A deliciously scandalous and controversial comedy that still shocks today
Just one viewing of “Red-Headed Woman” is enough to make those who think “old” movies are corny or passé think again. Its bold story of a scheming, home-wrecking gold-digger still carries the power to shock. Crisp direction by Jack Conway, snappy dialogue by Anita Loos, and an infectiously magnificent performance by leading lady Jean Harlow are all handled with such know-how and finesse, the film becomes one irresistible joyride. Outrageously racy and filled with humor in a completely arresting manner, it treads a fine line between egregious morals and comedic levity. When I recently watched this film with my father (who always falls asleep in front of the TV these days), he stayed enthusiastically awake for the entire film - which is honest-to-goodness proof of “Red-Headed Woman’s” power to entertain.
The film’s salaciously fun story centers around “Lillian” (also called “Lil" and “Red”), a sexy redhead from the wrong side of the tracks who wants to join the big leagues. She will stop at nothing to be part of high society, and has her sights set on her good-looking and wealthy boss “Bill Legendre, Jr.”, who incidentally happens to be married. The film opens with three quick, audaciously funny vignettes of “Lil”, which were written into the film after a test audience failed to realize the film was a comedy until halfway through. These chucklesome tidbits let us know from the get-go that this is a film to laugh at, starring one brazen gal. They are followed by a scene at a soda fountain where “Lil” explains to her friend “Sally” that she swiped “Bill’s” mail and is going to his home to deliver it to him personally. Played with comedic effect, their banter brilliantly sets up the film’s plot while maintaining its tone:
“Lil”: “Maybe I’ll get a chance to stay and take dictation.”
“Sally”: “What will that get you?”
“Lil”: “Don’t be dumb. His wife’s in Cleveland.”
“Sally”: “Say, Bill Legendre’s crazy about his wife.”
“Lil”: “Well he’s a man isn’t he?”
That’s all you really need to know of the story before watching, because from there the film is filled with surprises, none of which I want to spoil.
“Red-Headed Woman” was made during the years from 1929 until mid 1934, which became known as the Pre-Code period. Films made during these years reflected a changing America. As the ideals and values of the Victorian Era were quickly fading into history books, it became a time of jazz bands, independent women, prohibition, gangsters, flappers, and modern dance crazes - all under the shadow of the Great Depression. Pre-Code films depicted real life with all its sex, violence, and often unfair ways. The gangster film genre evolved and flourished during this period, as did films focusing on strong, sexually free women. It’s no wonder that many of the top movie stars at the time were sexually charged women, including Harlow, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, and Joan Crawford. “Red-Headed Woman” is a prime example of a Pre-Code film, as “Lil” is a strong woman who knows what she wants, enjoys sex and uses it to her advantage. Many Pre-Code films caused outrage and controversy in their day, and many were censored in several states (who individually cut out parts they deemed problematic or immoral). As seen in the book, “Letters from Hollywood”, a letter dated June 22, 1932 to Jason Joy (the head of the Studio Relations Committee in Hollywood), from Mrs. Alonzo Richardson (a member of the Better Films Committee) calls Harlow a “hussy”, tells how “Red-Headed Woman” has personally shaken her faith in humanity, and states, “Miss Harlow’s repeated ‘isn’t he a man?’ I think one of the filthiest things I have ever heard on the screen!”. Oh how times change. “Red-Headed Woman” was even banned in the UK (although King George V reportedly personally owned a copy). With a push for full-on censorship (mostly by religious groups - in particular the Catholic Legion of Decency), the film industry chose to self-censor rather than face outside or government censorship, and thus The Code (The Motion Picture Production Code) was refined and enforced on July 1, 1934. For approximately the next thirty years, on-screen sex would only be hinted at and reserved solely for married couples, women would lose their sexuality, and all characters who displayed bad behavior would need to end up paying for it dearly. So along with being highly entertaining, there’s an innocence, provocative honesty, and freedom to Pre-Code movies that we don’t ever see again in classic Hollywood films.
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios (MGM) acquired the rights to the 1931 novel, “Red-Headed Woman” by Katharine Brush, and employed F. Scott Fitzgerald to adapt the book into a screenplay. Feeling his script and the story in general needed comedy, MGM's head of production, Irving Thalberg fired Fitzgerald and hired screenwriter Anita Loos. With her flair for witty, snappy dialogue, Loos was able to take this sordid story and reframe it as shamelessly funny.
