Spotlight: Sexy Pre-Code Harlow (Post Five)

Welcome to another Film Friday! Today we’re continuing our look at the Pre-Code work of Jean Harlow! (I’m fighting a cold right now, so please excuse me for this post’s comparative brevity. In fact, I just sneezed on the computer screen!)


Jean Harlow was born Harlean Harlow Carpenter in Kansas City, Missouri on March 3rd, 1911. The daughter of a dentist and an over-coddling mother named Jean, Harlean was nicknamed “The Baby” by family and friends. After divorcing her husband, Jean moved Harlean to LA, but the move lasted less than two years when Jean’s wealthy father threatened to disinherit her if she didn’t return. The pair soon moved to Chicago, to be close to Jean’s new boyfriend. Jean married Monta Bell in 1926, and Harlean followed suit by eloping with Charles McGrew, a wealthy heir, who took his new bride back to Los Angeles in 1928. On a dare, she strolled into Central Casting, and registered under the name Jean Harlow. Mother Jean and husband followed “The Baby” to LA and pressured her into accepting small extra and bit roles. She signed with Hal Roach studios, but tore up the contract due to the strain it was putting on her marriage. She and McGrew split anyway, and Howard Hughes cast the still unknown Harlow in Hell’s Angels (1930). An audience favorite (but not a critical one), Jean Harlow worked regularly for the next two years in films like The Public Enemy (1931) and Platinum Blonde (1931).


By 1932, Harlow became romantically involved with MGM producer Paul Bern, who convinced the studio to buy out her contract with Hughes. Her career exploded at MGM and she married Bern, but the marriage ended with his scandalous suicide later that year. Harlow soon began an affair with Max Baer, but the studio, afraid of more negative publicity, paired “The Baby” up with cameraman Howard Rosson instead. Their marriage also lasted under a year. During this time, Harlow’s career continued to boom with films like Bombshell (1933) and Dinner At Eight (1933). Like Joan Crawford, Harlow also found success being paired opposite Clark Gable. Unlike Crawford, however, Harlow’s popularity continued to rise after the Code. Following her divorce, Harlow became romantically involved (and perhaps engaged) to actor William Powell. But at the height of her career, Harlow suddenly died of complications from kidney failure in 1937. She was only 26-years-old.


So far we’ve featured the starry Dinner At Eight (1933), the steamy Red Dust (1932), the riotous Bombshell (1933), and the infamous The Public Enemy (1931). Today we’re looking at the raunchy Red-Headed Woman (1932).


Red-Headed Woman (1932)


An ambitious secretary tries to sleep her way into high society.

Starring Jean Harlow, Chester Morris, Lewis Stone, Lelia Hyams, and Una Merkel. Screenplay by Anita Loos. Based on the book by Katharine Brush. Directed by Jack Conway.


1932 — the year in which Harlow came to MGM, got married, and was widowed — happens to be an excellent cinematic year for the blonde bombshell. However, in this picture, Harlow isn’t a blonde bombshell, but rather a red-headed one! Standing alongside Red Dust (1932) as one of the starlet’s most Pre-Code of Pre-Code pictures, Red-Headed Woman really introduces audiences to the gutsy, no-holds-barred comedienne whose unique presence would dominate each of her films during the last six years of her life.


In the small company town of Renwood, secretary Lil “Red” Andrews sets her sights on her boss, William Legendre, Jr., the son of Renwood’s leading citizen. Regarding his happy marriage to childhood sweetheart Irene as only a minor obstacle, Red, who wears Bill’s picture in her garter, doesn’t want to leave his house after they have been working late there one night. He tells her to leave because she is “too darn pretty,” but weakens when he sees his picture on her garter. Just as they start to become more familiar, Irene comes home and Red quickly leaves. An embarrassed Bill insists that nothing has happened and promises never to see Red again. The next day, Bill’s father offers Red a job in Cleveland, hoping to convince her to leave his son alone, but she feigns resentment and demands to see Bill. Though he is still attracted to Red, he sends her away.


A short time later, when Red sees Bill and Irene at The Log Cabin ngihtclub, she has him called to the telephone and corners him in the phone booth. After they kiss, he promises to see her the next evening. Later that night, however, Irene and Bill reconcile their differences and Bill decides never to see Red again. The next night, Red gets drunk when Bill fails to meet her, then goes to his house and creates a scene in front of Irene. After Red leaves, Bill angrily goes to her apartment, then slaps her. When she tells him to do it again because she likes it, he beats her, then makes love to her. Soon Irene divorces Bill and he and Red marry.


