Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Red-Headed Woman (1932)

Director: Jack Conway
USA 1932
79 min

Chester Morris and Jean Harlow in one of many sedustion scenes i Red-Headed Woman.

Times to review the second film in the Forbidden Hollywood Collection volume 1 - Red-Headed Woman.

The screenplay (originally written by the most influential writer in the 1920's America, F. Scott Fitzgerald, but re-written entirely by the admirable Anita Loos) is reminiscent of the screenplay to Baby Face (1933) (or is it the other way around?): Our protagonist is a woman determined to climb the social ladder by seducing rich and powerful men. There is bootleg whiskey, bare legs and a sceptical yet faithful side-kick who follows the leading lady whatever she does.

The likenesses of the films are however nothing remotely negative - it's a great concept for pre-code classics.
The leading lady Lillian (or "Lil" or "Red") is played by the irreplacable Jean Harlow, looking astonishing in a pre-code moviestar's typical wardrobe. Even though she became famous as "the platinum blonde", she wore a red wig for this film - with successful results. Her charming broad accent is the only thing that reveals that she is "from the wrong side of rail road".

Scene: The lovely introduction scene of the film, with Jean Harlow and Una Merkel.

Scene: The slap scene with Chester Morris and Jean Harlow. Naughty woman!

The first victim for Lil's irresistible legs is her boss Bill Legendre (Chester Morris, handsome as ever), happily married to a beautiful woman, Irene (Leila Hyams, known for playing "Venus" in the disturbing Tod Browning masterpiece Freaks from the same year). Lil is however successful in seducing her boss ("Well, he's a man, isn't he?"), and soon she gets hungry for more "up-grade". Bill Legendre's father (Lewis Stone) gets suspicious after finding one of Lil's handkerchieves in one of his important business partner's hotel room, and eventually Lil is revealed to both wanting the cake and eat it too...

Screenwright Anita Loos, director Jack Conway (I think...) and Jean Harlow.

If you haven't, for some reason, yet seen this film - the action is not over at that point. This is an amazing film, quite shocking even for a modern audience. (At least I think so, maybe I just have gotten used to old films.) This is clearly Jean Harlow at her best - I understand people getting disappointed with her being reduced to toned-down roles in films like Wife vs. Secretary (1936) after the despicable Hays Code tied the hands of film making.
Anyway, screenwright Anita Loos deserves an honorable mention for having written a fantastic screen play full of witty lines and a perfect variety of obvious sexual indications and not-so-obvious ones. Jean Harlow's sidekick Una Merkel as her room mate Sally does a lot to the film, and the early appearance by Charles Boyer as the French chauffeur Albert is very amusing. And I was surprised that the quality was held until the very last minute of the film - the end is very clever. I'm also happy to see that no alternative ending was added, as it was to Baby Face. Huah...

But I must admit that I am quite curious about how Fitzgerald's script looked like... (It was tossed away for "taken the matter too seriously". The best argument for rejecting something ever.)

Jean Harlow and Anita Loos. Such a charming pic.
(Anita Loos was the writer of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, first a not-so-successful silent film in 1928 with Ruth Taylor and Alice White, in 1953 a smash hit with Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe.)

"I'm furious about the women's liberationists. They keep getting up on soapboxes and proclaiming that women are brighter than men. That's true, but it should be kept very quiet or it ruins the whole racket."
- Anita Loos


Lillian 'Lil': [trying on a dress in a store, Lil positions herself in front of a sunny window] Can you see through this?
Off-camera store clerk: I'm afraid you can, Miss.
Lillian 'Lil': I'll wear it.
Off-camera store clerk: Oh!

Lillian 'Lil': Sally I'm the happiest girl in the world. I'm in love and I'm gonna be married.
Sally: You're gonna marry Albert?
Lillian 'Lil': No, Gaerste.
Sally: In love with Gaerste?
Lillian 'Lil': No, Albert.


Anonymous said...

One word....FANTASTIC!

MissMatilda said...

divine, i love thse garters xx

Lolita said...

Both Jean and the film sure was!

Yes, where do you get those nowadays? I like the idea of a woman putting her boss' image on her garters, it's just brilliant.

Kate Gabrielle said...

omg I love Anita Loos' hair and that quote is so perfect :D

This film is great, I need to watch it again soon. Watching pre-codes really sours you on post-code though, doesn't it?!

Lotten said...

Haha, yes, I think I will dedicate an entire post to Anita Loos in the future...

Yes, it really does! One can only think about how films like The Philadelphia Story would have looked like if the restraints of the code didn't exist - or why not the earlier mentioned Wife vs. Secretary?
But of course, it's always interesting watching ANY film in a historical point of view. But one can never avoid the thought "What if...".

Rupert Alistair said...

I just love this movie. It's one of the best Harlow installments (but there are so many). I agree whole heartedly with you about Harlow's later films being disappointing in comparison to the pre-Code ones. I mean she just crackled with sex in Hold Your Man, Red Dust and this film. Great job!


Evangeline said...

Ha! I just finished this movie and loved it. Jean was an absolute riot, and I am becoming obsessed with Una Merkel. I like Pre-Code Jean, but Code Era Jean is good as well. Different, but good.

Lotten said...

Rupert Alistair:
Thank you! And yes, it IS hard to choose a favorite Harlow appearance, but this is without a doubt one of her absolute greatest.

Nice! Oh, one can never complain about Jean Harlow herself!

Keith said...

Such a fantastic film. I love it.

Lotten said...

How could one not love it? :)

VP81955 said...

Love that Anita Loos quote! (Especially as a mere man who realizes women are superior, but knows things work out best for all concerned when other men don't know it.)

Lolita said...

The old Chinese man has spoken eternal words of wisdom!

Evangeline Holland said...

I read the book last week and I can see why it was so scandalous to audiences in the early 1930s. Loos follows the book pretty closely, with the exception of how Gaerste (he was a young, New York-based self-made millionaire just as vulgar as Lil) and Sally (she wasn't as chummy with Lil as Una Merkel played) were portrayed. But it was just as funny and repulsive as the film. What's so great about Brush's writing, is that there were times where I couldn't stand Lil and found her vulgarity and unabashed gold-digging horrible, but a few pages later, I was laughing, wondering what she'd get up to next.