Mae West, She Done Him Wrong, and the Code


Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Fall 2017, Volume 16, Issue 2
http://www.americanpopularculture.com/journal/articles/fall_2017/wilson.htm

 

Leslie Kreiner Wilson
Pepperdine University


I.

In 1930, Paramount signed Mae West to a contract for a supporting role in Night After Night (1932), directed by Archie Mayo, starring George Raft and Constance Cummings. The role may have been small, but it was vital – it was also a way for Adolph Zukor and others at Paramount to test West's appeal on screen following her stage success. Soon, the script ran into trouble, delaying production by four weeks. Once the studio felt the script was ready, they gave it to West – who flatly rejected it. According to Zukor, "She had always written her own material and this was not the Mae West of her creation" (267). Executive Al Kaufman took West and her manager, Jim Timony, out for a nice dinner with a dash of persuasion. At the end of the evening, "Mae opened her handbag, took out a check, and handed it to Al. It was for twenty thousand dollars – her salary up to date" (Zukor 268). She told Kaufman she was leaving for New York; he told her she could rewrite her part. She did, and in Night After Night she "stole the show" with one particularly memorable line (268). A cloakroom girl exclaims, "Goodness, what beautiful diamonds." West as Maude Triplett replies, "Goodness had nothing to do with it." Zukor reflected in his autobiography years later, "It seemed to me that the incident described above portrays the true Mae West – honest, direct, extremely knowledgeable in her craft" (269). The line was memorable enough for the title of her autobiography; it was also memorable enough – in conjunction with her stageplays – to put her in the crosshairs of censors and citizen activists as she approached the script and starring role for her next film She Done Him Wrong (1933), directed by Lowell Sherman.

The late 1920s and early 1930s encompassed significant film industry as well as American cultural changes: the advent of talkies, the stock market crash followed by the Great Depression, Prohibition (1920-1933), the escalation of anti-Semitism, the rise of social activism — especially among Catholic and women's groups, the growth of Hollywood — and the excision of women from that very industry, fears concerning feminism and the fallen woman, the continuing shift from Victorian ladyhood to the New Woman in the wake of women gaining the right to vote in 1920, the increase of women working outside of the home, the adoption of the "Don'ts and Be Carefuls" (1927), the writing of a Production Code (1930), and the instatement of Joseph I. Breen to head a stricter regime with the Production Code Administration (PCA; 1934). All of these changes created a climate of concern about what the public should see in the most popular form of mass entertainment: film.

This article analyzes the various social and censorship forces that formed a maelstrom around one woman writer – Mae West – as she worked to preserve and protect the original intention, theme, characterization, and artistry in her material. I argue that the obstacles and complications she faced from citizen activists, censors, and executives had less to do with the ostensible reasons given and more to do with an understanding that the revolutionary work women like West were producing would upset a certain balance of power in America. Throughout this article, I provide archival correspondence from censors and activists, autobiographical reflections, and analysis of archival drafts of the script for She Done Him Wrong to substantiate this claim. These sources show — while others worked to block scripts such as She Done Him Wrong from being produced and thus protect the status quo — women like West were engaged in a writing revolution, what I like to call "writing on the edge."

For those readers who may not be familiar with the history of Hollywood censorship agencies, activists, and correspondence, let me pause to adumbrate it: reacting to public backlash regarding behavior both on screen and off, their desire for Wall Street financiers and stockholders to view their industry as stable, and their own immigrant desire for respectability, movie moguls elected to self-regulate, forming the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) and appointing Will Hays to run it in 1922 (Jacobs 27). A few years later, Hays formed the Studio Relations Committee (SRC) — first headed by Jason Joy then James Wingate — to be the Hollywood division of the MPPDA, based in New York (Vasey 103). In 1927, Hays encouraged Irving Thalberg, Jason Joy, and others to work on censorship guidelines, which they called the "Don'ts and Be Carefuls" (Vieira 73). Later, the general guidelines were updated by Father Daniel A. Lord and Martin Quigley — then ratified in 1930 as the "Production Code" (Couvares 4). In the wake of the Great Depression, desperate studios in the red — or nearing it — started releasing more progressive material, starring such actresses as Jean Harlow in Red-Headed Woman (1932) and Red Dust (1932) as well as Mae West in She Done Him Wrong (1933), I'm No Angel (1933), and Belle of the Nineties (1934) in order to increase box office revenues. These films further inflamed the religious and moral traditionalists who — disheartened over their impending loss of prohibition in 1933 — turned their reformist enthusiasm to more oversight in the film industry. Responding to these demands to escalate censorship stringency, Hays disbanded the SRC and replaced it with the Production Code Administration (PCA), appointing conservative Irish-Catholic Joseph I. Breen as chief in 1934 (Leff and Simmons 43-44; Doherty 69). Studios were required to have a PCA seal of approval for films to be screened at member theaters, and the jury appeal system to fellow industry producers was revoked (Mooney 61).

As mentioned, this outcry against Hollywood and its product was largely driven by Christian — especially Catholic — protests against the perceived sinful behavior of those living and working in the Hollywood colony as well as actual motion picture content. Indeed, the entire history of Hollywood — from silent pictures to contemporary movies and criticism, film studies classes, screenwriting workshops, even global politics — has been fraught with concerns over the creative imagination, the values conveyed through celebrity culture, motion pictures, and their subsequent impact on audiences. As but one example, Saudi Arabia has only recently decided to re-open movie theaters in 2018 after a thirty-five year ban (Cowell and Kirkpatrick). It will be interesting to see which movies may be shown and what censorship may be employed in the coming years.
             
