Nominated for Best Picture Lowell Sherman’s She Done Him Wrong (1933) is 66 minutes of volatile sexuality; a subversive, naughty Pre-Code classic starring resident bad girl of the double entendre, Mae West. Based on West’s play ‘Diamond Lil’ the screenplay by Harvey F. Thew and John Bright delivers a one-two punch of sultry danger – its espionage and racketeering subplot lending a distinct air of illicitness that proved intoxicating for film audiences back then.
Today, West still gets a lot of mileage out of her husky whiskey voice, a raised eyebrow and lazy-eyed come hither glance, accoutrements of a flashy/slightly trashy vixen who was undeniably ahead of her time. What West might have done in today's socially lax laissez faire climate is anybody's guess. But she generally gets away with murder in this film, tempting an teasing the hapless male population into seeing everything her way.
Lady Lou (West) is a bawdy chanteuse in New York circa 1890 – peddling her particular brand of lowbrow ‘elegance’ at the Bowery saloon of boss and benefactor, Gus Jordan (Noah Beery). Though Jordan has lavished his favorite working gal with diamonds aplenty, Lou is not merely content to be with one man. She is, after all, a gal for the ages and with enough brazen ‘come hither’ in her to make the Marquis de Sade blush.
Furthermore, Lou is completely oblivious of the fact that Jordan is a bad lot, training young women as pickpockets and running prostitution and counterfeiting rings to finance her luxuries with his partners in crime; Russian Rita (Rafaela Ottiano) and her lover, Serge Stanieff (Gilber Roland) – a pair of ruthless cutthroats.
A taut friction develops between Jordan and Captain Cummings (Cary Grant), the director of the City Mission adjacent Jordan’s saloon. Jordan worries that Cummings frequent visits to his establishment are in support of some misguided reformation movement that will prove unappealing to his lowly clientele. Little does Jordan realize that Cummings is keeping a very close eye on his spurious activities for an ulterior purpose: Cummings is actually ‘The Hawk’; an undercover Federal agent!
Lou finds Cummings attractive and flippantly goads him into accepting her invitation to a private supper. Shortly thereafter, Cummings begins to develop definite affections for Lou.
Meanwhile, in another part of town Lou’s incarcerated beau, Chick Clark (Owen Moore) has a murderous jealous streak – threatening harm to Lou if she double-crosses him before his release. Little does Chick realizes that his worse insecurities have already begun to be realized. Lou has fallen for Cummings.
Jordan inadvertently brings about his own demise when he provides counterfeit for Rita and Serge to spend, thereby alerting Cummings to his racket. Chick makes a daring prison escape, returns to Lou at the saloon and threatens to kill her unless she steals away with him into the night. A raid on the saloon thwarts Chick’s escape. Clark, Jordan and Serge are also apprehended and taken away to jail. Lou, however, is loaded onto a wagon with Cummings who, after removing all of her ill-gotten jewelry, replaces her ring finger with a single band of gold, thereby implying marriage.
Director Sherman delivers a fairly slick and action-packed melodrama/comedy. West is sinfully charming. In later years, she would muse that it was her ‘discovery’ of Cary Grant that made him a star. Certainly, Grant’s costarring with West advanced his status as a leading man in Hollywood. However, Grant had already received costar billing opposite Marlene Dietrich by the time he appeared opposite West in this film. Hence, ‘discovery’ seems a gross exaggeration on West’s part.
In 1996, the National Film Registry elected She Done Him Wrong for preservation. Tragically, Universal Home Video has done nothing to ‘restore’ the film to its original glory. The B&W image is grainy and slightly blurry. The grayscale exhibits weak balance. Whites are a dirty gray. Blacks are a dull, deeper gray. Age related artifacts are present throughout. Film grain is excessive and distracting at times. The audio is mono and rather strident sounding in spots. The opening lyrics to West’s classic rendition of Frankie and Johnnie are distorted and inaudible. Extras include a brief intro by TCM host, Robert Osbourne and a cartoon short – She Done Him Right.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)