A talented and important early screenwriter, Anita Loos began writing at a very young age. In 1912 she found herself under contract to D.W. Griffith as the first female staff scriptwriter in Hollywood, eventually becoming one of Hollywood’s leading screenwriters. Her screenplays helped make Douglas Fairbanks a major star (which she repeated for Harlow with this film) and boosted the careers of Marion Davies, Constance Talmadge, and other big silent stars. In addition to her thirty odd years as a screenwriter, Loos also wrote plays, novels, and contributed to magazines such as Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. Her short stories for Harper's Bazaar magazine were later turned into the 1925 best-selling novel, “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (later turned into a Broadway show and two films). Loos also adapted Colette’s novel, “Gigi” into the 1951 Broadway play which starred Audrey Hepburn. Of her close to 150 screenplays and film stories, Loos wrote the inter-titles for Griffith’s classic “Intolerance”, as well as the screenplays for the sound classics “The Women”, "San Francisco”, and “Biography of a Bachelor Girl”. After “Red-Headed Woman” she went on to write four more film for Harlow, including "The Girl from Missouri” and Harlow’s final, “Saratoga”. She was married twice. Anita Loos died in 1981 at the age of 93.
Thalberg enlisted Jack Conway to direct “Red-Headed Woman”. Already under contract to MGM, Conway was known for being reliable, staying under budget, and producing solid films. His efficient directing style keeps the nonstop action moving at a vibrant pace along with many interesting and unobtrusive camera movements (such as when “Lil” and “Sally” are undressing). Conway brought out a sense of confidence and authority in Harlow, and he directed her in three additional films. Though never nominated for an Academy Award, three of the films he directed were nominated for a Best Picture Oscar (“Viva Villa!”, “A Tale of Two Cities”, and “Libeled Lady”, also starring Harlow). Other classics he directed from his 114 credits include "Boom Town", "Dragon Seed", "A Yank at Oxford", "The Unholy Three", and "The Girl from Missouri”. He was married twice, and is the father of actor Pat Conway. Jack Conway died in 1952 at the age of 65.
At the heart and soul of “Red-Headed Woman” is the marvelous Jean Harlow as the ambitious “Lillian ‘Lil’/‘Red’ Andrews Legendre” - an unapologetically sexual woman that knows the power she has over men and is more than willing to use it. As she says, “When I kiss them they stay kissed for a long time”. Nothing is off limits to this totally unabashed woman who clearly never wears a bra. Harlow’s performance is so well played you don’t know whether to laugh or be flabbergasted. When “Lil” practically storms into “Bill’s” house with his mail, the manner in which she connives her way through the scene is startling. With complete dexterity, while appearing sweet and innocent to "Bill", Harlow never lets us forget “Lil” is on a shrewd and cunning mission. Crocodile tears, exposed legs, wearing a top that looks more like lingerie, and dialogue such as when she tells “Bill”, “Why Mr. Legendre, you’re all I’ve been able to think about for years”, and he replies, “You’ve only been working in the office for two months” - all make for a madly riveting scene. Although it didn’t start that way, the film was created as a vehicle for Harlow by Thalberg who had just bought her contract from Howard Hughes. Thalberg had astounding instincts, earning him the nickname of Hollywood’s "Boy Wonder”.
At this point in time, Harlow was a famous sex symbol whose acting often appeared stiff or awkward. And though she had recently proved herself capable in Frank Capra’s “Platinum Blonde” and “Beast of the City”, she was not yet being taken seriously as an actress. With his knack for creating movie stars, Thalberg had the foresight to blend Harlow’s sexiness and innocence with humor, and had Loos fashion the screenplay for Harlow’s specific strengths. Famous for her platinum blonde hair (and nicknamed the “Blonde Bombshell”), Harlow donned a red wig for this film. In the very opening shot (the first of the three opening vignettes), a towel unravels to reveal Harlow with red hair (in a black and white film), as “Lil” says, “So gentlemen prefer blondes, do they?… Yes they do!” - a play on Harlow’s famous blondness and Loos’ famous novel “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”. Thalberg’s gamble on Harlow paid off - big time. The film was a top-ten box office hit (opening at #2) and established Harlow as a movie star with a gift for comedy. Her next film, “Red Dust” would make her a superstar. As MGM honed her screen persona for lasting stardom, “Lil” would be the last completely devious character Harlow would ever play. Her career was born during the Pre-Code era and she gained fame playing beautiful, sexually loose women. Confirmation of Harlow’s talent and allure (and Thalberg’s moxie), is that this sex symbol still remained one of Hollywood’s top stars once The Code took effect and her on-screen sexual freedom was removed. This unique star is one of my all-time favorites. I wrote more about the life and career of Jean Harlow (and more specifics about The Motion Picture Production Code) in my post on “Red Dust”. Please check it out for more information.