A corollary impact of this study is that it lends another voice to the few film scholars who have challenged the long-held assumption that all studio executives ignored SRC and other censorship notes. This view has been remarkably persistent despite the archival evidence. A careful analysis of the correspondence and actual script drafts, reveals that some writers, filmmakers, and executives were subjected to censorship and did indeed make story changes to accommodate code notes before 1934, the date some film historians mark as the point at which censorship began. My research reveals that there were exceptions — pockets of executives such as those at Paramount, as but one instance — who did try to accommodate the SRC and others, at least to some extent. Analyzing the notes and script changes allows us to reach a more full, precise, accurate, and nuanced account of the writing, working lives of writers like West during this period.

What were some of the fears that drove the vitriol writers such as Mae West faced? In her article, "Mothering the Movies: Women Reformers and Popular Culture," Alison M. Parker explains that organizations such as the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) organized and acted as a result of consternation regarding nickelodeons and then films, which they believed encouraged the youth of the nation toward immoral activities, such as criminal acts, bootlegging, prostitution, the drinking of alcohol, antisocial actions, and sexually promiscuous behavior.

According to Parker, the WCTU "waged its battle for movie censorship with the rhetoric of child-saving" (73). The organization argued that movies were addictive and caused an "elation" that could lead to juvenile delinquency. So assured were they that films had become the dominant force on the lives of children, they changed the name of the Department for the Promotion of Purity in Literature and Arts in 1925 to the Motion Picture Department. The WCTU continued their activities of giving speeches, publishing articles, disseminating a quarterly journal, and meeting with political players, but once the pictures starring Jean Harlow and Mae West came out in the early 1930s, they lost their patience and tossed aside Jason Joy's conciliatory letter published in a 1928 edition of their journal, the Union Signal.

The women of the WCTU viewed themselves as "surrogate parents," and their mission, their calling was to help "neglected children" who needed "protection from undesirable films" (Parker 85). With no faith in the film industry to self-regulate, the WCTU administrators and membership "sent a resolution to Congress asserting that the motion picture industry had been given ample time to demonstrate its dedication to ‘clean' films and had failed to do so" (85). The resolution stated the following:

WHEREAS, Present-day methods have proven entirely inadequate to meet the situation, and many pictures shown on the screen depict crime and immorality, scoff at Prohibition and establish false standards of social life, thus signally failing to transmit the best, Therefore Be It Resolved, That we respectfully request that your honorable body enact a law for the federal supervision of motion pictures, establishing higher standards, before production for films that are to be licensed for interstate and international commerce. (qtd. in Parker 86)

The WCTU enlisted many other groups of like mind to press lawmakers on behalf of this cause as well. By 1933, their petition drive obtained 100,000 signatures. The national director, Maude Aldrich, then sent these signatures along with personal letters to Congressmen. Due in large part to the fact that they were losing – or had lost, depending on the exact date in question – their fight regarding Prohibition in 1933 when the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed, they found a new cause worth fighting for: the censoring of films. As evidence of this fact, member rhetoric transferred from prohibitionist in nature to remarks such as the following: "[M]otion pictures are having a far more injurious effect upon public morals in general than the saloon ever had" (qtd. in Parker 87).

In Go West, Young Women! The Rise of Early Hollywood, Hilary Hallett documents "how the bucolic backwater of Hollywood, California, became HOLLYWOOD, an industry and a place that specialized in shaping people's fantasies and fears about modern times" (4). Another reason behind some of this fear was the growth, the sheer size of the industry and thus its impact on the nation as well as the world. The film industry was not just the "largest business on the Pacific Coast," it was the fourth largest industry in the country following the first World War (8).

Anti-Semitism also may have played a part in these fears concerning Hollywood and film content. In Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer, Scott Eyman explains that moguls such as Mayer had been criticized for not wanting to seem "too Jewish," not using their power against the Nazis and fascism, not supporting Zionism. Mayer, and those like him, hoped to retain their power by exhibiting a Christian or Catholic point of view, an "American" sensibility. During the early twentieth century, Eyman argues, the California right was "suspicious" of Jews. He reports, as one instance, that a "state committee on un-American activities" was concerned by the fact that there were a high number of Jewish directors working in the industry (Eyman 342). The new head of the PCA in 1934, Breen, seemed to share these anxieties and suspicions. In a letter to a Catholic priest, he wrote the following about Hollywood personnel:

[They are] a rotten bunch of vile people with no respect for anything beyond the making of money. Here we have paganism rampant in its most virulent form. Drunkenness and debauchery are commonplace. Sexual perversion is rampant…any number of our directors and stars are perverts. Ninety-five percent of these folks are Jews of an Eastern European lineage. They are, probably, the scum of the earth. (qtd. in Eyman 342-343)

Other political and religious leaders revealed that same anti-Semitic viewpoint throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Father Charles Coughlin warned congregations against "world Jewish domination" (qtd. in Eyman 343). In 1941, Senator Gerald Nye of North Dakota asked, "Are you ready to send your boys to bleed and die in Europe, to make the world safe for Barney Balaban and Adolph Zukor and Joseph Schenck?" (343). Such questions were obviously rhetorical and intended to turn Americans against support of Hollywood as well as support for the Jews in Germany and elsewhere. The desire to please stockholders, the desire to appear stable to New York financiers, the desire for respectability and stature in their adopted country, as well as the desire to make a conciliatory gesture toward citizen activist groups, religious organizations, Congress, state and local governments — all of these forces combined to manifest the moguls' point of view and ultimately governed the actions that they took regarding censorship, actions that would affect their writers. One can certainly sympathize with their plight: most of them had immigrated from countires where they had seen first hand what can happen to a people if popular sentiment as well as governments turn against them.

