' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Red-Headed Woman (1932)

Friday, April 12, 2013

Friday's Old Fashioned: Red-Headed Woman (1932)

Lil (Jean Harlow) is in the midst of of attempting to entice married Bill Legendre Jr. (Chester Morris, who, like so many male actors of the early eras, is outfitted with too much makeup). He ain't having it. He smacks her. Woah. But...she smiles. She asks him to do it again. She tries to get him to do it again. Wowza. Meanwhile Lil's friend and confidante Sally (Una Merkel) listens to the action with her ear pressed up against a door in another room. At first, she seems aghast. But then...she smiles. She speaks, I suspect, for the entire audience for the duration of the brief but kicky run time of "Red-Headed Woman" - the experience is more than a little unsettling but we remain enraptured anyway.


"Red-Headed Woman" was released in 1932, two years after the dastardly Will Hays put into effect his nicey-nice Production Code but two years before it really began being enforced with an America & Apple Pie-scented fist. This is why you can hear the word "Sex" said at least twice in "Red-Headed Woman"! No! Really! "S.e.x." Ai-yeeeeeeee! Heck, there's a sequence where we see Harlow undress......well, sorta. In a single take the camera focuses on her bare feet and then her face as it is made insistently clear she is briefly going pantsless and then topless to slip into evening wear. That sounds passé but back in the day there were probably upstanding women who saw this in the theater and fainted.

The film opens with Lil as but a poor stenographer with designs on glitz and glamour and high fashion and society. This is why she targets Bill Legendre with such insistence. She will not be denied. And she isn't, not even when it appears Bill's wife Irene (Leila Hyams) adores him so much and seems so convinced that his one-time foul-up is anomaly. No, instead Bill ends up divorced from Irene and married to Lil who indulges in her newfound upper crust status for all its worth until she realizes the rest of the upper crust will forever shun her for her adulterous dalliance.

Ha! says Lil. With the rich and famous Charles Gaerste (Henry Stephenson) in town to meet with the Legendre family, Lil merely re-sets her plan. A seduction of Gaerste, higher up the social ladder and with even more prominent moneybags than her current husband, would engender the societal reciprocation that Lil cannot get on the arm of Legendre.

Eventually she finds herself separating from her husband to move in with Gaerste while having an affair with Gaerste's French chauffeur (Charles Boyer) on the side.


Per TMC, a certain dude named F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a draft that legendary producer Irving Thalberg deemed too serious and which was completely re-written by Anita Loos to be more whimsical. Remnants of this screenwriting war are littered throughout the film, particularly in the way Lil's incessant blackmailing and cold, cold heart are so often presented in the manner of simple rom com propellents. Truly, you are often left to wonder if director Jack Conway has any idea just how dark the underlying nature of his film is, and this is made more apparent by a "happy ending" that looks and sounds happy but isn't really happy at all if you give it a half-second of thought.

Perhaps the trickiest element of the whole film is Harlow's performance. This is not to suggest she overwhelms the screen with complexity but that she kind of plays the part of this home wrecking status seeker as if to appease Thalberg's desire for a more breezy escapade. Yet, by playing the part this way her character (unwittingly?) is made even more sinister.

Her Lil shares much in common with later era "Fatal Attraction" Glenn Close and "Body of Evidence" Madonna but in a non-Will Hays world those actresses very much played up the psychotic. Harlow, however, by maintaining such a bubbly air even as she screws (literally and figuratively) every guy around her to get what she wants just seems.......crazy. Like, super crazy. It's a less realistic performance which is precisely what makes it seem so much more realistic than the unhinged red-headed woman of the modern day.

In a movie today if Lil pulled a gun when she pulls a gun you think, "Oh. Plot mechanics." But in 1932 when Lil pulls the gun when she pulls the gun you think, "Yup. That red-headed woman's done lost her mind."

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