“RED-HEADED WOMAN” (1932) Review
According to Hollywood legend, at least a handful of movies made during the period known as the Pre-Code Era (1929-1934) had pushed the boundaries of on-screen decency so deeply that they may have been responsible for the stringent enforcement of the Hays Code between the mid-1930s and the late 1960s. One of those movies happened to be MGM’s 1932 comedy called “RED-HEADED WOMAN”.
Based upon Katherine Brush’s 1931 novel, “RED-HEADED WOMAN” told the story of Lilian “Lil” Andrews, a young secretary at the Legendre Company who uses sex to advance her position there by instigating an affair with William “Bill” Legendre Jr., the son of her wealthy boss. During the course of the film, Lil engages in pre-marital sex, breaks up Bill’s marriage to his ladylike wife Irene. After Lil marries Bill following his divorce, she finds herself shunned by high society due to not only her home wrecking, but also her lower-class origins. Lil tries to force herself into high society by seducing the Legendres’ main customer, wealthy coal tycoon Charles B. Gaerste and blackmailing him into sponsoring her own party. But the plan backfires and a humiliated Lil sets upon a course that ends up threatening her tenuous marriage.
“RED-HEADED WOMAN” proved to be a difficult movie to make for MGM production chief Irving Thalberg. One, he did not care for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first draft, viewing it as too serious. Thalberg believed that the movie would be more of a success if it presented Lil’s antics from a humorous bent, so he replaced Fitzgerald with Anita Loos as the movie’s screenwriter. He hoped she would provide a story that was more fun and playful. And he proved to be right. Thalberg and associate producer Paul Bern originally hired Clara Bow for the role of “Lil” Andrews. Although she originally agreed to participate in the movie, Bow changed her mind due to her objections to the long-term contract that MGM wanted her to sign for the role. Thalberg and Bern then turned their attention to the studio’s new contract player, Jean Harlow, whose contract they had recently purchased from Howard Hughes. Studio contract employee Jack Conway directed the film. Four weeks after production ended, the movie was released in late June 1932.
In a nutshell, “RED-HEADED WOMAN” is a funny and sexy movie that holds up surprisingly well, even after eighty-one years. For me, “RED-HEADED WOMAN” is a humorous reminder at how little human nature has changed over the years, especially in regard to sex, gender issues, ambition and class bigotry. Used to the idea that single women eighty years ago (or even fifty years ago) never had pre-marital sex, “RED-HEADED WOMAN” must have seemed like a shock to the system to modern viewers. This makes me wonder how present moviegoers would view “RED-HEADED WOMAN”, if it had been made in recent years. Think about it. “RED-HEADED WOMAN” featured pre-marital sex, extramarital sex, and rough sex (all which were featured off screen). If made today, most of Lil’s sexual encounters would have made it in the final cut . . . along with some on-screen nudity. But for me, it is the story itself, along with actress Jean Harlow’s amoral portaryal, that struck me as both sexy and lurid. I suspect that any on-screen sex and nudity would have very little impact on the movie. But I cannot help but wonder if today’s writers would have given Lil her happening.
Thalberg was right to dump Fitzgerald’s serious screenplay in favor of Loos’ more risqué tale. I believe the latter served the story a lot better. Realistically, Lil Andrews is not a sympathetic character. And I suspect that if her tale had told in Fitzgerald’s more serious style, the general moviegoers would have been turned off by her antics. And I doubt that the emotional crisis that Lil had suffered from Bill Legendre’s first rejection of her following their first tryst or the class bigotry she had faced from her father-in-law and the Legendres’ friends would have garnered any sympathy for her. A good number of morality groups from the early 1930s were up in arms over Lil’s fate at the end of the movie. If Thalberg had chosen Fitzgerald’s script over Loos’, I suspect those moviegoers that had made “RED-HEADED WOMAN” such a big hit would have felt the same.
I did have a few problems with the movie. I realize that Thalberg, Loos and director Jack Conway thought it was best to introduce Lil Andrews’in a brief montage that featured Harlow spoofing the “Gentlemen prefer blondes” quote from Loos’ famous 1925 novel and the actress wearing a see-through dress (honestly, not much is shown other than her legs). Frankly, I found this introduction rather amateurish and stagy. I think Loos could have done better. Also, the movie seemed to permeate with class prejudice. I realize that Lil was supposed to suffer from such bigotry. But the movie fails to generate any real sympathy toward her situation, due to Lil’s role as a home wrecker. Even Lil’s best friend, Sally, did not seem particularly repelled by Lil’s antics. And it did not help that the movie’s most sympathetic female turned out to be the gentle and well-born Irene Legendre. Even Bill Legendre seemed to be viewed in a sympathetic light as a mere victim of Lil’s feminine wiles, instead of simply a cheating spouse. If Lil had not emerged triumphant in the movie’s last reel, I believe this movie would have turned out to be a real turn off for me . . . despite the comic tone.
The cast proved to be the best thing about “RED-HEADED WOMAN” . . . at least for me. Although Jean Harlow had become a star two years earlier, thanks to her co-starring role in Howard Hughes’ wartime opus, “HELL’S ANGELS”; her career had eventually suffered through a series of questionable roles. Thankfully, Paul Bern saw her potential and convinced the MGM brass to purchase her contract from Hughes. And she was perfect as the amoral and sassy Lil Andrews. She was not the first or would be the last actress to portray a woman who used sex to advance her social position. But thanks to a performance that featured not only perfect comic timing and some surprisingly emotional angst, her Lil Andrews proved to be one of the most memorable female roles not only from the Pre-Code era, but also from 1930s Hollywood.
Harlow received admirable support from Chester Morris, who proved once again his talent for roles that projected a male ideal corrupted by man’s inner lusts and other flaws. He did a very good job in combining both Bill Legendre’s superficial decency and inner bestiality. Both Lewis Stone and Leila Hyams gave solid support as Bill’s snobbish father Legendre Sr. and long-suffering first wife Irene. And I was somewhat surprised to see Charles Boyer in a small, yet charming role as Lil’s eventual lover, Albert. But the two performances (other than Harlow and Morris) that really stood out for me came from Una Merkel and Henry Stephenson. Merkel was a delight as Lil’s equally sassy friend, Sally, who seemed to enjoy a voyeuristic thrill from Lil’s sexy love life. Also, she and Harlow managed to generate a strong chemistry as the two best friends. I wonder if they had made any further movies together. And Henry Stephenson, whom I remember from two Errol Flynn costume swashbucklers, provided some great comic moments as the Legendres’ wealthy customer, who ends up in a tawdry affair with Lil.
“RED-HEADED WOMAN” is a comic gem from the early 1930s, despite a few kinks, including a class bigotry that nearly tainted the film. It featured a sexy tale and fine performances from a cast led by the incomparable Jean Harlow that still holds up after eighty years or so. As far as I am concerned, I consider it one of the highlights of the Pre-Code era. Producers Irving Thalberg and Paul Bern, screenwriter Anita Loos and director Jack Conway took on an improbable project and transformed it into a minor classic.