Hallett asserts that Hollywood also contributed to the concept of the "New Woman" who "challenged different aspects of Victorian ladyhood" (11). Some of these changes were the result of women working outside of the home. Mary Pickford remarked, "I think I admire most in the world the girls who earn their own living. I am proud to be one of them" (qtd. in Hallett 70). Research reveals that the "number of adult wage-earning women shot from 2.6 to 10.8 million between 1890 and 1920" (11). These women threatened men by taking their jobs, but also by earning their own money and supporting themselves, which gave them a certain independence. Working women were also out and about town and not under the watchful family or chaperone eye. Not only were women working in Hollywood but they were also shown working on screen — sometimes in very glamorous circumstances — with nice clothes, authority, self-determination, and autonomy. All very appealing attributes to young people. In his autobiography, Zukor compliments West, for example, as a "durable trouper…for the powerful lift she gave us out of the depression mire" (267). "Neither the sweet ingénue nor the glamor girl fit the depression years. Mae did," he explains (267). According to Zukor, "She was the strong confidant woman, always in command," writing most of her own material. Others agree that West was a "feminist icon," especially because she was "financially self-supporting" (Schuyler 9).

As we know, the nineteenth amendment passed in 1920, strengthening women's political power in addition to their economic advancements. When Universal City was incorporated, they elected actress Laura Oakley as police chief and director Lois Weber its mayor (Hallett 78). Female movie stars, writers, and producers "invited their female fans to identify with a protagonist" who was "liberated from…economic dependence and the cult of domesticity" (12). Hallett calls these adventuresome heroines — writing novels, riding horses, climbing cliffs, shooting guns, automobiling — the "New Western Woman" (12). She also notes that the reach of films coupled with this kind of publicity worldwide explains "why so many young women and their elders around the world came to view what happened inside the little movie colony as having consequences for their own lives" — both positive and negative (12). "By the early 1920s," Hallett reminds us, "Photoplay claimed that women composed 75 percent of movie fans" (71). She also points out that the "just plain fun" and romantic adventures in film plotlines as well as Hollywood publicity material created an aura of "Hollywood Bohemia," which "intensified anxieties about the manners and morals of the rising generation of modern girls" (17), especially dismay about the "countrified naïfs brought to ruin in the city" (21). From the very early days, the censors even had the Supreme Court on their side when, in a unanimous decision, the judges ruled that free speech did not extend to motion pictures, effectively upholding Ohio's 1913 statute forming a censorship board in Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio (1915) (see Jowett).

Lea Jacobs began her study Wages of Sin with a quote from Jason Joy written to Harry Cohn at Columbia. Joy wrote, "The important thing is to leave the audience with the definite conclusion that immorality is not justifiable, that society is not wrong in demanding certain standards of its women, and that the guilty woman, through realization of her error, does not tempt other women in the audience to follow her course" (qtd. in Jacobs 3). Jacobs asserts, "Reformers argued that films exercised a pernicious influence [especially] upon women" by "undermin[ing] normative definitions of femininity" (3). In other words, reformers were concerned with "female spectatorship," "how films might affect women" in particular (3). She states that "newspapers and magazines depicted Hollywood as a cause and potential site of female delinquency" (4). Reformers feared "sexual deviance among female spectators" influenced by the various incarnations of the fallen woman film (5). Censors were aware of that sentiment and advised producers accordingly.

The rising tide of feminism along with the work of the suffragettes regarding women's right to vote also threatened radical change. According to Hallett, "This interest in women's broader cultural freedoms…provided opportunities to attach feminists as ‘sex radicals' and ‘free lovers,' who sought nothing less than the destruction of the family, the foundations of society" (92). Stories published by such gossip columnists as Louella Parsons reporting on public divorces like that of Mary Pickford from Owen Moore — followed less than a month later by her quick marriage to Douglas Fairbanks — further intensified the terror among traditionalists. Perhaps summarizing the era's dread most succinctly, when asked in an interview for Photoplay by Adela Rogers St. John, "Are you afraid of women?", Fatty Arbuckle replied, "You bet I am" (qtd. in Hallet 213). By the late 1930s and early 1940s, this kind of fear inspired the femme fatale of film noir. Of course, the death of actress Virginia Rappe just four days after one of Arbuckle's notorious parties — a death that ruined his onscreen career — increased the fervor of censors who sought to reform the industry that, from their point of view, was rife with corruption.

Before long, there was not only a national censoring board but also a morals clause in actor contracts:

The artist agrees to conduct himself with due regard to public conventions and morals and agrees that he will not do or commit any act or thing that will tend to degrade him in society or bring him public hatred, contempt, scorn, or ridicule, or that will tend to shock, insult or offend the community or ridicule public morals or decency or prejudice the producer or the motion picture industry in general. (qtd. in Leff and Simmons 5)

Studios were serious about keeping their industry alive, keeping the investors and the profits coming in, and agreed to "clean up" Hollywood to keep the citizenry at bay. Of course, actors signed while scoffing; they ridiculed other situations as well. In one infamous story, Charlie Chaplin is said to have mounted a "Welcome Will Hays" sign in his studio — over the door of the men's room (Leff and Simmons 6).

