When I first started Journeys in Classic Film I was immediately drawn to the work of pre-Code star Jean Harlow. (It helped that I’d received a box set of her films for Christmas, too.) But, just five years ago, access to classic cinema was more limited than it is now, and I ended up having to put off many of Harlow’s films due to lack of access. Red Headed Woman wasn’t a film I’d considered back then, though. In fact, I’d watched it a few years ago and didn’t really get the love for it. Enter this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival which allowed me to rectify a big gap in my thinking. Maybe it was watching this with an audience, laughing all the way, or the introduction with Cari Beauchamp as she explained how this film both ushered in and put the nail in the coffin of the pre-Code era, but I finally got it. Red Headed Woman is just as audacious as its platinum-haired leading lady who never fails to keep you on her side, even as she schemes and smirks her way through one destroyed relationship after another.
Lil (Jean Harlow) is a secretary eager to climb the ladder to a wealthy husband. She sets her sights on her boss, Bill Legendre (Chester Morris), but this isn’t quite “happily ever after.”
Red Headed Woman’s success is found in the women behind it. Based on a novel written by Katharine Brush, legendary writer of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Anita Loos, wrote the script. Things start off with a reference to Loos’ iconic work, as Lil decides “so gentlemen prefer blondes, do they” and dies her hair a flame red. Though the film’s in black and white Lil’s hair seems as blood-red as the white gown Bette Davis wears in Jezebel (1938). With a persona that Harlow would have to fight off a few years later, Lil is tenacious, sassy and has a penchant for the dramatic. She stalks Bill Legendre like a shark going after a dolphin, played by poor Chester Morris. She’s reliant on much of the overwrought sweet-talk that’s come to define the romantic comedy genre and, in several instances, acts as a send-up. She declares she’s loved Bill for years, though she’s only worked at the office two months!
Unlike Lil, whose colorful personality instantly endears audiences to her in spite of her flaws, Chester Morris’ Bill is written as blandly as they come that it’s almost a disservice to Harlow to pair her up with him. This is an intentional technique, it seems, showing off the unique and complex depths of femininity that men often forget to write. When Bill goes to Lil’s to break it off, she locks him in a room with her. In a fun swipe at gender norms, Bill is the one who feels unsafe with Lil, begging she unlock the door. Lil’s allowed to be the aggressor and control her sexuality, something that’s still difficult to find with such commitment in today’s cinema. More than that, Lil is allowed to be who she is and avoid punishment. Not to spoil things, but Lil walks away with the money, the prestige, and a young Charles Boyer! Lil sets up each of the men like a house of cards, enhancing the comedy because of how buffoonish they act in reaction to it.
Though, when you’re Jean Harlow, that seems to come with the territory. I know some might find Harlow’s baby-talk voice irksome (I’m one of those people), but it’s utilized to show what people are willing to overlook when one is young and beautiful. Lil is a character whose spoiled entitlement is compelling, a testament to Loos’ skills as a writer; she turned two golddiggers looking for rich husbands into an amazing depiction of female friendship in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Lil’s right hand woman is Sally, played adorably by Una Merkel. Merkel’s Sally gets the fuzzy end of the lollipop, sitting outside waiting for Lil to leave Bill’s house, or pressed up against a closed door to give the audience an idea of the untold, sensuous “horrors” happening behind it (“She’s got him trapped!”). Red Headed Woman is just one of four movies Merkel starred in opposite Harlow, turning them into one of the more obscure female friendly duos.
Red Headed Woman is a stellar feminist film with Jean Harlow cementing her persona as a rascally blonde who gets what she wants. With her wide smile and baby face it’s hard not to fall in love in spite of yourself. Don’t forget to keep your eye on that “red headed woman!”
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