If you’re interested, I guest starred on the Forgotten Filmcast discussing this movie. Click on the picture to check it out!
The Particulars of the Picture
|Lillian, AKA “Red” …
|C.B. Gaerste …
Red-Headed Woman: Found a Fool Lyin’ in a Daze
I reviewed a little film called Female a week or so ago and was fairly disappointed when it went from the fascinating character study of a woman consumed with power to a schlock romantic drama in the space of a few uncharacteristic scenes.
Now I have Red Headed Woman which has no such noble goals. All of the women contained are either shallow, stupid, or so manipulative, while all the men are helpless bores. And while there’s a lot to be said for nobility, where the Pre-Code films shine is in the arena of tantalizing and vivacious debauchery, usual with a nice tidy moral to send the audience home with.
But, hell, Red Headed Woman doesn’t even have that!
No, Red Headed Woman is the story of Lilian Andrews, an ambitious career girl– but only if you count nailing the boss’s married son as a career. She’s played by Jean Harlow, and actress with the minimum amount of eyebrows and the maximum amount of goofy madness. As a performance barely a step or two below the ‘camp’ level, Harlow is so ferociously bent on getting a man with money that she careens through the film like a force of nature.
This is especially bad news for Chester Morris, playing William Legendre. He’s a manager at his father’s bank and happily married to a childhood sweetheart when Lilian comes knocking one evening with his mail. He resists her modestly at first, but as soon as he sees his picture attached to her garter, all of that politeness and propriety just flies out… well, his fly.
His wife, Irene, gets home from her trip early and finds them engaging in less than moral behavior and the rest of the film chronicle’s Lilian’s manipulation of Morris into marriage and society, only to be increasingly distressed that no one seems to like her very much. Harlow plays Lilian as a harpy of the highest caliber who always has a weakened sob in reserve in case someone calls her bluff.
Chester Morris, as you probably don’t recall, has a way with playing jerks in the early 30’s; he was also the philandering husband from The Divorcee, though here he’s much less of a tragic figure and more of a henpecked idiot. There’s no sadness as you watch his marriage dissolve– he’s so smitten (a nice word for “superhorny”) and Irene is so bland that you never feel for her, even as Lilian is throwing a hissy fit in her face.
No, the pleasure in Red Headed Woman all come from Harlow’s histrionics. She’s electric in every scene, a force of nature beyond reasoning. Combine this performance with atmosphere that the Pre-Code films excel in, a beautiful range of the seedy and the glamorous, and you have something that seems trashy but also strangely sweet.
Of course, that’s until the film delves into what can best be described as Blue Velvet territory for a bit, as Harlow takes love in any physical form she can, even when it involves a brutal beating from an emotionally destroyed Morris. He begins to beat her, and she screams, “Do it again! I like it!”
The movie somehow has a happy ending for all involved, and while Red Headed Woman doesn’t try to do much besides foreshadow Sid and Nancy by about four decades. While something like Female remains a fascinating failure, Red Headed Woman is a true triumph of hysterical love in all of its sick forms.
Proof That It’s Pre-Code
- Besides the many opportunities the film takes with showing off Jean Harlow’s svelte frame, there’s an extended sequence where Jean Harlow and Una Merkel exchange clothing, which may include a brief shot of Jean Harlow’s upper lady bits. O_o
- The sequence in which Bill beats Lillian silly… probably would be a no-go after the code.
- Gold digging is always a big theme during the Pre-Code era, and this has it in earnest.
- And the ease in which different characters are divorced and the obviousness of these characters sex lives are indulged in makes it especially scandalous.
Here are some extra screenshots I took. Click on any picture to enlarge!
Awards, Accolades & Availability
- A more in-depth discussion of this movie is available in first issue of The Pre-Code Companion. You can also see other available issues and topics covered in the series by clicking here or on the banner below.
- This film is available as part of the first Forbidden Hollywood Collection via Amazon and can be rented from Classicflix. It is also streaming in high definition on Warner Archive Instant video.