Amidst this zeitgeist of fear over moral issues and women's roles within that milieu, Mae West wrote her plays, novels, and photoplays. In what follows, we track her journey through screenwriting, censorship, and the adaptation of her play Diamond Lil to the screen as She Done Him Wrong. What we will find are a transformative plotline and female characterization, a story that challenged the status quo in America – even after SRC notes were given and changes made. That challenge – more so than the sexual or criminal activity in the plot – was the true source of fury from censors and activists who professed to clean up screen content but actually sought something far more serious: to block significant social change.

 

II.

Late April of 1932, Will Hays sent a letter to Jason Joy stating that the popular West play Diamond Lil had been banned for adaptation to film. Thus, the cunning Adolph Zukor changed the name of the script, but Hays — not to be fooled — mailed him a letter in October explaining that Zukor could not simply change the title and that screenplays with such names as Diamonds or Diamond Lady would likewise not be registered, nor approved, by the MPPDA.

Having no access to this last letter and acting on rumor alone, the very next day H.M. Warner wrote an outraged telegram to Hays: "Please wire immediately whether I can believe my ears that Paramount has arranged to make Diamond Lil with Mae West…Recollect that it was absolutely definite that Diamond Lil…was not to be produced…I am not sending this wire as a protest but I want to know how to run our business in the future."
                 
Hays responded to Warner that same day: "On October fifth nineteen thirty-two we heard report that Paramount considered making Diamond Lil and on that day communicated with Mister Zukor explaining situation…On October seventh Paramount withdrew suggestion of making Diamond Lil and advised us they would not even submit question to Board but would abandon the production…Believe situation plainly understood by Paramount and that there is no danger of their violation of the agreement."
           
As we now know, Hays had no reason to be so confident. As Simon Louvish has documented, Zukor had every intention of moving forward with Mae West (209-214). In an early November telegram addressed to Hays – written in code with a translation below the text – James Wingate stated: "Lowell Sherman just advised he has been engaged by Paramount to make ‘Diamond Lil.' He has requested us to go over the material and list objectionable things. We informed him that according to last advice from your office story was still unusable and on Banned list…Until we receive instructions from you that picture is suitable story material and permitted to be made by your office we feel we should not touch the matter. Please advise immediately."

The production code file next has a 5 November 1932 note from JPH to Colonel: "Zukor and Hertz promised that they will abandon ‘Diamond Lil' and will make an announcement to that effect tonight. They have also notified Emanuel Cohn on the Coast to that effect. This does not prevent Mae West, however, (who is under contract) from writing another story and having it presented. If that is done, Maurice suggested that you first read the script unofficially and if there is nothing in it of the ‘Diamond Lil' nature you can have it presented to the office officially. There has been so much talk about ‘Diamond Lil' that Maurice wants it watched most carefully."
           
While Zukor and West were willing to change the sex trafficking and white slavery plotline to more innocuous crimes such as counterfeiting and thievery as well as substitute prostitution with onstage performing, singing and dancing, Zukor had no intention of abandoning the project altogether as Paramount faced bankruptcy and receivership in the wake of the expensive transition to sound and the Great Depression. From 1930 to 1933, over 9000 banks closed taking between two and three billion dollars of deposits with them. In 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt promised a "New Deal" for America, and Paramount wanted a new deal as well. A 9 November 1932 letter from Paramount's Tom Bailey to Wingate, asking for reaction to the script Ruby Red, proves as much — the plotline and character names were similar to those of Diamond Lil.
           
In a letter from Harold Hurley to William Le Baron with "Mr. Cohen," "Mr. Hammell," and "Dr. Wingate" cc'd, Hurley recommended the following changes for Paramount to consider:

Change Rita and Juarez to Americans from the Barbary Coast so as not to offend Spanish speaking people and people of South America.

Change character names especially Diamond Lil [in the film she is called Lady Lou] because using the same names makes it very clear that the script is basically Diamond Lil.

Eliminate the following dialogue: "I ain't runnin' no Sunday school"; "Shows I must be pretty good, eh, Flynn?"; "Diamond Lil was his woman"; "Diamond Lil would do anything for diamonds, eh?"; "Don't worry. It ain't heaven!"; "I'd give if you'd stop holdin' psalm–singing meetin's under my window when I'm trying to sleep"; "For God's sake, don't!"; "Now – you can be had!"; "I gotta have you, Lil. I must have you"; "– your whole reforming crowd"; "That's why you're out to reform folks"; "Enter a convent"; "Gawd! You've gotta give a man more than clothes"; "an attack of religion"; "I always knew you could be had."

Eliminate scene of Spider Kane (Dewey Robinson) watching Lil get dressed.

A few of these changes were made, and by late November of 1932 Will Hays knew the code name "Ruby Red" and wrote a letter to Zukor urging him to stop production on the film until the script had gone through the proper registration and approval process. Five days later, Hays sent a second letter advising Zukor not to use "Diamond Lil" in the advertising of Ruby Red.

By the end of November, the SRC had seen the script for Ruby Red, and in a letter to Hurley, Wingate wrote that the picture had been cleared, but requested the following changes, for example: eliminate reference to white slavery; make it clear that no man has "kept" the principal character; do not use a regulation Salvation Army uniform for Captain Cummings; be careful with rear of horse and street sweeper gag in the opening montage; cut "gawd" throughout; cut "why the last guy she had," "now you can be had," "I always knew you could be had," "Lou, I've got to have you," and "you've got to give a man more than clothes."

