Lil Andrews (Jean Harlow) is a woman who lives on the wrong side of the tracks, but she’ll stop at nothing to move up in the world. The best way she can think of to accomplish that goal is to marry a wealthy man and she sets her sights on her boss, Bill Legendre (Chester Morris). The fact that he’s happily married and devoted to his wife Irene (Leila Hyams) means nothing to Lil. She relentlessly tries to seduce Bill to break up their marriage.
When Lil finally succeeds in destroying Bill’s marriage, she marries him and completely throws herself into her new role of high society wife. She shows off her newfound status at every chance she gets, but is totally dismayed when she’s continually snubbed by the other elite people in town, who are still loyal friends to Irene. Just when Lil thinks she’s found a way to force them to accept her, they ditch her party to go to Irene’s instead.
Fed up, Lil leaves to spend some time in New York. Meanwhile, Bill has reason to suspect that Lil has been two-timing him.
For as cold and relentless Lil is, it’s hard not to love Jean Harlow in this role. She is just so incredibly brazen, forward, and over the top; it’s extremely hard to not be entertained by her. I especially love the scene where she’s driving down the street to her hair apartment in her flashy new car, wearing her expensive new clothes, with her dog sitting in the passenger seat, turning the heads of everybody on the sidewalk. As she’s driving along, there’s marching band music playing, and when she turns the car off, the music stops, so it turns out the music is what was playing on her car radio. It always makes me laugh so hard that she was essentially throwing herself a one-woman parade; it’s too much and I love it.
Red-Headed Woman also features a nice, sharp script by Anita Loos and a wonderful supporting cast of Chester Morris, Leila Hyams, and Una Merkel.
The Definitive Pre-Code Moments
While trying on a dress:
Lil: “Can you see through this?”
Saleswoman: “I’m afraid you can, Miss.”
Lil: “I’ll wear it.”
Lil putting Bill’s picture into her garter belt.
The completely gratuitous scene where Lil’s catches her friend Sally (Una Merkel) wearing her pajamas and makes her take them off.
Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code
There were lots of movies about adultery during the pre-code era, but Lil is without a doubt the most completely shameless homewrecker of the era. Red-Headed Woman is another movie that was a nightmare for the Hays Office before the cameras even started rolling. Between Lil’s unapologetic adultery and the fact that in the end, she tries to shoot Bill (sorry for the spoiler) and gets away with it (and all of her other behavior) was very problematic for censors. Once the Hays Code was being more strictly enforced, any kind of criminal or amoral behavior had to be punished and that certainly doesn’t happen here. Seventeen cuts had to be made to it for it to be released in the United States, but it was banned in the United Kingdom and wasn’t officially screened there until 1965 — although King George V kept a copy of it in his personal collection.