Red-Headed Woman tells the story of Lil Andrews (Harlow), a working gal who’s got more on her mind than dictation, if you know what I mean. Specifically, her mind is focused on her very-much-married boss, Bill Legendre (Chester Morris), who, like most of the men in this film, is unable to resist Lil’s unique charms.
Ultimately, Lil manages to seduce Bill, break up his happy union, get him to marry her, make her way up the local social ladder (or, at least the first few rungs), have a couple of affairs, and even commit attempted murder – all in less than 80 minutes.
But it’s not the crazy, twisty-turny, action-packed plot that made me fall in love with Red-Headed Woman – although that’s certainly enough! Instead, it’s the characters populating the film that make this one of those movies I can watch over and over (and over!) again. And I do!
Lil Andrews Legendre (Jean Harlow)
We’re introduced to Lil through a series of vignettes at the very start of the film, and they provide some valuable insight into her persona. In one scene, she’s in a dressmaker’s shop, trying on a frock. She strikes a pose, asking the saleswoman if she can see through her dress. When the woman reluctantly replies in the affirmative, Lil flashes a grin. “I’ll wear it,” she says. And in another scene, we’re treated only to the sight of Lil’s gams as she cuts a photo from a newspaper. Turns out it’s a picture of her boss, which she promptly fits into a small frame on her garter belt. “Well, it’ll get me more there than it will hanging on the wall,” she philosophizes.
Bill Legendre (Chester Morris)
As one character said, Bill Legendre was “crazy” about his wife. But as Lil herself rejoined, “He’s a man isn’t he?” And, boy, does Bill prove her right. One minute, he’s off-handedly attempting to dismiss Lil from his house; the next, he’s agreeing to let her help him with his mail; and the next – well, let’s just say that he’s not exactly having Lil file his papers. One look at Lil’s legs and Bill seems to lose all of his senses – he can barely even finish a sentence. And, later, when he tells Lil, “I love my wife! I’ve never loved anyone else!” – he seems to be trying to convince himself as much as he is Lil.
Sally (Una Merkel)
Sally was always there when Lil needed a listening ear
Sally was Lil’s ace boon coon, her BFF, her sister from another mister. Although Sally never ceased to be shocked at Lil’s antics, she always had Lil’s back and, like a true friend, she never hesitated to tell Lil when she was crossing the line. Like the time Lil swiped a stack of mail from the desk of Bill Legendre’s secretary so she could take it to Bill’s house. Sally was right by her side all the way, but when Lil confessed her nervousness as they approached the house, Sally didn’t bite her tongue. “I’d be nervous myself,” she quipped, “if I didn’t have any more brains than you’ve got.”
Irene Legendre (Leila Hyams)
Irene, Bill’s wife, is quite an interesting woman. Early in the film, she discovers Bill engaging in some sort of (off-camera) shenanigans with Lil. Irene is justifiably upset – tearful and hurt. But the first words out of her mouth are these: “I might have understood – if it hadn’t been a girl like that.” So what’s that supposed to mean? If she’d caught Bill smooching some society dame, or doing the horizontal hokey pokey with last season’s most popular debutante, it would’ve been okay? That she’s only offended by Bill’s taste in sidepieces? Tut, tut, Irene – your snobbery is showing. But don’t get me wrong – I actually dig Irene. She turns out to be strong and determined, yet forgiving and loving – but not stupid. I like that in a dame.
William Legendre, Sr. (Lewis Stone)
Bill’s dad is one of the few men in the movie who seems immune to Lil’s allure – he sees through Lil like she’s made out of cellophane. When he gets wind of his son’s one-night stand, he first tries to get rid of Lil by shipping her off to Cleveland. “It’s going to be a lot easier for my son without you in this town,” he tells her. His initial effort to remove Lil from Bill’s life doesn’t work, but trust me – he’s no quitter.
Aunt Jane (May Robson)
Outspoken and opinionated, Irene’s aunt is the pre-incarnation of two characters from one of my favorite films, The Women: Norma Shearer’s mother (Lucile Watson) and one of her best pals (Pauline Goddard). Like these women, Aunt Jane chides Irene for divorcing Bill when he found himself in Lil’s clutches: “However you came to make that idiotic blunder is beyond me,” Aunt Jane wonders. “You’d have stood by Bill if he’d gone broke or had the smallpox or some other awful calamity had befallen him. Well, he’s sick now! Or insane. Or whatever you choose to call it.”
Charles Gaerste (Henry Stephenson)
Gaerste is a longtime friend of the Legendre family, and literally old enough to be Lil’s grandpa – but that doesn’t prevent him from falling under her spell. To his credit, he falls before he’s aware that Lil is Bill’s wife, but by the time he discovers that bit of info, he’s hooked. Actually, Gaerste is a pretty pathetic character – Lil leads him around like a puppy on a leash, first blackmailing him into aiding her social climbing aspirations, and later carrying on an affair with him in the Big Apple. Like Bill, Gaerste is like putty in Lil’s hands: “You’re so beautiful,” he sighs. “What’s the use?”
If you like your pre-Codes hot and your pre-Code women hotter, then be sure to catch Red-Headed Woman, August 7th on TCM. You. Will. Not. Be. Sorry.
Now be sure to pop over to Speakeasy to find out what pre-Code gem Kristina is recommending for this month!.
The film proved difficult from its inception. Producer Irving Thalberg was concerned that the original story and the first draft of a script by F. Scott Fitzgerald were too serious, and offered the job of rewriting it to Anita Loos, instructing her to provide something that was more fun and playful and with a greater emphasis on comedy.
Before Harlow, MGM wanted Clara Bow, who agreed to do the part, but objected to the “future services” option the studio felt it needed.
Prior to its release, he worked with the Will Hays Office to ensure it would receive approval for general release. Under the Production Code, a criminal could not be seen to profit from the crime, or to go unpunished, and sin must be punished. Adding further to the problem was Harlow’s overtly sexual portrayal, with several scenes in which she was partially undressed, or making obvious sexual advances.
Although the Hays Office could not ban a film as such, a refusal to issue approval for a particular film could lead exhibitors to refuse to screen it. Thalberg agreed to 17 cuts to enable it to screen in the United States; however upon release, it still received a large number of complaints from affronted cinema patrons. The original theatrical release was banned in the United Kingdom, it was never resubmitted until 1965.The furor surrounding its release generated considerable publicity, and the film was a box-office success.