In a 3 December 1932 letter from Wingate to Hurley, Wingate stated that he "would like to compliment the studio" on the job they had done with the changes, but he did request three more cuts in dialogue: "the last guy she had"; "day or night work, Rosie?"; "I've got to have you." While Wingate praised Paramount, he nevertheless warned of censor boards and suggested clearing the character of Lady Lou with the law at the end of the picture as well as cutting her line to Cummings, suggesting that "hands ain't everything." The studio complied with the former request, but not the latter.

In an undated letter to Hays, Paramount general manager and Vice President through January 1932, then President of Fox in 1933, Sidney Kent, wrote:

I went last night to see the Mae West picture, SHE DONE HIM WRONG. In my opinion it is the worst I have seen. It was the real story of Diamond Lil and they got away with it. They promised that that story would not be made. I believe it is worse than Red Headed Woman from the standpoint of the industry – it is far more suggestive in word and what is not said is suggested in action.

I cannot understand how your people on the Coast could let this get by. There is very little that any of us can do now. I think the place to have done anything was at the source.

Some had concerns over the song lyrics as well. Although Paramount had submitted them for SRC review, a 3 February 1933 telegram from V.G. Hart to Wingate reads: "Severe criticism with reference song, ‘Slow Motion Man'. Have you analyzed words of song. Wire immediately your reaction to having song eliminated here before opening next week." In a later February letter, Hays also suggested that Paramount delete the middle of the song "A Man Who Takes His Time."
           
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Margaret Herrick Library has four drafts of Ruby Red, all typed on legal size paper with a two-column format, action on left, dialogue and sound on right. The plot concerns a dance hall singer, Lou (Mae West) who helps the people of the Bowery and the mission next door only to discover that her boss and admirer has been exploiting young women and counterfeiting money. He is arrested by an undercover federal investigator — the Hawk — the missionary Captain Cummings (Cary Grant).

The 8 November 1932 draft, credited to Mae West and John Bright, ends with the following scene:


LOU: You makin' me think I was a lost soul or somthin'. Me layin' off my diamonds one by one – my paint and powder – layin' awake nights thinkin' I wasn't good enough for you. And you – just a common ordinary cop. All right, Mr. Policeman, do your business. Give me the bracelets. They'll be a new kind of jewelry for me.

Cummings watches her steadily without replying.

[LOU:] Well, what are you standing there for? What are you waiting for? You want me, don't you?

He crosses to her and takes him in his arms.

CUMMINGS: You know I want you.

Lou struggles slightly in his arms.

LOU: What are you trying to do to me? You know what I am, don't you?

CUMMINGS: (Warmly) I know better than you think I do. I know that giving Jacobsen's Hall to the Mission isn't the only good thing you've done.

LOU: I didn't do it for them, I did it for you.

Cummings draws her close.

CUMMINGS: Then you'll believe me when I tell you that I'm mad about you – I want you.
           
Lou's arms go about his neck.

LOU: Oh, I always knew you could be had!    (C-13–C-14)
                                                         

The last draft, called the "second revised final script" has "She Done Him Wrong" penciled in beside Ruby Red. Dated 28 November 1932, Harvey Thew had been added to the writing credits and more of the character names had been changed.

In the 17 January 1933 She Done Him Wrong "Release Dialogue Script," the ending changes to the following:  


LOU: I think I'd a-liked the wagon better.

CUMMINGS: Yeah. I suppose you'd rather have the company of your friends, such as they are.

LOU: Well, you ain't exactly a pal.

CUMMINGS: Well, surely you don't mind my holding your hand.

LOU: It ain't heavy. I can hold it myself. You know, this is a dirty trick, and I could get real sore if I didn't have a lot of self control.

CUMMINGS: Well, so do I, but I'm beginning to lose it. You know, you remind me of a glittering palace of ice.

LOU: I ain't ice.

CUMMINGS: I didn't say you were, but your diamonds are all going to the storehouse.

LOU: You said I had a soul. I looked for it, but I didn't find it.

CUMMINGS: You will.

LOU: Where, in jail?

CUMMINGS: No, that's not the place for you.

LOU: Well, you got me, ain't you?

CUMMINGS: Yeah, I got you. You're my prisoner and I'm going to be your jailer for a long, long time.

He puts a ring on her finger.

LOU: Oh, yeah?

CUMMINGS: Yeah, and you can start doing that stretch right now.

CLOSEUP ring on Lou's engagement finger.

SEMI CLOSEUP Lou and Cummings

LOU: Where'd you get that, dark and handsome?

CUMMINGS: You bad girl!

LOU: Umm, you'll find out.

They kiss. (reel 7, page 8)


Regardless of the efforts made by the writers and executives, censors were not satisfied with this new ending. Their dissatisfaction indicates that their objections ran far deeper than the sexual innuendo and criminal activity. Here, they were handed the containment narrative concerning the marriage and the law that they had asked for, yet they knew West's persona outpaced it. As Jill Watts states, Mae West "critiques the dominant culture's assumptions about…gender" (147), which threatened to topple conventional societal structure of the 1930s. Joan Mellen asserts that West is "defiant and self-sufficient, seeking mastery over her life. It is this latter aspect of the West personality that is revolutionary. It projects a uniquely free image of women rare for Hollywood" in the thirties (659). Likewise, Ramona Curry observes that West plays a "clever woman" who "asserts control over her personal and professional destiny" (59). Her performances were also influenced by African American entertainers, which threatened to elide the lines of distinction concerning race in America (see Robertson, especially 34-37).