Chester Morris plays “William ‘Bill’ Legendre, Jr.”, the object of “Lil’s” attention. Morris is completely believable as the tormented man trying his best to remain faithful to his wife and resist the charms of “Lil”. He brings enough angst and appeal to the role, making “Bill” forgivable for his sins - which is key to the film’s success. Born to two actors (William Morris and Etta Hawkins), Chester Morris began acting at a very young age, making it to Broadway when he was fifteen years old. He was soon cast in his first film - the 1917 silent comedy, "An Amateur Orphan”. After working on Broadway and in vaudeville, he appeared in his first sound film "Alibi" in 1929, for which he received a Best Actor Academy Award nomination (his only). With his handsome leading man looks, Morris worked steadily through the early 1930s in such films as “The Divorcee” and "The Big House”, and became known for playing strong and determined type fellows. Come the late-1930s, his popularity dipped a bit and he soon found himself starring in lesser films. In 1941 he starred in "Meet Boston Blackie”, as a notorious but honorable jewel thief. It was so popular he played the criminal-turned-detective in thirteen more films through 1949, and in a radio series, and "Boston Blackie" is the character with whom Morris is most associated. Tired of being typecast as “Blackie”, in 1950 he left films (only making three more during his lifetime) and began appearing on television and in theater, including the Broadway productions of “Blue Denim”, "Advise and Consent”, and "The Subject Was Roses". His last appearance was in the 1970 film “The Great White Hope”. He was married twice. Chester Morris died in 1970 at the age of 69.
Lewis Stone plays “William Legendre, Sr.” (or as “Lil” likes to call him, “Daddy Legendre”), possibly the only man in the film not susceptible to “Lil’s” seductive charms. He is wonderful in the part, infusing the film with morality and calm. An MGM contract player for twenty-nine years, Lewis Stone is a face you will often see in classic films. After acting in the theater, Stone began appearing in silent films in 1915. He often played older than his actual age, since his hair turned gray while in his 20s. His first break came starring in the 1922 film “The Prisoner of Zenda”, and in 1924 he signed with MGM and began to work steadily. In 1929 he was nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award for the film “The Patriot” (his only nomination). He worked with many of MGM’s top stars, including five films with Harlow and seven with Greta Garbo. In 1937 he appeared as “Andy Hardy’s” father, “Judge Hardy” in “You're Only Young Once”. It was the second of sixteen films in the “Andy Hardy” series (out of which Stone starred in fourteen), and it is the character for which Stone is best remembered. Of his 150 plus films, other classics include "Grand Hotel", "Mata Hari", "The Big House", "David Copperfield", "Treasure Island", "Queen Christina", and "The Girl from Missouri”. He was married three times. Lewis Stone died in 1953 at the age of 73.
If you are watching the films on this blog, in addition to Harlow you’ll see several familiar faces in “Red-Headed Woman”. One you might not quite recognize at first glance is Leila Hyams as "Bill's" wife, “Irene ‘Rene’ Legendre”. Hyams previous film on this blog was “Freaks”, in which she played “Venus”, the seal trainer - a part completely opposite the high society “Irene”. Harlow was originally set to play “Venus”, but MGM had other plans for her career, so Hyams got the part. She does a great job eliciting sympathy in “Red-Headed Woman” as the scorned “Irene”, making us even more appalled at “Lil’s” behavior. When I saw this film with a sold-out crowd a few years ago at the TCM Film Festival on the big screen, “Irene’s” short tirade to “Lil” about sex versus love elicited applause from the audience - a memorable and unexpected moment. You can read a bit more about Lelia Hyams life and career in my “Freaks” post.
Una Merkel is superb as “Sally”, “Lil’s’ friend through thick and thin. Though she’s also from the poorer side of the tracks, in contrast to “Lil”, “Sally” has no great ambitions and is willing to accept her position in society. “Sally” adds much of the comedy, and her reactions at “Lil’s” behavior are delightfully humorous. Merkel and Harlow have crackling chemistry that truly seems like they’ve been friends forever (and Merkel worked with Harlow in three more films). Born in Kentucky, Una Merkel and her family made it to New York City by the time she was sixteen, where she began studying acting and soon made her Broadway debut in 1916. She had a striking resemblance to silent star Lillian Gish, and was first cast in a film (that never materialized) as her younger sister. She evidently became a stand-in for Gish on several films. Merkel appeared in her first film in 1923 and a second in 1924, before heading back to Broadway. D.W. Griffith cast her in his 1930 film, “Abraham Lincoln”, which began a successful film career. She worked prolifically in the early 1930s (appearing in thirteen films in 1933 alone) and established herself as a popular and very likable character actress. Merkel often played the wisecracking best friend, second lead, or some sort of sympathetic or quirky supporting gal opposite many of Hollywood’s top stars (such as Carole Lombard, Myrna Loy, Clark Gable, James Stewart, Spencer Tracy, Eleanor Powell, Dorothy Lamour, and many more). She occasionally played the female lead. Come the 1950s and Merkel also began working in television, and returned to Broadway, winning a Tony Award for the 1956 play “The Ponder Heart”. She appeared in 115 films and TV shows, and might be best remembered for her role in the classic 1939 Western "Destry Rides Again”, in which she has a famous brawl with Marlene Dietrich. Merkel’s other classic films include "42nd Street”, "Bombshell", "The Merry Widow", "The Bank Dick", "Road to Zanzibar”, "The Parent Trap", and 1961’s "Summer and Smoke” for which she earned a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination (her only). Before retiring, her final appearance was on an episode of “I Spy” in 1968. She was married and divorced once. Una Merkel died in 1986 at the age of 82.
