot for him, innuendos and body language say so (um…plus it’s Cary Grant) but she wants to be sure he’s fully wrapped before she “allows” him to go for the kill – at that point in the film, anyway. Cummings leaves kiss-less and Lou closes the door behind him and says, “well, it won’t be long now.” A woman who excels at a man’s game – for the times anyway as the The Code enforcers saw it, I assume.
Captain Cummings: Haven’t you ever met a man that could make you happy?
Lady Lou: Sure, lots of times.
I have to mention the scene in the jail when she goes to visit Chick Clark (Owen Moore), her ex-flame who’s still in love with her. It is hysterical that all the men call out to her in a very familiar fashion as she passes each jail cell. The innuendo – she’s done them all. Or she could have and wouldn’t have objected. She’s a classy dame, after all.
Also of some concern to the Code is the fact that the film references white slavery. Gus (Noah Beery), the owner of the saloon and the guy who gives Lou her diamonds dabbles in white slavery and in counterfeiting. (White Slavery historically referred to the sexual enslavement of white women. Prostitution is more direct terms.) It may have been an issue to the “regulators” that Gus is quite successful in his chosen profession despite the fact that the profession is (mostly) illegal. Again here, the “crime doesn’t pay” message would have been betrayed, although he does get arrested in the end. Along these same lines one could argue that Lou gets away with murder as well. She stabs Rita (Rafaela Ottiano), Gus’ accomplice in the sex trade business, to death and there are no apparent repercussions, although it was an accident I don’t think this would have happened in subsequent years in films coming out of Hollywood. Cary Grant’s Captain Cummings apparently takes Lady Lou to prison in the end. Well, he’ll be her jailer in any case. The kind of prison any girl wouldn’t have minded being locked up with, I suspect. That’s we Lou gets for being a “bad girl.” I can all but here the Bishops muttering.
Although She Done Him Wrong made history because of its direct connection to the Code’s enforcement, it is a gem simply because of Mae West. I am now compelled to see all her movies just to laugh. In my opinion this film, and I suspect all her other films as well, has the story/plot, all other characters and whatever else might be featured as secondary. What matters is Mae West and it is a showcase for her to “show her stuff.” She is a force – from the way she walks and then actually poses to deliver a line – none of it has anything to do with acting but all to do with the character of this woman. I am always pleasantly surprised to enjoy She Done Him Wrong as much as I do given it so heavily relies on one-liners. But they’re just funny, no other explanation needed. I’d also like to add that Cary Grant, although not yet the huge movie star he was to become later, can also do no wrong. And, I love that it’s Cary Grant who Mae says her famous, “why don’t you come up some time and see me“ line to. If only…
“Too much of a good thing is wonderful.” - Mae West
Before publishing this post I re read it and noted I mention “The Code” so many times I now feel I should be asked to stand before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Oh well. Censorship should be an annoyance, at the very least.
I want to take this opportunity to send a shout out to film historian and author, Bernard F. Dick with whom I took several film courses as an undergraduate student, including the aforementioned History of Film course. Dr. Dick, now retired from teaching, has written several books on Hollywood and stars of the Golden Age. I sat up front and center in all his courses and was riveted and engulfed by his mesmerizing love of film. If memory serves, he’s a big fan of Mae West in particular. Lucky me. It was notes I took in his course that I referred to to recall specifics of the history of The Motion Picture Production Code as noted in the post.
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