Issue 2

Examining the Impact of Censorship on Themes of “She Done Him Wrong”

The multifaceted singer, actress, and writer Mae West “found her career on sex.”[1] West claimed her fame through Vaudeville and Broadway, and she made her way onto the big screen in Hollywood where she saw just as much success. Although West was very popular with both men and women due to her strong, feisty personality and comfort with her sexuality, this popularity did not translate to Hollywood’s censors. During the production of She Done Him Wrong, an adaptation of West’s play Diamond Lil starring West herself, the Studio Relations office tweaked many aspects of the film in order to make it acceptable by Code standards. The film centers around West’s character, Lady Lou, a singer who gets mixed up dealing with her past, present, and potential future lovers. The Code review files provide evidence of the effect of the Code and the ways in which it dealt with potential offensive material, specifically the film’s sexual references.

Many factors led to the rise of censorship in the film industry. Scandals involving stars and directors “drove Hollywood from the entertainment section of American newspapers to the front page.”[2] This negative publicity led to the initial intervention of an outside source on the films, and one man in particular had a lot of influence: William H. Hays. Hays enacted the first basic rules of censorship. These rules were a set of recommendations that studios were asked to abide by. In addition, studios were urged to communicate with Hays during the processing of planning and creating films. The Studio Relations Committee, also known as the Studio Relations office, was in charge of censorship review from 1930 until 1934. The code promoted traditional values and morals; the Catholic undertones were present and quite obvious. Enforcement of the Code during this Pre-Code era was a struggle. Due to the Great Depression, studios had tremendous pressure and struggles to keep income high. Movies that featured sex 
 and violence proved to be the most popular, so movies containing sex and violence were made. Essentially, the studios could not “afford clean movies.”[3] Continuing to keep the business alive during the hardship was vital to Hollywood studios, and they often found ways to incorporate this controversial content without directly violating the code.

Paramount Pictures was caught in this very situation. The studio had to follow the Code while maintaining content audiences would pay to see in order to keep the business afloat. Paramount knew that a movie with scandalous star Mae West would be an instant hit. It was just what they needed to save the company from its economic hardship: “Paramount faced payment on a debt in excess of $100 million, and for 1932 reported a loss of $21 million.”[4] So, the idea of adapting West’s play Diamond Lil into a movie was born. Paramount wanted to bring in West as a writer despite much dismay and disapproval from others. Upon hearing the idea of employing West for writing, head of the SRC at the time Jason Joy commented, “Of course, I discourage the idea.”[5] West was hired anyways.

Due to its sexual nature, Diamond Lil was on the MPAA’s banned list. Set in the Gay Nineties, this film contained “vulgar dramatic situations and the highly censurable dialogue.”[6] The censors had a problem with this. According to Lea Jacobs, industry censors “routinely sought to justify what they deemed offensive material within a script on the basis of a moral.”[7] Paramount started production without clearance from the censors because of the extenuating economic circumstance. Eventually, the board which was “sensitive to unspoken arguments involving dollars and aware that the film was in production already” permitted Paramount to continue with clearance.[8] The SRC tried to distance the film from any similarities with Diamond Lil; the name was changed to Ruby Red, and again to the final title, She Done Him Wrong. The movie was completed in 18 shooting days with the cost totaling a mere $200,000, and “over half” of the cost went to West’s paycheck.[9] With the production of She Done Him Wrong, Paramount joined the “race to produce ‘sex pictures.’”[10]

The books Hollywood Censored and The Dame in the Kimono provide an in-depth explanation of the development of She Done Him Wrong. The sources give a plethora of background information on Mae West and her career up until, and through, the development of She Done Him Wrong with a strong concentration being on the film and the role she played. Both sources discuss censorship of the film and the controversy surrounding it; however, each book only provides history and facts. Neither source explores the effect of the censorship changes in a productive manner on the film itself. This raises the question, how exactly did the censorship alter the film as a whole in a significant way?

Through the review of the MPAA files, I have deduced that the censorship from the SRC affected the film through its influence on the comedic and sexually ambiguous themes of She Done Him Wrong. Along with noting the censorship surrounding the production of the film, I will go further to explain its productive purpose, filling in the gap from the sources above. The effect of the censorship on the film will be proven through the exploration of the background of West’s character, her sexualized and comedic lines, and the framing of shots, all of which were altered due to censorship and presented in a new way that did not violate the Code. Paramount’s film She Done Him Wrong will be analyzed in order to provide concrete evidence of theses changes as well as documents from the review files from Harold Hurley and James Wingate.

