around the exploits of torch singer Lady Lou, who, unbeknownst to her, is working at a barroom funded by — and by design covering up — counterfeiting and prostution rings run by her boss, Gus (Noah Beery). (She Done Him Wrong was based on West’s popular 1928 play Diamond Lil; the adaptation was overseen by Harvey F. Thew and John Bright.) The conceit of the film naturally involves the eventual blowing up of the scheme, but the movie is more interested in Lou’s relationships with the earlier-mentioned Chick, who in the middle of the feature escapes from his cell, and a blossoming one with a hale policeman named Cummings (Cary Grant), who is actually an undercover fed looking to take down Gus. (For the rest of her life West claimed that she’d “discovered” the then-29-year-old Grant, who also co-stars in I’m No Angel, even though there is plenty of proof that he’d been in several successful movies before they’d crossed paths.) 

 

Without West, She Done Him Wrong would be throwaway — which the movie subliminally seems to understand, too. Everything is so in service to her that, days later, I cannot remember much about it aside from West herself. Even Grant, who is anywhere else something of a comet himself, is wallpaper. The same goes for I’m No Angel, though the latter is an all-around better movie. It invests more in its story (it’s able to stretch out and breathe at 87 minutes) and some of the other characters. Grant, again playing West’s primary love interest, isn’t as much eclipsed. It’s a little campier — it basks in West’s sui-generis presence.

 

I’m No Angel is basically She Done Him Wrong Deluxe, only this time West is playing a lion tamer named Tira. The fantasies of higher living had by Lady Lou in She Done Him Wrong are turned into actualities for Tira in I’m No Angel. We witness Tira actually social climb rather than attempt to; her clothing is more extravagant, conspicuously expensive; the men-are-steps-on-a-ladder ethos is more pronounced. (“Find ‘em, fool ‘em, and forget ‘em,” Tira advises a young woman at one point.) All culminates in a grand courtroom-drama-parodying finale during which West decides to represent herself. Naturally, most of her lines of questioning, and defenses of herself, are also double-entendres. Pitted against I’m No Angel, She Done Him Wrong seems but an appetizer; the former shows us what West is capable of, then the latter lets her fully realize the potential. 

 

That West wasn’t able to ever fully capitalize on what she had established with She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel is a shame; one wonders how her career might have looked had she been given as much free reign as she was in her formative moviemaking year. Censorship conclusively proved itself a double-edged sword. It stymied what made West’s persona feel so immediate and forward-looking; it also helped fuel her legend, which is partially built on her being a no-holds-barred Hollywood insurgent. West showed us what a strong association with an indelible image could do. With one, you’re less likely to be forgotten; you remain irreplaceable despite the obvious attempts at mimicry down the line. But she also showed us that it can also be something of an albatross. West was a star at both the perfect and wrong time. Remaining undoubted, though, is that, to paraphrase Tira in I’m No Angel, when West was good, she was very good. But when she was bad, she was better.

 

She Done Him WrongB+

I'm No AngelA-

he Done Him Wrong is a blueprint of a movie. Clocking just 64 minutes (West’s magic works over us instantaneously, though is best taken in small doses), the film is set in New York City, in the 1890s. It circles

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her. One man there, whose sentence is scheduled to go on for another 15 years, earnestly asks Lou, with whom he has apparently been involved in the past, on a date — an offer she facetiously accepts.

 

There are many scene-length microcosms of West’s overall onscreen appeal contained within her very brief filmography. But the prison sequence, to my eye, particularly stands out. Characteristically, West doesn’t passively absorb the cat calls. (Her sexy image, in the decade before, had been established by a series of provocative, well-received plays.) She openly, cleverly, mocks the men offering them, impressively in a way that makes them fonder of her. The sequence evinces West’s singular way of subverting and then reclaiming the limitations thrust on a sex object, and of treating every word or phrase thrown at her by a leering man as a foundation to be springboarded off for a joke. In her movies, West has all the power. A bulletproof vest absorbs a fired round into its fabric. West herself seems to be wearing an invisible jacket that, when hit with a bullet of underestimation, objectification, and the like, will cause the ammo to bounce off and then directly hit the person who shot the belittlement in the first place.

 

She Done Him Wrong, which debuted in late January almost 90 years ago, is considered the finest distillation of West’s screen image, which, though offering itself in some form to audiences throughout the 1930s and beyond that more limitedly, was at its purest for, essentially, a year. She Done Him Wrong and its immediate follow-up — the elongated, bigger-budgeted, and more focused I’m No Angel — were distributed in 1933. Both are as loaded with West’s trademark double-entendres as a candy machine is with 25-cent treats — something made possible because stringent onscreen censorship, clearly spelled out by the not yet strictly enforced Hays Code, was a year-away phenomenon. 

 

With the advent of 1934 and that Code came a hindrance West would never quite get over. Her knowingly bawdy persona relied on funny, verbally established sexual suggestiveness unable to work under conservative militance. She could say things like “it’s not the men in my life that count — it’s the life in my men,” which is hardly explicit but suggestive enough, in I’m No Angel without a hitch. A year later, a title like It Ain’t No Sin would be (now-laughably) 

deemed unacceptably edgy. (The new one — the sanded-down Belle of the Nineties.) One cannot count on their fingers the number of screen performers who have had their stardom hampered by shifting trends. A little over a half-decade before West’s first filmic bow, for instance, an army of silent-movie actors near-instantaneously faded into obscurity after their weaknesses were emphasized by the dawn of audio in the movies. But West’s predicament is more unusual. How many have a story, and then a barrier, quite like hers? 

 

West is an indubitable icon of the classic Hollywood era. And she became one quickly mostly based on her two films of 1933, not unlike the way James Dean’s screen image was cemented with just three movies or how Grace Kelly became an ingrained film heroine despite only being active in Hollywood for five years. (Famously, the latter transitioned into royaldom.) Watching them now, She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel strike me not as movies so astronomically good that they can make a career, akin to a once-in-a-lifetime album from a reclusive musical artist. They’re more so movies so refreshingly out of step with anything that was being put out at the time and even later that they graft themselves onto the memory because of their quasi-atemporality. Plus, no screen performer has ever been like West. Blonde bombshells in abundance have been remade in her image. But none, really, have successfully parrotted her persona, which is as convincingly sexed-up as it is in on the joke.

brassy saloon singer Lady Lou (West), visits the local prison to check in on her incarcerated criminal lover, Chick (Owen Moore). In keeping with what we have learned so far about Lou — that she is prone to social-climbing, that she looks at men almost exclusively in terms of what they can sexually and/or financially offer her, that she thinks of every public excursion as an opportunity to entertain — she will not simply be visiting. When she enters the building, she’s like a one-woman parade. She shimmies past the cells leading up to Chick’s with the vah-vah-voom gait of a cartoon temptress. Every man there knows who she is. Those who are not suggested to have already slept with her immediately make clear their attraction to

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arly on in She Done Him Wrong (1933), the first star vehicle for the multi-hyphenated, 40-year-old iconoclast and sex symbol Mae West, our heroine,

On the two truest distillations of Mae West's screen image

She Done Him Wrong

I'm No Angel, Reviewed 

April 28, 2020  

  

Double Feature

Mae West and Cary Grant in 1933's "I'm No Angel."

Mae West and Cary Grant in 1933's I'm No Angel.