When it comes to vicious social climbers, they don’t come much more ferocious than Lil Andrews (Jean Harlow). Lil works as a secretary for Bill Legendre, Jr. (Chester Morris), one of the most powerful men in town. Lil is so determined to seduce her boss and marry him that she keeps a picture of him in her garter belt. Only problem is that Bill is very happily married to Irene (Leila Hyams), his childhood sweetheart. Bill thinks Lil is very pretty and he doesn’t trust himself to be alone around her, so of course, Lil goes out of her way to get alone with Bill. Bill is no match for Lil’s charm and just as Lil succeeds in getting her way, in walks Irene. Bill is horrified, but Lil goes straight home and brags about it to her friend Sally (Una Merkel).
The next day, Bill’s father tries to offer Lil a job in Cleveland, but she’s not about to be bought off that easily. Lil only becomes more aggressive and when Bill stands her up, she shows up at his house completely drunk, which ends up being the final nail in the coffin of Bill and Irene’s marriage. They soon get a divorce and Bill marries Lil. But married life doesn’t work out the way Lil thought it would because Bill’s upper class friends have a hard time accepting her and all openly favor Irene. Lil decides she needs a change in scenery, so she starts having an affair with Charles B. Gaerste, a mogul visiting from New York. Bill’s father finds out about Lil’s affair and tips Bill off, so when she demands to go to New York, he sends her but warns her to be on her best behavior. But Lil only gets into more trouble than ever: she carries on her affair with Charles, but also seduces his chauffeur Albert (Charles Boyer). When Bill shows Charles some compromising pictures of Lil with Albert, Charles fires Albert and Lil goes home, only to find Bill trying to get back together with Irene. Lil is absolutely livid and fires a shot at Bill. Bill lives, but refuses to press charges against Lil. The two go their separate ways, but he does run into her in Paris a few years down the road, where she is living with her wealthy French boyfriend.
For my money, Red-Headed Woman is Jean Harlow at her best! Her character is very unlikable, but the fact that she is such a relentless gold digger, so brazen, and a bit comical, she’s extremely entertaining to watch. She also had a stellar supporting cast with Chester Morris, Una Merkel, and Leila Hyams. All three of them are actors I really like but I don’t think they get all the credit they deserve these days.
Everything about Red-Headed Woman absolutely screams pre-code. The Hays Office frowned pretty hard on women being so forward, extramarital affairs, and people getting away with crimes scot-free. Red-Headed Woman is a big reason the production codes were so strictly enforced in later years. It was hugely scandalous when it was first released and was even banned in the United Kingdom until 1965. But, of course, the controversy only fueled box office sales and it was a huge success. Even today, it’s still pretty awesomely shocking. I love it.