Censorship regarding the background of West’s character influenced the film by portraying the sexual theme in an obscure manner. With Wingate working alongside Paramount, the Studio Relations office attempted to “soften the film by eliminating references to Lady Lou’s past.”[11] The main problem for the censors surrounding Lou’s past was the discussion of the number of men she had slept with. Wingate stated, “Our basic changes aimed at soft-pedaling the many references to the number of Lady Lou’s previous affairs with men.”[12] Censorship was achieved through the revision of the script’s diction, specifically concentrating on the word had. Notes from the files point out the use of had when referring to West’s past lovers. These lines sparked comments from censors such as “Could this be turned around and expressed in some manner as to leave the relationship open to debate”[13] and “you might consider toning this one reference down by eliminating the word ‘had’ and changing it to ‘the last guy she took on’ or something similar.”[14] Through these comments it is evident that the censors wanted to camouflage the sexual references and not necessarily remove them. According to Leonard and Simmons, “The Studio Relations office had never intended to extract the picture’s sweet juices; it had hoped instead to blur the representation of Lil’s sexual attitudes and adventures.”[15] The word had may have been changed, but the main idea behind the statement remained. Harold Hurley explains the shift in theme due to censorship and code standards in a letter to Le Baron: “It will be very easy to change the…dialogue for censorship purposes. You can retain all of the thoughts implied, but the lines will have to be written more subtly and much more cleverly. It is the plain, rather ugly use of phrases that will get us into trouble.”[16] This proves censorship influenced the film through the encouragement of innuendo surrounding Lou’s background, making the sexual theme less overt.

Censorship that encouraged innuendo was also demonstrated in the curtain line for the film. After Captain Cummings, played by Cary Grant, slips a diamond wedding band on Lou’s finger, Lou states, “I always knew you could be had.”[17] Censors felt this line was too strong in its direct sexual reference, and the line provided a particular connection to Diamond Lil since the dialogue was “widely quoted as part of the play.”[18] Because of this concern from the censors, Paramount changed the last line. With the alteration, Cummings taunts West by stating, “You bad girl,” and she replies with the edited line “You’ll find out.”[19] This dialogue change impacts the theme of the movie by diminishing the sexual theme through the use of entendre. West does not state her thoughts as plainly as the first line conveyed; however, the similar point is still suggested with the dialogue change, just in an inconspicuous manner. The dialogue change transforms the in-your-face sexual theme that was so prominent in the play into an ambiguous theme in the film.

Censorship influenced the development of the comedic theme through many of Lou’s one-liners. The SRC suggested a focus on comedic aspects in the story to cover up material that may be offensive. Wingate stated, “I am assuming that in making a picture of such a period and with such a background, you will develop the comedy elements, so that the treatment will invest the picture with such exaggerated qualities as automatically to take care of possible offensiveness.”[20] With note from the office to focus on comedy, West saw the opportunity to insert her laugh lines that co-writer Bright disagreed with and to cut some editions that he made to the script. West had many one-liners that added to this comedic theme. For example, when Lou is conversing with her maid, Lousie Beavers, Lou jokes, “I wasn’t always rich. There was a time when I didn’t know where my next husband was coming from.”[21] During another conversation between the two, Beavers states, “I wouldn’t want no policeman to catch me without a petticoat.”[22] Lou cleverly replies, “No policeman? How about a nice fireman?”[23] This kind of lighthearted banner, which originated from a censorship note, softened the sexual content by presenting it in a funny, witty manner rather than a serious drama. Because of this, Paramount was able to include the racy comments that shaped Lou’s personality while not directly violating the Code.

Censorship also developed the comedic theme through the framing of shots. The SRC communicated to Paramount it would be best to censor the painting of Lou, “showing that in it she is portrayed as clothed in good taste.”[24] Paramount took note of this, but kept the painting nude. The studio used its comedic theme to get away with this, even though nudity would typically not be approved by the Code. Paramount framed the shot so that a man’s hat just coincidentally, but actually quite obviously, covers up Lou’s genitalia. Because of this comical approach to the composition of the shot, Paramount was able to get away with this content without violating the code directly. The censorship notes regarding the painting caused the studio to frame this shot in a unique way that they had not considered before; therefore, this proves censorship impacted the theme of the film by strengthening comedy through composition.

Fig.1: Painting of Lou (She Done Him Wrong, Paramount Pictures1933)

Censorship of sexual content influenced the development of the ambiguous sexual theme of the film through the framing of shots. A scene depicts Lou getting undressed. The shot is framed so it is implied that West is nude, but nothing is actually revealed on screen. West is shown in a medium close up with a changing wall covering the bottom third of the screen, leaving only her shoulders and head exposed. The censors pushed to make sure that West was covered up in this scene. According to the code, “Nudity of semi-nudity used simply to put a 
‘punch’ into a picture comes under the head of immoral actions…It is immoral in its effect upon the average audience.”[25] Due to the censorship, Paramount planned to frame the shot in non-revealing manner with only implied sexual content. This censorship follows suit with many other points of the film allowing it to develop a covert sexual theme.