After the initial release of the picture and the 1934 instatement of the stricter PCA under Breen, Paramount asked for a seal for the films released prior to the new policies. An 8 February 1935 letter from Hays to Zukor asked that a list of pictures be withdrawn from distribution — that list included She Done Him Wrong. Breen agreed and followed Hays's letter with one of his own in late September. Addressed to Mr. John Hammell at Paramount, Breen wrote, "We witnessed this afternoon a projection room showing of your production SHE DONE HIM WRONG, and I am sending this to suggest under the general head of good and welfare, that you withdraw your application for the certification of this picture under the Production Code." He went on to explain, "It is our judgment that the picture is so thoroughly and completely in violation of the Code that we cannot, in conscience, approve it." For Breen, "The whole flavor of the picture is in direct violation of all that we have been trying to do by way of the Code during the past eighteen or twenty months." He concluded, "Of course, if the people in New York are not disposed to adopt this suggestion which I make unofficially to withdraw the picture from consideration by the Production Code Administration, please notify me to the effect. I shall then definitely reject the picture and you may take an appeal from our decision to the Board of Directors of the Association in New York." In a 7 October 1935 letter to Hays, Breen called the picture "definitely wrong."

By 1935, a film that had squeaked through the review process was no longer considered acceptable. What had happened in the last two years to create a more adamant backlash against pictures featuring sophisticated, intelligent, independent women — women who defied convention — even if they were "contained" by SRC notes in the final scene? As mentioned earlier, the failure of prohibition and fears concerning women's changing roles in society turned reformist energies to motion pictures. West's defiance of a woman's conventional place in society enraged those who sought control and maintenance of traditional gender roles.

 

III.

Hollywood audiences were certainly used to containment narratives – they even appeared on the pages of fan magazines. For example, the January 1932 edition of Photoplay featured an anonymous work on actress Dorothy MacKaill "Well, That's Settled: We've finally got Dorothy and Richard married without much fuss or orange blossoms." The piece opens, "‘I'm not going to marry Neil Miller until he gets a job,' Dorothy Mackaill told us two months ago. ‘I'm not going to marry until I find a girl who wants babies and is a good sport,' Richard Dix told us five years ago. Well, Neil got a job and Dorothy married him. And, while we haven't overheard the private conversations of Richard Dix and his bride, Richard seems to be satisfied" (27). The piece then recounts MacKaill's previous love interests; thus, the plot of the story acts much like the plot of the West film in containing the "bad" girl. This narrative trajectory can be seen in other work as well.

The February 1932 issue features an article by Eulalia Wilson entitled "The Man That Gloria Married." Copy introducing the articles states, "The author, a celebrated figure of international social sets, says Gloria will need all her intelligence, versatility and cleverness to keep her new husband interested and happy" (28). After dismissing Swanson for her three divorces and putting her career first, Wilson writes of her new marriage to Francis Michael Farmer, "If she is wise she will embrace this new romance, throw herself into it whole-heartedly, make her life over and wring out of the years to come all the happiness, every joy she has denied herself or been denied, and cast her career aside" (28). The author continues, "if she is in love really and at last awakened — she can weave into this new romance all the thrilling tales she has ever dreamed of complete happiness" (28). Rather than the awakening to self that Edna Pontellier experiences in Kate Chopin's 1899 novel, Wilson advocates that Swanson's awakening move in exactly the opposite direction: she must renounce her career as an actress and subsume herself in the role of wife and, one assumes, mother. Swanson's work, Wilson argues, has denied the actress true happiness.
           
Moreover, the task of keeping Farmer will take Swanson's "every waking moment" as her husband attends races, horse shows, polo matches, "smart tennis gatherings, yachting at Cowes…riding to hounds in the shires of England and in the forests of France" (28-29). He will also be a "guest of the wealthy chateau owners…for shooting parties, skiing, skating, and Cresta at St. Moritz" (29). Farmer travels in the social set of "the most sophisticated, highly placed nobility of England, of France and Italy and the social registrites of America" (29). He "attends" the "most elegant ‘parties,' held in the most magnificent homes" (29). Some of the highlights of these events include "garden loggias," "lovely lakes," a staged "Venetian fete," "guests in Longhi costumes," "dominoes," costumes by the "great couturiers of Paris," as well as "Siamese" dancers (29). Wilson lists the great gentlemen and ladies Farmer has "been in the set of," including duchesses, countesses, princesses, dukes, and princes (29).
                 
She concludes her article by asking the following questions about Swanson: "Will she be interested to compete with the sophisticated women of the world of wealth, society and leisure she has been impersonating for years on the screen, and how will she succeed? What is her equipment?" Wilson answers her questions thus: Swanson "must learn to play, to let herself be happy, to rest on her laurels and to make her future gloriously happy and successful as a companion and playmate as well as a wife" (110). The article dismisses Swanson's professional accomplishments and suggests her only happiness must be as a companion, playmate, and wife. I might add that the term playmate offers the final blow as it infantilizes an adult, career woman.

