February 5, 1933 [She Done Him Wrong]

I must admit I'm relieved that Mae West is at once silly enough actually to be “Mae West” and calculating enough to profit by the dame she has constructed. Without that absurd lilting growl, that constant wink at the audience--invited always into the gag--without her uncanny ability to stomp around like a pie-eyed palooka while remaining encased in diamonds and silk, whalebone and powder, Mae West would be the world’s most dangerously irresistible “single entendre,” a woman only an eager-but-frightened man could invent: all sex, curving toward every floundering sap like a tossed lifeline, stupefying in her Mae-West-ness.

But is she simply a parody of male desire and fear? Because at every turn in She Done Him Wrong, she asserts her own dignity, lifting herself up like a corseted barricade, self-contained, impressed with only her ability to pose, the wit that keeps her intact, and the diamonds she has earned. She knows what she's up to, and everybody else just better keep up, or shut up.

Of course, at the end she must be disrobed--her jewels peeled off by Cary Grant, who has finally come up sometime and seen her, slipping on her finger a hilariously modest engagement ring: the last rock thrown. But the scene strikes me as mere wish-fulfillment, a dream of male relief from the nervous thought of a woman who remains herself, no matter how much she may please. When Grant as Capt. Cummings--the “Hawk”--asks, “Surely you don't object to my holding your hand?” she lets him know exactly who is disrobing whom: “It ain't heavy--I can hold it.” For all of us who want to leap into the screen and see if those diamonds are real, so to speak, she adds one more enticement: “Mae West,” bought and paid for with her own labor, take it or leave it.

And in one fell swoop, all the lookit-me flappers, blue-steel vamps and would-be-Wellesley cocktail girls are scattered like bob-tailed ponies, making ample room for Mae.


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