Mae West and Poochie

Last night I had the chance to rewatch Mae West’s She Done Him Wrong, her second movie and her first star vehicle after 1932’s Night After Night, where she was fourth-billed below George Raft, Constance Cummings, and Wynne Gibson, for those keeping score at home. I’m hardly the first to compare Mae West to Groucho Marx, of course, two of the best-known vaudeville-to-film success stories, but it struck me how much their comedy styles resemble one another – the constant wiggling (Groucho always looks as if he’s got an outboard motor powering his eyebrows and shoulders), the audible smirks, the rapid-fire double entendres delivered while the upper half of the torso whirls around the stationary bottom half like a jack-in-the-box, the absolute verbal and visual domination of every scene either was in. Substitute diamonds for cigars, or vice versa, and you could use them almost interchangeably in one another’s movies, like Lego pieces. That might be a shade too strong a claim — I’m not so familiar with vaudevillians that I’m prepared to argue that Marx and West were more alike than any other two actors who came up on the comedy-hall circuit — but I’m interested in the shared aspects of their respective relationships to magnetism. (Not for nothing did both West and Marx become magnets for misattributed quotes in later life!)

But more than anyone else, Mae West’s “Lady Lou” resembles The Simpson’s Itchy and Scratchy’s Poochie:

Buzzwords include attitude, edgy, in your face, getting biz-zay consistently and thoroughly. One can easily imagine West giving director Lowell Sherman notes like “I want this to be a realistic, down-to-earth picture that’s completely off-the-wall and swarming with magic robots” and “Lady Lou needs to be louder and have access to a time machine. Whenever Lou’s not onscreen, all the other characters should be asking, ‘Where’s Lou?’” It’s wonderful, of course. One doesn’t watch a Mae West movie for a balanced script and robust ensemble; one watches a Mae West movie to watch a woman almost entirely immobilized by diamonds and a weapons-grade corset sing a bunch of dirty limericks to the tune of John Brown’s Body.

But half the dialogue truly does boil down to, “Where’s Poochie?” and “Hi, Poochie. You look like you’ve got something to say! Do you?” The following lines are verbatim and constitute roughly 1/6th of She Done Him Wrong’s scant 66-minute run time:

  • “I never saw a woman more beautiful.”

  • “A guy don’t need any breakfast when he can look at her.”

  • “She is beautiful.”

  • “She ain’t no easy gal to handle, Flynn.”

  • “Say, that’ll be a great song for Lou.”

  • “Oh, she’s in demand, I tell you, Flynn. The Bowery Savings Bank and Rupert’s Brewery are fighting to use her pictures exclusive on their New Year’s calendars.”

  • “She sure is a handsome girl, Gus. I wonder you don’t get jealous, all the men are so crazy about her.”

  • QUESTION: “What would you do if somebody tried to take her away from you?” "

    ANSWER: “Probably nothing…to her.”

  • “Lou is the swellest girl that ever came down the Bowery.”

  • “Lady Lou, you’re a fine girl, a fine woman.”

  • “She’s very beautiful. She makes them look like a bunch of dishwashers.”

  • “You’re sure a pip, Lou.”

  • “I just love to work for you, Miss Lou.”

  • “You’re so rich.”

  • “Ahh, what a heart you’ve got, Miss Lou.”

  • “We want Lou!”

  • “You were great, Lou.”

  • “To get to you, Lou, I’d even frame my own mother.”

  • “I swear I shall make you happy. I shall die to make you happy.”

The Hays Office pre-emptively forbade West from directly adapting her “Diamond Lil” Broadway character into film; in a real “letter-of-the-law-but-not-the-spirit” move she renamed Lil “Lou,” shuffled a few chairs, and moved right on ahead.

WEST: The rest of you writers start thinking up a name for this funky dame. I don’t know. Something along the lines of, say, Lou. Only more proactive.

WRITING STAFF: Yeah!

[West exits.]

WRITING STAFF: So, Lou okay with everybody?