We recently re-saw MGM’s 1932 film Red-Headed Woman and we’re still out of breath. Not just because of its sexual shenanigans (this IS pre-Code, after all). It’s how it jumps right in, like kids cannonballing off a pier, into the story’s meat (it isn’t just the hair that’s red here). Right off are three quick scenes of the title character: A close-up of Lil Andrews (Jean Harlow) as she rhetorically asks if men go for blondes only (with the winking understanding that crimson locks are just as effective); then inquiring, in all innocence, if the skirt she’s fanning out against the window can be seen through (and grinning gleefully when the unseen questionee replies, well, yes, unfortunately it can); finally, a shot of outstretched feminine legs cutting to a hand pinning a locket with a man’s photograph to a garter, as Lil remarks offscreen (perhaps answering her own unheard question), “Well, it’ll get me more there than it will hanging on the wall.”
In less time than it takes to salt your popcorn, we’ve gotten the who-what-why of the film, outlined like a pictogram: the Woman, her Means, the Goal. Boom-boom-boom, one-two-three, as concise as haiku. The whole film is built like that, making its points with fast wipes and quick fades. It shears off the frilly accessories and gives it to you hard, fast, and cold. Such as a sequence of a divorce proceeding: from the sound of a woman getting slapped we cut to a gavel pounding in a courtroom, then cut to the wronged wife being sworn in, then to a shot of her anguished husband, then a swift dissolve to the Reason Why—the red-headed woman herself, twinkling a grin of triumph as she hears the words, “Divorce granted.” Boom-boom-boom, and a marriage is washed up.
That’s one of the things we like about pre-Code cinema—it gets to the point. No wasted footage in laying out plot and character; the narratives dig in, with bared teeth, straight for the marrow. Film noir scholars often note how the chopped-down language of pulp fiction of the twenties influenced the terse crime cinema of the forties, but films of the early thirties seem to have been an earlier beneficiary. They race across the screen as if afraid the celluloid will run out before they finish. Whoever said that life in the past was slower? These films don’t give you time to settle down in your seats and peel the wrappers off your candy bars. They’re from an era when people found their lives shattered in a matter of days; like hobos clinging to speeding freight cars, just hanging on was a rush all by itself. Loosen your grip, even a bit, and you’re a goner.
The cause of all this film’s rushing is red-wigged Jean Harlow, whose screen impact is like an electric jolt to the gonads, even in today’s jaded, seen-it-all times. Harlow was one of the great sexy screen goddesses, and here you see why. She’s more than a sex object, she IS Sex, as imagined by a society emerging, shell-shocked, from the dizzying Twenties into the harried, hung-over Thirties: delightful, dirty, degenerate, and all powerful. You get that in her first, unsettling moment onscreen. It’s not an entrance but a literal unwrapping, as a towel is unwound from her face. The moment is sheer Freud: the metaphorical revelation, to our weak, besotted gaze, of the forbidden site of pleasure. What’s being revealed is conveyed punningly in the next scenes, as Harlow poses in her see-through skirt, her spread legs forming a suggestive triangle (and such a naughty smile she gives us as she teasingly spreads out the fabric), and then pins her boss’ photo on her thigh—what she’s aiming to snatch is kept right by her own snatch, as it were. No wonder men fall for her like smacked ninepins.
Can you blame the guys for falling, though? Just watch when she walks down a street, her shoulders shimmying, her breasts jiggling. The woman’s a strolling roll in the hay; you know every male eye is on her. Harlow isn’t classically beautiful to look at. Her features are both hard and soft, with round cheeks and an etched bee-stung mouth. She was barely twenty-one when she made this film and looks it, a baby-faced tart who’s a piece of debauched pastry. But her flesh gleams as if polished, and re-polished, with a soft cloth, it looks good enough to lick. And she has a great figure. Harlow had long strong legs, and firm hips that sluice down into her thighs; they invite tight skirts, in which she’s generously displayed throughout the movie. Her clothes hug her buttocks but swing loose on her upper torso, so you’re aware of what’s bouncing beneath (Harlow was known for not wearing undergarments). Her costumes are deliberately vulgar—for a dinner-party scene she wears a dress that seems made entirely of Christmas-tree tinsel—but they state, they scream at us, who and what she is: an ambitious trollop on the make, and she doesn’t care who knows it.
