Welcome to Screen Gems, our weekend dive into queer and queer-adjacent titles of the past that deserve a watch or a re-watch.
The OG: She Done Him Wrong
Screen legend Mae West would have celebrated her 128th birthday this week, and though she departed our world a long time ago, that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate. Besides, Mae would have told us to.
West, for the uninitiated, started her career on stage before hitting the movies, becoming a cause célèbre for her raunchy stage performances. West, who wrote all her own material, loved to push the boundaries of censorship and good taste–a trick she learned by hanging out at gay clubs and drag bars. She also adopted a few drag tricks when it came to body sculpting and make-up…not to mention the art of the double entendre. In fact, her stage act caused such a scandal, she landed herself in jail. Cops raided the theatre which played home to her play Sex in 1926 for indecensy. The subsequent publicity made West a national figure, and of course, Hollywood took notice.
Paramount studios brought West to Hollywood (following her 10-day prison sentence, natch) and used her in a few bit parts before giving her a starring vehicle in She Done Him Wrong. The plot: a saloon singer named Lou (West) with too many boyfriends finds herself at the center of an elaborate criminal ring involving diamond trafficking. She manages to dodge several murder attempts from jealous men and women, before falling hard for a handsome police captain (a very young Cary Grant).
That’s about it. West’s movies didn’t gain popularity for their plots; they won over audiences for their star. She Done Him Wrong became a major hit and catapulted West to mega-stardom status. The film’s one-liners, including “Why don’t you come up some time and see me?” or “When women go wrong, men go right after them,” and “There was a time I didn’t know where my next husband was coming from,” went on to become legendary. West became a sex symbol too, noted for her curves and voluptuousness…at the ripe old age of 40.
And that, folks, is an achievement, even by today’s standards. Those drag tricks–wigs, corsets, make-up, contouring–came in handy.
We’d be remiss not to mention West’s remarkable activism here too. She became one of the first stage and screen performers to always insist on including women of color in the cast, and spoke out in favor of gay rights. As early as the 1920s, West also publicly blasted police raids and brutality against queer people, advocating for equality and acceptance of the LGBTQ community.
For that matter, it’s impossible to overstate West’s influence on Western (pardon the phrase) culture; in particular the trails she blazed for other female stars. Her mix of glamour, bawdy comedy and flirtatiousness would influence artists from Madonna to Roseanne Barr to Lizzo to Amy Schumer to Grace Jones to Bette Midler to Cardi B.
She Done Him Wrong is, without question, a dated film. That doesn’t make it any less entertaining. West’s glamourous screen charisma and penchant for snappy one-liners have made her a hit with gay audiences for decades…maybe because she spoke the language.
Streams on Amazon, YouTube & VUDU.