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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