Red-Headed Woman’s story follows the rise, and further rise, of Lil, as she barges into high society, all cylinders running. She’s not “going to spend my life on the wrong side of the railroad tracks,” as she tells her best friend Sally (Una Merkel), oh no. She’s out for the good life, which she gets by seducing her upper-class boss, Bill Legendre (Chester Morris), causing him to leave his wife and marry her. Horatio Alger wouldn’t have approved. Nor does Sally, who’s left in a perpetual state of gasping astonishment by Lil’s antics (“You dirty little home wrecker!”, is a typical huff). Lil’s crusade is a concrete illustration of hypergamy, the custom of a woman seeking to marry above her class. Pre-Code movies are explicit in this conjunction of class/sex/desire; a film like Gold Diggers of 1933 states it right in its title. Another well-known example, Baby Face (also 1933), has Barbara Stanwyck’s gold digger, coincidentally named Lil, also using her sexual allure to gain wealth and power. However, Stanwyck’s campaign is plotted and carried out like the landing at Normandy. There’s no fun in this Lil’s pursuit, she’s as grim as Eisenhower meeting with his generals. In a famous, once-censored scene, she learns the principles of Nietzsche and takes them to heart. This really is war.
Whereas Harlow’s Lil treats her marry-the-boss campaign as a joyride. It’s a giddy game of erotic chess, her body as the game board. By golly, she’s game. When Bill asks her to leave town, she demands he look her in the eye and tell her. Then she gives him her phone number. When he tears that up, she tells him she’s in the book. She’s unstoppable; whatever he says, she counters. And then she throws her arms around him with outright carnal glee. A more nuanced actress like Stanwyck gave her seduction scenes an ambiguous depth; you sense her calculation, her thinking about her actions. Harlow doesn’t do that; she pounces on her man like a puppy on a toy. What she does is bring the surface to the depths. There’s no guile here; this Lil really wants to screw. (And she wastes no time in getting down to it. Boom-boom-boom.) Sex is more than a path to the upper-class life, it’s a goal in itself. This gives Harlow’s seduction scenes a startling directness; you find yourself laughing while you watch her, squirming as if she can’t wait to yank off one of those tight skirts. You can see why audiences just loved her, and still do. There’s nothing hard or mean about this girl She’s as adorable, and amoral, as a kitten.
But it’s a kitten built like a panther. None of Lil’s victims is a match for her, beginning with Bill. As played by Morris, he’s an aspiring community pillar whose stiff gestures and blunt, Dick-Tracy-like profile declare upright, clean living even before he utters a word. The poor boob snaps like a breadstick in Lil’s slim hands. (“You have the reddest hair I’ve ever seen,” he mutters between clenched teeth as Lil makes her moves.) There’s also Bill’s rich business partner, the elderly coal magnate Charles Gaerste (Henry Stephenson), on whom Lil sets her hypergamous sights, and who falls so quickly that we see only the seduction aftermath—Lil rolling a sheer stocking up one shapely leg and (echoes of the earlier garter scene) snapping its elastic against her thigh, with the cool of a gunslinger blowing smoke off his pistol. This lady is good.
How really good is Lil comes barrelling at you in the film’s best, and most pre-Code-ish scene, which often shows up on those Wow-so-this-is-pre-Code! DVD featurettes. It’s a wow even for its time. A fed-up-to-the-eyeteeth Bill storms into Lil’s apartment and then into her bedroom, where she locks the door. Refused the key he demands, Bill slaps his paramour, hard. At which a hyperventilating Lil shouts, “Do it again! I like it!”, and glues herself right to his kisser. That kind of kinkiness can raise eyebrows even today. (Harlow, panting with what seems unfeigned excitement, ups the kink quotient.) What Lil likes about it is that the slap seals her conquest. When a decent man like Bill can be provoked to striking a woman, you know the citadel is about to topple. We don’t see the tumbling, though. Instead, the camera cuts to a teasing bit of audio-visual metonomy, as Sally, pressed against the locked door (through which she, and we, can hear Lil’s cries and various ‘banging’ noises), gasps, whimpers, and moans, her body tensing up by jerks, until, with a sigh, she blissfully sags, dying a little death at the doorframe.
