It’s we goblins’ first foray into the fabulously flirtatious world of Mae West, the iconic filth-monger of the 1930s, whose outrageous innuendoes inadvertently ushered in a new age of cinematic censorship.
In spite of West’s reputation for her outlandish gags, this film actually has quite a serious crime plot. Set in a bar in 1890s New York, there’s money forgery, prostitution and prison escape. But at the centre of it all is an absurd character, Lady Lou (West), an entertainer with a personal life as colourful as her dresses.
She is an absurd character because most of her lines are oblique, and not so oblique, sexual references. And those lines that aren’t are delivered as if they are. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger, she is such an icon that it doesn’t matter than she delivers every line the same, but it does make things slightly odd during the more serious or plot-driven scenes. Her delivery is such that your mind can’t help but scan every line for sign of innuendo.
Like Marilyn Monroe in her archetypal roles (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, How to Marry a Millionaire, The Seven Year Itch) every man is blown away by her beauty to a point where she’s able to manipulate them to do almost anything. Also like Monroe’s characters, there’s a sense that she is deliberately playing up to what men want to get her way, and there’s a lot of intelligence beneath the flirtatious exterior. This is the key factor that make the often conservative sexual politics palatable for a modern audience.
Both women’s characters also have a penchant for diamonds which borders on the unhealthy.
Where the two differ is the level of sexual explicitness that surrounds West. Flirtatious as Monroe’s characters are, there’s never any suggestion that she’s sleeping with anyone outside wedlock. Lady Lou, on the other hand, has clearly had more than her share of close encounters, and wears it as a badge of honour.
There’s also more of a sense that West is a comedian and entertainer first (indeed she wrote the stage play this film is based on), and happened to be good at playing roles which led her to become a sex symbol. Whereas Monroe, coming from a background in modelling, was an established beauty and cast accordingly. West is also more theatric, wearing remarkable costumes in every scene, which look very difficult to move and breathe in (she was apparently sewn into most of them).
Not content to rest on humour, She Done Him Wrong is an excellently written and hilarious comedy which kicked off the career of a cinematic icon, ultimately leading to this brilliant moment on RuPaul’s Drag Race.