Another supporting player in “Red-Headed Woman” whom I’ve previously written about in this blog is the suave Charles Boyer, who plays the chauffeur, “Albert”. This film came early in his Hollywood career and he appears in a small but important role, bringing an exotic sensuality to the film. Though I can’t locate the source, I remember learning that “Red-Headed Woman” was pivotal for Boyer because it came at a point when he was disillusioned with his career in Hollywood. About to leave and return to France, he received so much fan mail from this film that he ended up staying in Hollywood, soon after becoming one of film’s top romantic leading men. He appears in one of my all-time favorite films, “Gaslight”, and you can read more the life and career of Charles Boyer in my post on that classic.
The last cast member I’ll mention is the enjoyably colorful May Robson, who plays “Irene’s’”, “Aunt Jane”. It is a small role, but her energetic personality and strong, distinct voice, draw attention whenever she appears. Born in Australia to English parents, May Robson moved to London when she was about twelve years old. Marrying at seventeen years old, she and her husband moved to Texas and became cattle ranchers. Not partial to rural life, they moved to New York City with their three children when her husband died. After odd jobs to support her children (two of whom also soon died), she began acting in the theater, excelling in comedic character parts. Robson’s theatrical career was so successful that by 1911 she established her own touring company. She appeared in over two dozen Broadway shows. Her first film appearance came in 1908, and she moved to Hollywood in 1927 which began a flourishing film career as a character actress. At the age of seventy-five, she starred in Frank Capra’s 1933 classic “Lady for a Day”, for which she earned her one and only Best Actress Academy Award nomination (and born in 1858 she has the distinction of being the earliest born actor to be nominated for an Oscar). Appearing in over sixty films, her other classics include "Strange Interlude", "A Star Is Born”, "Anna Karenina", "The King of Kings", and a total of four films with Harlow, including "Dinner at Eight" and "Wife vs. Secretary”. I briefly mentioned Robson in my post on the screwball comedy classic, “Bringing Up Baby”, in which she plays Katharine Hepburn’s “Aunt Elizabeth”. She married and was widowed a second time. May Robson died in 1942 at the age of 84.
From the film's technical credits you might recognize the names of Art Director Cedric Gibbons and Costume Designer Adrian. Gibbons was one of Hollywood’s most important Art Directors, who designed countless classic films, including “The Wizard of Oz”, “Camille”, “Forbidden Planet”, “The Philadelphia Story”, “Gaslight” and “The Good Earth” - all of which are featured on this blog. You can read more about him in those posts (just click on the film title), particularly “The Good Earth”. Miss Harlow’s gowns were designed by Adrian - a giant in the field of costume design, whose gowns were worn by Hollywood’s most glamours stars in many classic films. I wrote more about Adrian in my post on “The Philadelphia Story”, with brief mentions of him in "Camille” and “The Wizard of Oz”.
This week’s selection is a scandalous comedy filled with bold twists and shocking turns, making for electrifying entertainment. Put all your principles aside and be ready to joyfully succumb to the overpowering charms of the “Red-Headed Woman”. Enjoy!
This blog is a weekly series on all types of classic films from the silent era through the 1970s. It is designed to entertain and inform movie novices and lovers through watching one recommended classic film a week. The intent is that a love and deepened knowledge of cinema will evolve, along with a familiarity of important stars, directors, writers, the studio system, and a deeper understanding of cinema. I highly recommend visiting (or revisiting) the HOME page, which explains it all and provides a place where you can subscribe and get email notifications each Tuesday of every subsequently recommended film. At the bottom of the Home page you can also find a list of all films currently on this site. Please leave comments, share this blog, and subscribe so you can see which classic films will be revealed each week. Thanks so much for reading!
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TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):
The most famous scene in “Red-Headed Woman” is when “Bill” slaps “Lil” across the face, after which she retorts, “Do it again. I like it. Do it again”. That clip is often used as an example of Pre-Code films in documentaries and other such media.