The March 1932 issue of Photoplay featured a follow-up short story by Leonard Hall. Titled "The Ex-Mr. Swanson Club," the story brings Wallace Beery, Herbert Somborn, and Henri de la Falaise together for a meal at the "Brown Derby Restaurant, on Vine Street, in Hollywood" (32). The men begin by composing a telegram to Swanson's new husband, "Dear Mike comma congratulations and best wishes for a wonderful honeymoon period You have undertaken a great and noble career and one that will demand all your fortitude period We all wish you better luck than we had period Love and kisses from the Swanson alumni meeting at the Brown Derby" (32). They then proceed to argue as to what her nickname is "Toot," "Bunny," and "Snookums" are all in contention – likewise infantilizing – when the dispute ends up in a brawl with the men throwing boiled potatoes, two hard rolls, and a salt shaker at one another while Henri sings the "Marseillaise." Again, the message is clear. Swanson is ridiculous, a difficult diva who will "demand all your fortitude" to contend with, unless, of course, she settles down and becomes a good, dutiful wife, one who does not drive men crazy (33).

 

IV.

According to West in her autobiography Goodness Had Nothing to Do with It, Paramount initially balked at Diamond Lil and did not believe a picture set in the "gay nineties" would be a success. West threatened to return to New York, but eventually persuaded Emanuel Cohen to give the play a chance. "You didn't read it," she told him, "but here is a play that broke all box office records in the legitimate theatres. Even the records of Lenore Ulric in Lulu Belle, Jeanne Eagels in Rain, the Barrymores in The Jest" (159). She went on to argue that the new fashions and nineteenth century saloon hall setting would start a trend, and "this town likes trends" (159). The film was indeed an overwhelming success and catapulted West into international superstardom. While the witticism and the fashions were certainly appealing, West's class critique connected with audiences still reeling from the economic collapse. As Watts explains, "Lou rejected the rich and their affluence. While affirming the American belief in independence and self-reliance, Lou, like Lil, discovers that her diamonds are meaningless — that they have no soul" (162). Furthermore, they were obtained by counterfeiting money and through illicit means that hurt young girls. As Lou "begins to free herself from her worldly possessions, she finds herself nearing her goal" (162). Watts believes the "message was subtle," but "it still stood as a reminder that happiness and fulfillment did not always lie in the material and that ‘goodness had nothing to do with' wealth" – "West gave a much needed boost to a people who had lost so much and struggled with so little" during the depression (162).

Despite the change in the ending, West's persona ultimately transcends that or any other containment narrative forced on her by censors. Some may argue this new resolution undercuts much of the progressive nature of Mae West's narrative from Diamond Lil. The character was a self-determined, strong business woman who chose her men and her lifestyle, just like she chose the songs she would sing on stage. This revised ending, they might assert, disciplines Lady Lou and brings her into alignment with societal convention. Her diamonds will be confiscated by the government; she will have to make do with the one small ring Cummings gives her; and she will be a "prisoner" with a "jailer for a long, long time." Those same critics might argue that the transgressive commentary concerning gender dissolves under the weight of this traditionalist closure.

James McCourt reminds us — in admittedly hyperbolic prose — of West's eminent stature when he writes, "As surely as do Aristophanes, Molière, and Oscar Wilde, Mae West belongs in the Western canon. Her name alone would demand it, did not the magniloquent benevolence and attested prodigal generosity of her art and her life make her beyond dispute the finest American comedic metabolist who ever walked the streets" (55). Indeed, West's "generosity" includes a defiance of patriarchal authority as well as class judgments, which allows for alternative interpretations of the ending. Her writing and performance encourage a kind of resistant spectator to read against the grain. Her work also invites that spectator to read beyond the final scene as well as into her actual lived lifestyle. As Cynthia Felando notes, "there is no suggestion that she will be a docile wife" with this new ending to the film (454). Felando goes on to assert that West's screenplay enacts "a surprising combination of sexual satire and moral uplift that toyed mercilessly with conventional masculine and feminine" stereotypes (454). That "toying" would likewise influence the exegesis of the final scene.

When we are first introduced to Lady Lou, she rides down the street in an open, horse-drawn carriage with two uniformed drivers. As she passes, many bow and wave to her. She represents a kind of queen in the Bowery with her brocade gown, feather accents on her hat, jewel necklace, as well as sheer, decorative parasol. Even the manner in which she holds her head conveys a stately presence — less a dictator and more a kindly godmother for the people of the neighborhood — nodding to each as she passes. Despite her kindness to those who surround her, two older women stiffen as she rides by. In contrast to Lady Lou, who wears a scooped neckline, these two matrons are smothered up to their chins with fur and feathers — their expensive clothes also marking them as upper class — perhaps only in the Bowery to check in with their furrier. They hold their heads back, literally looking down their noses and frowning at Lou as she rides by, then turning their backs to the carriage. Lou moves only her eyes toward them, then rolls her eyes in disgust. The image of her riding on plays metaphorically for the viewer — we watch as Lou glides past, dismisses, and thus defeats class injustice such as this snub by women more well placed in society than she. Some viewers are inspired by her ability to carry herself in a dignified manner, never slouching or withering under the criticism of others.

As Lou dismounts from the carriage and walks toward the saloon concert hall, she passes a working class woman and her little boy. Lou caresses his chin and greets him, "Hello Mickey." His mother responds, "Ah, Lady Lou, you're a fine gal, a fine woman." From this comment, we infer that she has done something to help these two. In classic Westian humor, West replies, "One of the finest women ever walked the streets." While most film historians and reformers have concentrated on the sexual innuendo and hint of prostitution that comes through in this line, I would assert that it can be read in another more hospitable way as well. With this statement, Lou refers to herself as the "finest" then ironically undercuts this word choice with self-deprecating humor. On the one hand, she concedes that she does do nice things for the people of the Bowery and very literally is "one of the finest women" in her neighborhood, doing good deeds. On the other hand, she understands the judgments of those such as the women she had just passed in her carriage and their view of her as little more than a prostitute. Note that the self-deprecation also works to reveal her character as humble. Lou dismisses the woman's comment and steps off the pedestal to look eye to eye with her neighbor as equals. In other words, Lou brushes off the compliment and deflects it with a joke — a very warm and humanizing characteristic that West subtly employs throughout her screenwriting and performances.

