I’ll admit that I didn’t get the appeal of Jean Harlow initially. I originally saw her in a portion of the film Bombshell, and thought it dull and her annoying. I couldn’t understand why she was a sex symbol, the Marilyn Monroe of the 30s. It took a lackluster movie in which she was riveting to change my mind.
Red-Headed Woman (1932) is one of those pre-code films in which a loose woman doesn’t pay the penalty for her behavior. Harlow is Lil (also known as Red), a secretary who seduces her married boss, Bill Legendre Jr. (Chester Morris), to make her way up in the world. His wife, Irene (Leila Hyams), is given the tired you-should-have-forgiven-him-instead-of-leaving-him-the-prey-of-that-hussy argument when she divorces him. Usually, this argument infuriates me, but in this case, I had some sympathy for it: Bill is such a sucker that it’s hard not to pity him. How could he succeed in business when he falls so easily for a woman’s wiles? (In today’s corporate world, he’d be bankrupt in a week.)
After the divorce, Lil (Harlow) marries Bill and then trades him in for a richer model, just as she dropped her bootlegger boyfriend at the start of the film to pursue Bill. It’s this single-minded self-interest that makes Lil such a wonderful anti-heroine, and Harlow so good at playing her. The actress is just so hilarious when conveying a conniving mind in action.
The story begins with Lil’s bold plan to go over to Bill’s house in a revealing outfit while his wife is away. She’s pretending to help with his dictation, but obviously planning on sex.
First, she gussies herself up in readiness for her scheme.
Her pal, Sally (Una Merkel), is so convinced the plot will fail that she says she’ll wait outside Bill’s door for Lil; the first sign that Lil’s plans have succeeded is when we see Sally still outside in the dark, uncomfortably rising from her seat.
Lil has many seduction methods at her disposal, all of which she needs, since her boss is in love with his wife. Something about the transparency of her attempts, and lack of any hesitation, cracked me up so much that Harlow had won me just a minute into this routine, long before her Lil got to Bill.
Lil tries some pouting…
Feigns a longstanding affection for him, even going so far as to pin a photo of him to her garter (Her words when she was planning this ruse: “Well, it’ll get me more there than it will hanging on the wall”).
Throughout the film, Harlow repeats a cycle of the techniques in Lil’s repertoire: baby talk, tears, denials, lies, threats, kisses. The character’s faux sweet veneer is so easily discarded for her brassy, true self; as in other Harlow roles; and it’s so much fun to watch the transition. Who wouldn’t want to see this shift again, and again, and again, especially in much finer films, with better-written parts? (My favorite may be the put-upon fiancée in Libeled Lady—I could watch Harlow marching toward jilter Spencer Tracy in that wedding dress all day long.)
As for the sex symbol status I didn’t understand? Ummm, I don’t know what to say for myself there. It’s about as hard to miss Harlow’s blazing sensuality as this predecessor’s. All you have to do is watch her posing, walking, or smiling for a few minutes, and you understand. There’s a reason Lil is confident she’ll win Bill and every other man she encounters. She just never seems to understand why her irresistibility doesn’t translate into success at the country club, a naiveté Harlow would repeat in other film roles as well–as if other wives would want her anywhere near their husbands.
As for Lil, once she decides Bill, the country club, and the town are too small for her, she moves on to richer grounds, ultimately hooking an old French sugar daddy.
She’s won a trophy for her thoroughbred, is flooded by admirers, and is still holding onto her young lover in full view of her meal ticket at the movie’s close. Of course. How else could this film possibly end?
This is the third in a monthly series of The Moment I Fell for posts…Hope you’ll share some of your favorites!