When Irene comes to see him to see if he is happy, she tells him that their relationship won’t last because it is only based on sex. Because marriage to Bill still has not helped Red to be accepted socially in Renwood, she wants to move to New York. To further her aim, she seduces visiting New York tycoon Charles B. Gaerste and only reveals her name after they have made love. She then demands that Bill throw a party for Gaerste and invite the town’s leading citizens. When the party guests leave early to go to another reception at Irene’s, however, Red is furious and begs Bill to take her to New York. Mr. Legendre, who found her handkerchief in Gaerste’s hotel room, shows it to Bill, who then lets Red go to New York but threatens to divorce her at the first hint of a scandal. Red goes to Gaerste in New York and soon becomes his mistress, while at the same time taking the handsome French chauffeur Albert as her lover.

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Soon Bill arrives at Gaerste’s apartment and shows him suggestive photographs that he has obtained of Red and Albert and says that he is planning to divorce Red. Gaerste then discharges Albert and tells him to take Red with him. Desperate, Red then wires Bill that she is coming home, but back in Renwood she finds that he has moved to his father’s house and has started seeing Irene again. Mr. Legendre offers Red a check for $500 to leave town, but she runs after Bill, who is driving away, and shoots him. Bill recovers from his wounds, however, and refuses to prosecute Red. Two years later, when the remarried Bill and Irene go to the races in Paris with Mr. Legendre, they see Red, who has become the mistress of a millionaire and a well-known figure in Parisian society. As Red drives back home with her rich Frenchman, she is chauffeured by Albert. (This synopsis is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)


Yes, Harlow is unscrupulous! She’s a shameless gold-digger who seduces married men, enjoys being slapped around, and even gets away with attempted murder. And though it should come as no surprise, Harlow is the film’s greatest asset. She plays the title character with all the Pre-Code charm necessary to make a morally depleted sinner the headlining subject worthy of happiness and success. Chronologically, it’s very clear that this film and the pictures surrounding it illustrate the starlet coming into her own as a performer. Harlow has honesty, but she can lampoon sinners — mock their misconduct — with humor. So we’re not taking her seriously like Crawford or Garbo. Harlow’s skilled enough to make us BELIEVE her actions and motivations without tricking us into accusing her of playing herself. Basically, this film, for maybe the first time, packages her as a comedienne with presence and now, extraordinarily — a craft. And while her persona is nowhere near as massive nor defined as Mae West’s, Harlow can handle material of the sort with a malleability that allows for comedy, pathos, and a range of characterizations. Essentially, this film sees Harlow (for perhaps the first time) not as a star, but as an actress.

Again, this is interesting because Red-Headed Woman is a film that, like Harlow, doesn’t take itself seriously. It’s pure entertainment. This devilish red-headed slut sleeps her way — with very little sleeping — into high society and finally, happiness. The picture’s stark determination NOT to sugar coat the heroine’s conduct, or make statements about her morality that challenge the audience’s regard for her, is incredibly refreshing. But the film isn’t telling a gritty true-to-life story either; it’s telling an entertaining larger-than-life story about a girl who, honestly, does what many girls have done before her. It’s the perfect Pre-Code mix of realism and movie aesthetics — of both the visual and narrative kind. However, once we move beyond our delight in the Pre-Codeness of the picture, there’s little else to commend about the story. This problem chiefly concerns the script’s inability to make most of the supporting cast very as interesting as Harlow.


While Harlow shines, the only other performer to really leave an impression is Una Merkel as Harlow’s spunky friend. By and large, the rest of the cast — while visually appropriate — is no more than adequate. Hyams is pretty but does little with her thankless role, which is in desperate need of elevation. Chester Morris, Norma Shearer’s husband in the legendary The Divorcee (1930), is, as usual, incredibly average, lacking any means of evoking the audience’s emotional investment. (I suppose we could argue that he’s “square” enough for the role.) But he’s just so blah! The film picks up when it gets out of the rut that primarily involves Harlow, Morris, and Hyams, and ventures further into Harlow’s ascent to the top, but the film would assuredly be better with a stronger cast. The film is best when it’s just about Harlow and her badgirl behavior.


Because let’s be honest… modern viewers are watching this film for two things: 1) Jean Harlow or 2) the incredibly Pre-Code story. And on those two points, they won’t be disappointed. So while the film isn’t as re-watchable as Red Dust (1932) or Bombshell (1933), it still remains a fascinating — and yes — entertaining picture. A solid Harlow vehicle, ripe with Pre-Code naughtiness. If that’s your milieu, this is your picture.




Come back next week for another Pre-Code Harlow flick! And remember to tune in on Monday for a whole new week of fun on That’s Entertainment! 

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