When Lou enters the saloon and passes the working class women cleaning the tables, she greets them, "How are the girls today, huh?" While many in her position might not bother with the "help," Lady Lou makes this effort to be of good cheer, to be friendly to everyone, and never to put on airs with the less fortunate. The women smile at her and appreciate her addressing them just as the couple had smiled and nodded as they pass her talking to the mother and boy outside the saloon in the previous scene. In other words, West is very deliberate and calculating with the construction, characterization, and writing of Lou. She presents the character as one of the working class who provides assistance for those who are poor; West also presents Lou as one who suffers under the same class judgments of those who surround her despite the fact that she has been able to earn a better living than most through her work as a performer on stage.

After she goes up to her room to change, her maid Pearl (Louise Beavers) jokes that Lou is lucky never to have had the wolf at her door. Lou again uses the same ironic, undercutting device and self-deprecating humor she used with the woman and boy. "Wolf at my door," she retorts, "why I remember when he came right into my room and had pups." With this deft rhetorical move, Lou (and West) endears herself to those who have had financial struggles of their own or otherwise relate to working class strife. While this film was set in the 1890s, it was released on the heels of the depression; 1933 was a very difficult year for many families.

As another example, when a young girl named Sally (Rochelle Hudson), enters the saloon and attempts suicide, it is Lou who takes care of her. She demands that the girl be brought to her room; Lou gives her a drink, smelling salts, perfume, new clothes, and good advice. The singer even thinks she gets Sally a job; unfortunately, Lou's acquaintances Gus (Noah Beery) and Russian Rita (Rafaela Ottiano) have more nefarious intentions, but this plot twist in the script further underscores the theme of social injustice especially as it relates to class and gender. Sally has been "done wrong" by a married man, and now she will go on to be exploited by still others. Lou's ignorance of this fact — Rita talks to Sally about a job singing and dancing — emphasizes the performer's desire to help those around her, especially the poor and disenfranchised.

When a scared boy runs into the saloon after having broken a window, Cummings (Cary Grant) hides him. Once the police officer Doheny (Robert Homans) arrives, Cummings lies for the boy, saying he had been helping at the mission all afternoon. The officer challenges the story, but Lou appears and lies for the boy as well. "Two against one," she tells the officer, "so flap your heels." The officer's only complaint to Cummings is "I know you're always trying to help these dirty crooks." Both Cummings and Lou would question the word choice of "dirty crook" for a boy like Pete (James Eagles); they both are committed to helping the downtrodden around them — despite the fact that Cummings turns out to be the undercover federal investigator who is investigating Gus.

After Lou finds out the mission next door is behind on the rent and may be evicted, Lou sends for Jacobson (Lee Kohlmar) and offers to buy the building from him, but with the caveat that he is not to tell anyone she did so. A savvy businesswoman, she negotiates the price down to $12,000 and gives him a diamond necklace in trade. She then asks that the paperwork show that the mission bought the building itself. "You see, I don't want to be mixed up in it," she tells him after he praises her. "What a heart," he says. The scene then cuts to the saloon crowd chanting, "we want Lou," which acts metonymically as general admiration from the community for the work she has done — the least of which, we have found, is her performance on stage.

In Spectacular Passions, Brett Farmer states, "The aggressive dynamism with which West enacts her femininity endows her persona with traditionally masculine dimensions of power, control, and authority" (140-141). Or, as Emily Wortis Leider phrases it, West "instigat[ed] a revolution in American social mores, capsizing the traditional image of woman" (245). This persona transcended the traditionalist closure the rewrite demanded. While reformers tried to cut the sexual and criminal content, they were likely – if subconsciously – more alarmed by the revolutionary work West was writing, work that would deconstruct many of the oppressive values of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Indeed, setting the story in the 1890s had the ironic effect of exposing old ways still in existence in 1933. The final exchange in dialogue — "You bad girl!" — "Umm, you'll find out" — may suggest the wedding night, but it carries a second suggestion as well. Cummings may discover — regardless of his status as "dark and handsome" — that Lou may be a bad wife — in the sense that she will continue to defy the society matrons who looked down their nose at her in the opening sequence and live according to the moral standards she has set for herself, often defying convention. In other words, despite the containment narrative present in the revision, Lou remains a powerful figure in the Bowery who quietly wages a war against social injustice, especially in regard to class, gender, even race — truly becoming along the way — and in the most literal sense — "one of the finest women ever walked the streets."

 

V.

Mae West wrote what she believed, and her art exposed societal hypocrisy, sexism, even misogyny along the way — all while constructing the New Woman in film. Many sought to curb those storylines and characterizations in order to conform them to their own worldviews. These traditionalists feared progressive sensibilities and the cultural change that might follow. In other words, they feared destabilizing the delicate balance of American power in relation to issues of class, race, gender, authority, and affluence in the early twentieth century.

Both sides took this situation very seriously; no less, they each would argue, than the battle for the American soul. Of course, screenwriters like Anita Loos, Frances Marion, and Mae West would also assert that they had the weight of social justice on their side — and, as Martin Luther King would phrase it many years later, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

 

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