Left out in the cold from all these erotic high jinks is Bill’s wife Irene, whom Bill genuinely loves, and who, in Leila Hyams’ performance, generates real sympathy from us. Hyams makes Irene quick to wound, her pain-filled eyes belying her calm, patrician dignity. But her very class and breeding, those qualities Lil seeks in her quest to join the country club set, work against her. She hasn’t the gutter instincts to fight for her man; she’d rather sleep in a separate bedroom than compete with “a girl like that,” as she labels Lil. Irene claims she has her “pride”; if hearing that gives you a sense of déjà vu, you’re not alone. We immediately flashed to 1939’s The Women and Norma Shearer’s well-heeled wife, who’s also too high-minded to enter the sex wars. Both films have similar plots: lower-class dame snags rich hubby from upper-class wife. Anita Loos wrote the scripts for both films, and she’s working a pattern here: the shock of the Leisured Class confronting the lower nine-tenths who want a grab at their privileges. As Loos styles it, it’s the American dream played out working-girl style: Lil’s an enterprising bootstrapper who’s working hard (and how!) to better herself with the only assets she’s got—her youth, looks, and lithe little body.
What Loos also shows, perhaps as a sly dig, is how the Leisured folk fight back to maintain their privileges. Lil strives for what Americans are told to strive for: a better life, a higher standard of living. Yet she’s trampling onto claimed territory. She’s slapped, snubbed, made fun of, and even spied on (by Bill’s father), the whole point being to put her in her place. On the night of her grand dinner party, her upscale guests leave early and head over to Irene’s, laughing at their joke; a humiliated Lil berates them for mocking her. Meanwhile, Bill is taken back and forgiven for his indiscretions (while randy old Gaerste suffers no consequences at all). The elites maintain their standards of proper living, but then, it’s THEIR standards that they set and insist on for everyone else.
Tribal lines are being drawn here, as clear as Lil’s transparent skirt. At a post on The Notebook site, David Cairns nails it when he writes how, as demonstrated in an earlier MGM film, the 1928 silent Our Dancing Daughters, the character of “the social climber [is viewed] with a naked unease that runs counter to the ideals of mobility which capitalist societies usually like to celebrate, in gesture if not in deed.” Recall how the Women at the end of The Women gang up on working-girl upstart Crystal; as Cairns says, it’s “a lesson for counter jumpers who don’t know their place.” Lil herself wants only what the upper class already has, yet her desire provokes their disdain while titillating their prurient curiosity. (After an angered Lil shoots Bill, the public is shown smirking about it over the breakfast table and in the barroom, via a montage of newspaper headlines—newspapers owned and operated by the well-to-do, of course.) Lil’s only ally is one of own kind, her working-class lover and Gaerste’s chauffeur Albert (Charles Boyer), who rejoices with her when she announces she’s marrying his boss. Like Lil, Albert knows how the game is played, and views Lil’s seductions for what they are: a better business opportunity.
However, this is MGM, not Warner Bros.; red is for Eros and Harlow’s fake tresses, not for marches on the barricades. And it’s pre-Code, so it’s Lil who gets the last word, escaping to France after she plugs her husband. A title card announces “Two Years Later,” and a recovered, visiting Bill espies Lil at the racetrack, accepting a victory cup in the winner’s circle. Was there an extra meaning to having Lil’s triumph occur in the land of la belle vie? Oscar Wilde once said that when good Americans die, they go to Paris. Our very much alive American Lil not only goes to Paris, she ends up with furs, jewels, a racehorse, a Pekingese, a wealthy sugar daddy in the back seat of a Rolls, and lovely Charles Boyer chauffeuring up front—with goodness, as a wise lady once observed, having nothing to do with it.
If this be the wages of sin, then lead us to it.