“Red Headed Woman” is a prime example of an enjoyable film; it is a lot of fun, with some good performances and snappy lines though in fact it never reaches the level of quality that would be considered great.
Lil’ Andrews (Jean Harlow) is a young woman from the wrong side of town who wants to get ahead in life and will do anything to accomplish her goal, including seducing her boss Bill Legendre (Chester Morris) and wrecking his happy marriage with his wife Irene (Leila Hyamns) in the process. Lil’ sees this move, as her entrance into society however, just because you marry up does not mean you will be accepted into the upper classes inner circle. Snubbed by Bill’s friends, Lil’ decides to seduce coal magnate Charles Gaerste (Henry Stephenson) enticing him to throw a big social gathering at her place that for sure the town’s upper crust could not ignore. Comes the night of the dinner party, the guests conspire to leave early. It is her best friend and confidant Sally (Una Merkel) who informs her that they all left her party early only to go over to Irene’s place across the street.
Embarrassed by this set back, Lil’ goes to New York leaving Bill, behind. When Bill’s father suspects Lil’ is having an affair, he hires detectives to follow her. They discover she is not only having an affair with Charles Gaerste but with his chauffeur Albert (Charles Boyer) in a small role. When Lil’ comes back home she finds Bill is back with Irene. Enraged and ever vengeful she shoots Bill. He survives the shooting and eventually divorces Lil’ going back to Irene. A few years later we find Lil’ in Paris with a rich elderly gentleman at the racetrack. When they leave the track, they get into a limo driven by the Albert the chauffeur.
Harlow’s character has to be one of the most immoral wanton and vengeful women of the pre-code era, using her physical attributes to seduce men as she tries to climb the social ladder. When she asks how a dress looks on her, she is told, you can see right through it, she replies, “good I’ll wear it.” Low-cut tight fitting clothes and even a quick flash of Harlow breasts can be seen in one quick shot. The men are amazingly gullible or just plain dumb, easily being seduced by this lower class heartless woman. Bill, a happily married man with a beautiful sophisticated wife is effortlessly taken in by Lil’s crude charms, as are all the other men she gets her claws into.
As for the acting, Harlow is well cast as the callous Lil’ Andrews, reaching her comedic zenith here and a big improvement over her performance from the previous year in Frank Capra’s “Platinum Blonde” where Robert Williams reporter, marries, in this case, a rich though still unsophisticated Harlow while the real class act is co-reporter and beauty Loretta Young. Harlow was truly miscast in Capra’s film.
That said I never found her persona that attractive and could not understand Bill’s attraction to her when he had a beautiful stylishly sexy wife in Irene. I felt the same way when watching Capra’s “Platinum Blonde.” Young was the real prize. In addition to Harlow, “Red-Headed Woman” is served well by Una Merkel as Lil’s best friend and confidant who sticks by her. As for the men Chester Morris, Henry Stephenson and Charles Boyer well, they just seem to fall all over Harlow.
In a 1932 TIME magazine article, it was announced that Clara Bow was originally set to star in “Red Headed Woman” as her return film from retirement. Instead, Bow signed a contract with 20th Century Fox to star in “Call Her Savage.” Harlow was announced as her replacement. Anita Loos wrote the script based on a novel by Katherine Brush. Loos script is certainly one of the highlights of the film. Like some of Loos other works, “The Girl from Missouri”, again with Harlow, and “How to Marry a Millionaire”, they center on female characters that are looking to marry rich and socially upward. The film was directed by MGM director Jack Conway
“Red-Headed Woman” caused, as you could probably image, a stir with the censors even in this pre-code era. According to Mick LaSalle in his book “Complicated Woman”, an Atlanta censor complained “Sex, sex, sex! The picture just reeks with it until one is positively nauseated!” The film is loaded with sex and even a little sadism (After being slapped by Bill, Lil’ seemingly aroused tells him to “do it again, I like it” as she throws her arms around him). In her obvious and unrepentant use of her sexuality in bedding men to get what she wanted, Lil’ Andrews parallels another Lil’ from the pre-code era, Lil’ Powers (Barbara Stanwyck) in “Baby Face.” Lil’ Powers, whose childhood was anything but idyllic (her father pimped her out at the age of 14), is given cause for her choices and thus I her find a more sympathetic character than Harlow’s Lil’ Andrews who other than coming from a poor background is given no excuse other than greed for her actions. What a great double feature “Red-Headed Woman” and “Baby Face” would make.