Tag Archives: Infidelity

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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Pre-Code Hollywood #2 – The Divorcee (1930)

The_Divorcee_posterThe Divorcee (1930)
Directed by: Robert Z. Leonard
Written by: Nick Grinde, Zelda Sears, John Meehan (based on Ex-Wife by Ursula Parrott)
Starring: Norma Shearer, Chester Morris, Conrad Nagel, Florence Eldridge, Robert Montgomery

Robert Z. Leonard’s film The Divorcee begins on a far more exciting note than 1929’s In Old Arizona (the first film in our marathon), setting a brisk pace and a progressive attitude that never lets up over its 80 minute run-time. The Best Picture nominee was developed primarily as a vehicle for Hollywood superstar Norma Shearer, who picked up an Oscar for Best Actress for playing Jerry, the film’s titular divorcee. The Divorcee opens with a party where love and passion is in the air and jealousies are running high, when suddenly that all comes to a halt with the jarring sounds of a car accident. From there, The Divorcee establishes its consistent tone and rather progressive attitude, imagining women as social and sexual equals to their male counterparts.

The Divorcee follows Jerry (Norma Shearer) and Ted (Chester Morris), a couple who have been married for three years. When Jerry discovers that Ted has been cheating on her, she decides to get even with her husband and sleeps with Ted’s good friend Don (Robert Montgomery). When Ted returns from a business trip, Jerry informs him that she’s “settled their accounts”, and an enraged Ted demands a divorce. From there, The Divorcee turns into a picture chock full of adultery and open sexuality, apparent alcoholism, and melodrama of the highest sort.
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Melodrama has always been a major point of interest for me – there’s just something so inherently fascinating about watching the heightened romantic lives of exaggerated on-screen characters. The Divorcee is no different than many of the melodramas I’ve enjoyed in the past – its passions are exaggerated, the situations unlikely, and the consequences non-existent, which is probably what ultimately contributed to my overall enjoyment of it. Norma Shearer’s Oscar-winning turn as Jerry is terrific, showing off strength, wit, and independence in every scene of the film – even if some of her actions were questionable. The character of Jerry seems incredibly forward-thinking for 1930, long before the era of screwball comedies where women were believably verbally sparring with men. Her character feels like a living, breathing human being who has believable faults and lovable charms about her, something that the previous film in our marathon was sorely missing. The Divorcee intelligently tackles themes of adultery and human sexuality with a deft – if sometimes clumsy – hand, showing off a great deal of pre-code Hollywood goodness. On top of themes of sexuality and the sanctity of marriage is the rampant use of alcohol – which seems to appear in every major scene in the film. The film’s early accident scene is probably one of the first instances of drunk-driving on the big screen, another instance of progression in this exciting pre-code era. The script by Nick Ginde, Zelda Sears and John Meehan (based loosely on Ursula Parrott’s story Ex-Wife) asks the audience bold questions about infidelity, and paints a brief picture of a strong, modern woman getting even with the man who betrayed her. One of my major problems with The Divorcee is a side story involving Paul (Conrad Nagel) and Dorothy (Florence Eldridge), which only served to add to the film’s melodramatic nature and add some minutes to its runtime. While the side story in general is interesting, it just doesn’t feel natural to include it in what is already a fairly compelling and dramatic story of love gone bad. The film’s ending is another weak point, as it goes against the overall tone and message that I felt the writers and director were trying to portray. The whole experience just feels rather counterproductive in its last ten minutes, which is a damn shame.

The Divorcee is a strong, dramatic film from director Robert Z. Leonard. Its themes of sexuality, infidelity, and divorce were groundbreaking at the time, and hold up rather well all things considered. It’s a film that simply could not have been made in a post-Hays Code era, at least not on this scale. Norma Shearer’s Oscar-winning turn as Jerry is very strong, realistically portraying a strong, independent, free-thinking female protagonist. Overall, Leonard’s film is a mostly strong take on an all-too taboo subject – divorce. It falls apart slightly in its final minutes, and features some unnecessary plot elements, but the positives outweigh the negatives here. The Divorcee is worth seeing for its forward-thinking screenplay, its charming melodramatic nature, and for Shearer’s performance alone. It’s recommended.

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