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JennyG · January 12, 2014 at 11:06 pm
I’m amazed at how much fun I found this movie, which I’ve been avoiding as I avoid Jean Harlow. I love your hilarious description of her as an “actress with the minimum amount of eyebrows and the maximum amount of goofy madness.” Honestly, as shallow as this assessment is, I’ve always found her unattractive. But she’s perfect for this one, and I’ve got to hand it to her: as you say, she went for it with gusto. (Also, while the film skews sexist for sure, I’m not convinced your gender split works: Sally is clued in and ethical through irony; Irene’s old aunt, or whoever that is, seems pretty on-top-of-things; and Irene is as much of a helpless bore as any of those beyond-pathetic men.)
The ending is perfect. The contrast you draw with Female is evocative: Female earned my confidence in the progressiveness of the filmmakers until the last 5 minutes; Red-Headed Woman made me feel like I was watching a misogynist (albeit actually funny) movie until I had to reassess my perceptions at the end.
Danny · January 13, 2014 at 3:15 pm
Harlow’s career arc is very dramatic, and while I’m with you on not finding Harlow to be particularly attractive, she definitely helped carve the way for Marilyn Monroe, Mamie Van Doren and their ilk. However, Harlow’s pre-Code movies– once she’s got a handle on acting– are often quite fun (see Red Dust if you haven’t). In Red Headed, there are many scenes where she plays dumb and manipulates her way through the various affairs, and though she seems like the sexist ideal of a bad gold digger, the movie celebrates her for it. It takes a lot of work to play the game she’s playing (to the degree she understands she’s playing it), and she’s justly rewarded.
Also, if you want some more movies along these lines, try Man Wanted and Mary Stevens M.D., both with Kay Francis. In the former she’s a magazine publisher chasing after her secretary (a nice reversal), and in the other she’s a doctor coming to grips with loving a really horrible dude.
Charles · April 29, 2019 at 12:10 pm
Good comments–watched this on TCM last night and enjoyed immensely, to my surprise, never having understood Harlow attraction (apart from “Public Enemy”). But a non-boring, non-bland word in for Leila Hyams’s “Irene” (spoiler alert): her verbal dressing-down of Harlow–you got him with sex, you’re hanging on to him with sex, it won’t always be there, there’s no love, etc.)–stands out in my mind as one of the most honest and moving bits of dialogue in pre-code films.
JennyG · January 14, 2014 at 9:08 am
I totally agree: the film ends up admiring her ambition and follow through, which is not the direction it seems like it’s going. I’ve seen Red Dust, which I remembering enjoying but it’s time for a re-view. Man Wanted and Mary Stevens M.D sound great. I like Kay Francis. I’ll check ’em out.
You were great on Forgotten Filmcast, btw. At one point, you mentioned how we hear Sousa marches that turn out to be coming from Lillian’s car radio, and I wondered if you noticed that ALL the music in the film is similarly diegetic. (In that way, if no other, it fits the Dogme 95 manifesto.) Is that common for pre-code film? I don’t remember noticing it before.
Danny · January 23, 2014 at 7:48 pm
Thanks for listening to the podcast! I’m not surprised that all of the film is diegetic– rarely did a lot of early sound films use non-diegetic background music since it was thought that it may be confusing to the audience, and when it was used it was usually restricted to classical pieces of music rather than anything specifically composed for the picture.
Jennifer Gilchrist · January 24, 2014 at 12:32 am
Interesting! I did not know that.
Elihu Rootbag · February 15, 2015 at 1:57 pm
In fact her right breast is visible briefly while she and Una Merkel exchange pajama top. At 17:18. You can see it but not the rest of her.
Jonathan · September 10, 2016 at 7:34 pm
I feel like I should like Red-Headed Woman if only for the camp value, but having watched this after Baby Face (which spins the same sort of plot into something legitimately great), it just feels too shallow and distasteful for me to really find the fun in it.
emily · May 2, 2019 at 7:57 am
Jean is a joy to watch. She may not have been a classic beauty, but there was something about her that was incredibly alluring. She had the It Factor, much more so than her later imitators Marilyn or Jayne Mansfield.
Craig · August 25, 2019 at 9:44 pm
Hadn’t seen this in years. To me what makes it stand out is the scene where the socialites of the town lie through their teeth to the main character . It’s shows them as being on the same level as she is. Because of that, it makes you want to root for her even if you don’t like her character. Also, unlike most pre-code movies, the main character who is “immoral” doesn’t get punished at the end of the movie.
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