Best Female Performance of 1933 -Mae West (She Done Him Wrong)

Best Actress: Mae West (She Done Him Wrong)

Other Notable Performances: Barbara Stanwyck (The Bitter Tea of General Yen), Jean Harlow (Dinner at Eight), Greta Garbo (Queen Christina), Joan Blondell (Footlight Parade), Joan Blondell (Gold Diggers of 1933), Miriam Hopkins (Design for Living), May Robson (Lady for a Day).

To many, Mae West may seem to be a perverse choice in a year when Greta Garbo gave one of her best performances in Queen Christina.  But Garbo was always a little too mannered for my taste and if I didn’t choose West I would have probably picked Barbara Stanwyck or Jean Harlow ahead of Garbo.  As it is I think Mae West delivered not just the best female performance of 1933, but one of the best comedic performances of all time.  Too many critics dismiss West’s acting ability, confusing her later descent into camp irrelevance with her groundbreaking pre-Code work.  She spent much of the 1920s scandalizing New York with Broadway plays such as Sex, The Drag, and The Constant Sinner.  She brought explicit conversations about prostitution, drug use, homosexuality, and interracial relationships to the stage eventually landing the actress in jail for obscenity.  We could just shower praise on West for her revolutionary pushing of the sexual boundaries in an era with slightly fluctuating but still well-defined sexual boundaries (especially for women).

West came to Paramount in 1932 (causing much hand wringing from rival studio heads).  After she breathed life in a small part, Paramount agreed to make her Broadway hit Diamond Lil.  It emerged after months of negotiating and rewrites as She Done Him Wrong and audiences were treated with a fun picture where Mae West lampooned traditional Victorian sexual morals with her trademark wriggle and biting double entendres.  (Cary Grant: “Haven’t you ever met a man who could make you happy?” West: “Sure, lots of times.”)

She didn’t just create Lady Lou, but she created a whole persona.  She wasn’t beautiful, didn’t have a great body, and sang fairly atrociously (though not as bad as Marlene Dietrich), but she dominated every scene from every one of her costars (with the possible exception of W.C. Fields in My Little Chickadee).  She oozed sex through sheer force of will in She Done Him Wrong.  We can accept her hypersexuality or choose to interpret it as a parody of an attractive woman and sexuality, but the ambiguity of her performance is part of its strength.  She was a master of giving audiences of different sensibilities what they wanted; they could interpret what they were seeing and hearing in multiple ways and she did it no better than in She Done Him Wrong.  She balances Lou’s toughness with what is essentially a good heart.  Sure, she seduces men, takes their gifts, etc, but what harm is she doing?  When faced with real exploitation of an innocent girl, she does not look the other way.  Mae West shows respect doesn’t necessarily come from toeing the moral line of society, but from how we treat those who aren’t considered respectable.  Her Lady Lou shows it’s easy to be respectable when you never associate with disreputable people; but it’s impossible to be truly respectable if, when you do, you dismiss them or treat them badly.  Her heart goes out for the man on the bottom; the man at the top doesn’t need her help.

Mae West channeled her own frustration with society and its hypocritical morals into her performances creating a goddess of sexuality – possibly tongue in cheek, possibly not – on the screen.  She committed herself fully, sculpting her persona to take shape through every aspect of her life.  She never took off the “Mae West” mask, thus causing many critics to dismiss her talents.  She was unable and unwilling to develop anything beyond her character (with the exception of a semi-serious portrayal of Catherine the Great on the stage in the 1940s, by all accounts a major artistic flop).  But if we disregard everything after 1933 – her meteoric decline, her artistic intransigence, her Las Vegas shows, and shockingly awful decision to revive her career in her 80s with Sextette still playing the 20-something temptress  – and look at She Done Him Wrong fresh, we will see an amazingly accomplished performance by an underrated actress.

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9 Comments

Filed under 1933, Yearly Best Performances

9 responses to “Best Female Performance of 1933 -Mae West (She Done Him Wrong)

  1. This is a bold choice Jason, and one I can’t at all criticize (not that I would mind you) and you are certainly right that West is underestimated. She was a lot of fun in her celebrated role with Fields in MY LITTLE CHICKADEE, but the performance here is more substantial. I’ll go with Garbo, though both Ryan Ringyu (LITTLE TOYS) and Barbara Stanwyck push close, with Marlene Dietrich (BLONDE VENUS) and Jean Harlowe definitely in the mix.

    • I can’t argue with Garbo too much. She did a great job. I can’t assess Ryan Ringyu’s performance yet since I haven’t seen Little Toys. Blonde Venus though was released in 1932 and Dietrich made my list for that year as a runner up.

  2. Well, handsome, you got good taste. As I often say, “I’d rather be looked over than overlooked.”

    Come up and see me on Saturday night, 14 August 2010 . . . I’ll be waiting for you, Jason, at 339 West 47th Street, New York, NY . . . 10:00 PM . . . . . MaeWest.blogspot.com

  3. Pingback: Ken Russell, Chaplin, Ozu and Jean-Michel Basquiat on Monday Morning Diary (August 9) « Wonders in the Dark

  4. Wow! How strange! I am currently reading “Graham Greene: A Life in Letters”. In one of his letters, Greene (my favorite writer who was also a renowned film buff) made some glowing remarks about this film. His praise of it, and the title alone…made me think…hmmm…maybe I should check this out. And now I see this post! The universe is trying to tell me something! To Netflix!

    • It seems like the gods are indeed trying to tell you something. I’m not surprised Greene was a fan. For some reason I think she suited his sensibilities which also questioned societies sexual mores. I’m thinking of some of his short stories like “May We Borrow Your Husband?” and the one about the couple in Havana who slip into a blue movie (but I can’t remember the title of it right now). And the good news is “She Done Him Wrong” is streaming on Netflix. I’d be curious to know what you think about it and if you can better articulate what Greene was a fan of after you see the picture.

  5. Wow, Jason. Once again a movie that I “liked” has been transformed into a movie I love just by reading your thoughts on the movie. I am guilty of getting too hung up on how she did or didnt look instead of paying attention to the movie. Especially, as you brought up, when you think of the movie within the frame of it’s time, it really becomes a diamond!

    • I’m glad I could help your appreciation for Mae West and She Done Him Wrong deepen. She was a true trailblazer and a fantastic entertainer. And I don’t think she would begrudge her picture being called a diamond, something of which she was profoundly fond.

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