Fig. 2: Lou dressing (She Done Him Wrong, Paramount Pictures 1933)

Many scholars state the code did not have an effect on She Done Him Wrong, and they focus on the lack of influence due to the studio not following all of the suggestions made. When the film was released, people argued that here was no real difference from the play Diamond Lil to the movie She Done Him Wrong. Father Daniel Lord, who had drafted much of the Code, stated, “…everybody knows this [She Done Him Wrong] is the filthy Diamond Lil slipping by under a new name.”[26] However, this essay proves that there is a significant difference due to the themes developed in order to fit the requirements of the Code. So, although many elements from the movie resemble the play on a surface level, deeper analysis of the censorship files and film provides evidence that there was indeed a difference from the play to the film regarding the sexual and comedic themes each contained.

The censorship of content forced Paramount to develop the comedic and inconspicuous sexual themes of the film. The exploration of this topic allows the SRC Code censorship to be viewed in a different way because, rather than just stating changes that were made, the significant, productive effects of those changes on the themes are examined. Although the SRC had an impact on the film’s themes, it is evident that the censorship was not successful in its original intentions as it did not did not purify the movie and its characters. Instead, it forced Paramount to be creative and innovative in the ways in which it camouflaged the racy content through comedy and innuendo; however, the immoral content still remained. This illustrates that the SRC was ineffective in implementing its ethos and carrying out its objective. Because of this, She Done Him Wrong proved to be a film that called attention to flaws in the administration of censorship of Hollywood films. She Done Him Wrong revealed the need for stricter censorship and ultimately led to the creation of the PCA in 1934 shortly after the film’s release in 1933, showing its lasting impact not only as a film that pushed censorship boundaries, but as a film that influenced censorship legislation.

[1] Leff, Leonard J., and Jerold Simmons. “Welcome Mae West!” In The Dame in the Kimono: Hollywood, Censorship, and the Production Code. 2nd ed. Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 2001. 20.

[2] Ibid., 3.

[3] Ibid., 4

[4] Black, Gregory D. Hollywood Censored: Morality Codes, Catholics, and the Movies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. 73.

[5] Col Joy’s Resume. Jan. 11,1930. She Done Him Wrong file. MPAA Production Code Administration Files. Reel 7, Microfilm Collection, History of Cinema, Series 1: Hollywood and the Production Code, Oakland University, Michigan.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Jacobs, Lea. “The Censorship of “Blonde Venus”: Textual Analysis and Historical

Method.” Cinema Journal 27, no. 3 (1988): 24. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1225289.

[8] Leff and Simmons, Dame in the Kimono, 27.

[9] Black, Hollywood Censored, 74.

[10] Leff and Simmons, Dame in the Kimono, 22.

[11] Black, Hollywood Censored, 74.

[12] Wingate, James. Letter to William H. Hays. Dec. 2, 1932. She Done Him Wrong file. MPAA Production Code Administration Files. Reel 7, Microfilm Collection, History of Cinema, Series 1: Hollywood and the Production Code, Oakland University, Michigan.

[13] Wingate, James. Letter to Harold Hurley. Nov. 29,1932. She Done Him Wrong file. MPAA Production Code Administration Files. Reel 7, Microfilm Collection, History of Cinema, Series 1: Hollywood and the Production Code, Oakland University, Michigan.

[14] Wingate, James. Letter to Harold Hurley. Dec. 3,1932. She Done Him Wrong file. MPAA Production Code Administration Files. Reel 7, Microfilm Collection, History of Cinema, Series 1: Hollywood and the Production Code, Oakland University, Michigan.

[15] Leff and Simmons, Dame in the Kimono, 30.

[16] Hurley, Harold. Letter to Le Baron. Nov. 9,1932. She Done Him Wrong file. MPAA Production Code Administration Files. Reel 7, Microfilm Collection, History of Cinema, Series 1: Hollywood and the Production Code, Oakland University, Michigan.

[17] She Done Him Wrong. Directed by Lowell Sherman. Performed by Mae West, Cary Grant, Owen Moore. United States: Paramount Pictures, 1933. Film.

[18] Wingate, Letter to Hurley, Nov. 29,1932.

[19] She Done Him Wrong, dir. by Lowell Sherman (1933).

[20] Wingate, Letter to Hurley, Nov. 29,1932.

[21] She Done Him Wrong, dir. by Lowell Sherman (1933).

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid

[24] Wingate, Letter to Hurley, Nov. 29,1932

[25] Richard, Maltby, “Documents on the Genesis of the Production Code,” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 15 (1995): 48.

[26] Leff and Simmons, Dame in the Kimono, 31.