Pre-Code Hollywood #9 – Red-Headed Woman (1932)

220px-Redheadedwoman1932Red-Headed Woman (1932)
Directed by: Jack Conway
Written by: Anita Loos (based on Red-Headed Woman by Katherine Brush)
Starring: Jean Harlow, Chester Morris, Lewis Stone, Charles Boyer, Una Merkel, Henry Stephenson, Leila Hyams

“So gentlemen prefer blondes, do they?” – The first words uttered in Jack Conway’s Red-Headed Woman perfectly set the tone for what’s to follow. It’s unclear whether the Jean Harlow vehicle was intended to be a drama, a comedy, a romance, or a confused moral tale, but the 1932 film ends up being a strangely compelling blend of all four. Red-Headed Woman is full of unlikable characters with less than noble intentions, all of whom take part in some form of premarital debauchery at one point or another. This may just be the most “pre-code” film of the marathon yet, delightfully teasing the audience with its naughty nature.

Red-Headed Woman starts by introducing Lillian ‘Lil’ Andrews (Jean Harlow), a young lower-class woman who will seemingly stop at nothing in order to live a life free of worry. She quickly seduces her boss Bill Legendre Jr. (Chester Morris), eventually forcing him to leave his lovely wife Irene (Leila Hyams). Unfortunately for Lil, she is soon seen by those around her as a fast, cheap, manipulative homewrecker, which in turn wreaks havoc on her social life and self-esteem. After marrying Bill, Lil quickly sets her sights on a rich tycoon named Charles Gaerste (Henry Stephenson). Thinking Gaerste will propel her into the life of a classy socialite, Lil can’t help but carry out yet another affair – one that will likely end in disaster for all those involved.
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My absolute favorite thing about Red-Headed Woman is that it’s a picture that is outwardly very proud of its less than moral story, revelling in its tantalizing nature. There is no major character who isn’t acting purely out of selfishness – everybody in Red-Headed Woman is out to gain something from somebody. Whether it’s Lil’s want to be included in the everyday activities of the rich and famous, Bill Jr.’s need for sexual satisfaction, Bill Sr.’s want for his son to be seen as a respectable young man, or Charles Gaerste’s want of a much younger woman whom he is free to exploit sexually – it’s every man for himself in Red-Headed Woman. On top of selfish character motivations, our protagonist Lil is quite possibly one of the most frustrating lead characters in cinematic history. Harlow’s Lil continually digs herself deeper and deeper into situations that can only ends badly for her, yet it’s obvious that they excite her too much to ever put an end to her impulsiveness. Lillian is a heavily flawed, ugly character who I loved spending 80 minutes with, even if many of those minutes were indeed rather frustrating.

Jean Harlow’s campy lead performance is delightfully mad in all of its heavy exaggeration. Harlow is somebody whose performances I’ve always enjoyed, and Red-Headed Woman is absolutely no different. It’s obvious that the legendary actress had a lot of fun playing the amoral Lil; a part that only some incredibly brave actresses could have gotten away with playing in 1932. Jean Harlow’s Lil is trashy, overly emotional, and almost entirely vapid, and yet she somehow manages to fool multiple people into falling for her charms. The 21-year old Harlow is the absolute highlight of Red-Headed Woman – it’s hard to believe that five years from the film’s release she would be dead at just 26 years old. Chester Morris’ turn as Bill Legendre Jr. is another of the film’s highlights, improving on his earlier performance in previously-reviewed The Divorcee. Though Bill’s life seems to be falling apart because of Lil’s involvement, he’s clearly so infatuated (and sexually excited) with her that he just doesn’t care.

The film’s shameless script is the final major part of what makes Red-Headed Woman such a delight. Written by Anita Loos (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), who took screenwriting duties over for novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald after his dismissal from the film, Red-Headed Woman knows exactly what it is from the word go. Loos’ script is full of frank discussions about sex and infidelity, which is very refreshing for a film of the era. The screenplay sees Lil taking multiple lovers, forming unlikely relationships with men far more successful herself, and is loaded to the brim with hilarious innuendo. Every beat of Loos’ screenplay is delightful, and at just 80-minutes long, Red-Headed Woman is effortlessly entertaining. I was delighted to see that Loos didn’t try to force a schmaltzy, moralistic ending into the film, instead ending on a hilarious and rather unexpected beat. Some of the pre-code elements featured in Red-Headed Woman include the repeated sexualization of Jean Harlow’s Lil, many counts of premarital and extramarital sex, domestic abuse, divorce, and trading sex in order to move up the social ladder.
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Jack Conway’s Red-Headed Woman is a delight from start to finish, mainly due to its willingness to embrace many of its naughty pre-code elements, a fun script by Anita Loos, and a highly memorable lead performance from the indelible Jean Harlow. It’s a brilliant send up to the desperate, unsatisfied, horny people throughout history who have settled for people completely wrong for them, and to the impulsive, ugly, hysterical nature of love. While it’s not exactly groundbreaking, it was just too much fun to pass up. Red-Headed Woman is highly recommended.

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