NaBloPoMo 2010

Three on a Match (1932)

3 on a Match 1932 Ann Dvorak Joan Blondell Bette Davis

Even as children, it was clear that Mary Keaton (Joan Blondell), Vivian Kirkwood (Ann Dvorak), and Ruth Wescott (Bette Davis) were on three very different paths in life.  Ruth was always very serious about doing well in school, graduated top of the class, and grew up to be a stenographer.  Mary was a bit more rebellious and even spent some time in a reform school, but grew up and went into show business.  Vivian, on the other hand, was the popular girl and went on to marry Robert Kirkwood (Warren William), a rich lawyer, and become a housewife.

After their time together in school, years go by and the girls fall out of touch.  But they end up meeting up again for lunch and Vivian reveals that even though it looks like she’s got it made, she’s really quite bored with her life.  To add some spice to her life, she takes a cruise, where she meets Michael Loftus (Lyle Talbot).  But before the ship even leaves, she takes her son and runs off with Michael.  While Vivian takes up a hard-partying lifestyle full of booze, cocaine, and parties, quality parenting gets put on the back burner.  Police investigate their disappearances, but the only person who finds them is Mary.  Mary tries to talk some sense into her, but when she won’t listen, she goes to see Robert to tell him where they are.  He takes his son back, divorces Vivian, and goes on to marry Mary.

Meanwhile, Vivian has hit rock bottom.  She’s run out of money and she and Michael owe $2,000 to a trio of gangsters, Harve (Humphrey Bogart), Dick, and Ace.  Michael goes to Robert and threatens to go public about Mary’s criminal background, but Robert isn’t fazed by him and throws him out of his office.  Instead, Michael hatches a plan to kidnap Mary’s son and hold him hostage.  The whole ordeal makes Mary realize just how far she’s fallen and, in order to save her son, takes some lipstick, writes a note on her nightgown, and throws herself from the window.

Three on a Match is one wild ride!  I just love it.  The cast is really outstanding.  This is one of Bette Davis’ early movies and she wasn’t really being used to her full potential yet.  Joan Blondell was good, but the real star was Ann Dvorak.  She did a spectacular job playing a junkie.  When she was supposed to be strung out, she was so jittery and nervous, it must have been really hard to get that just right.  This was also was also an early appearance from Humphrey Bogart.  In fact, it was the first time he played a gangster and he certainly showed a lot of promise in that type of role.  Three on a Match is quite possibly the ultimate example of a movie that packs a lot into a short amount of time.  It’s only 63 minutes long, and doesn’t waste a minute of it!  A fantastic cast, great performances, it’s well written, and it’s all packed into just over an hour.  What’s not to like here?

Baby Face (1933)

Baby Face 1933 Barbara Stanwyck

To say that Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck) had a lousy upbringing is a huge understatement.  Her mother died when she was very young, leaving her to be raised by her father Nick, the owner of a speakeasy in Erie, Pennsylvania.  He makes her work in the speakeasy and has even been pimping her out to his customers since she was fourteen years old.  She does have two friends in Chico (Theresa Harris), her co-worker, and Adolf,  a cobbler who is a big fan of Nietzsche.  Lily has had just about enough of her life and is ready to leave, but just as she gets into a huge fight with her father about it, a still explodes and he’s killed in the fire.  Not knowing where else to turn, she turns to Adolf, who advises her to go to a big city and use men to get whatever she wants.  So she and Chico sneak onto the next train, where Lily seduces a worker on the train so he won’t throw them off the train.

When they arrive in New York City, Lily sets her heart on getting a job at the Gotham Trust.  She’s never worked in an office before, but once again, she seduces her way into the job.  She continues to use men left and right to move up within the company.  Even a young John Wayne is no match for Barbara Stanwyck’s wiles.  She works her way up to executive Ned Stevens (Donald Cook).  Ned’s happily engaged to Ann Carter (Margaret Lindsay), but Lily likes the challenge.  She even specifically arranges it so that Ann will find her together with Ned!  Ann tries to get her father J.R. Carter, the vice president of the company, to make Lily back off, but Lily wins him over in her usual style.  Not only does Lily get herself a new boyfriend, he gets her a stylish new apartment and a job for Chico as her maid.  What Lily doesn’t count on is Ned flying into a jealous rage and shooting J.R. before shooting himself.

The only man who seems able to resist Lily is Courtland Trenholm (George Brent).  After he’s elected president of the company, Lily’s first order of business is to try to get $15,000 from the company to stop her from handing over her personal diary to the press.  Instead, Courtland gives her a job in their Paris office to get her out of the way.  Lily accepts, and in Paris, she works her way up to being the head of the travel bureau.  When Courtland stops by the Paris office, he’s quite surprised to see that she wasn’t just another gold digger and finally succumbs to Lily’s charms.  Like J.R. before him, Courtland buys Lily lots of expensive gifts.  Unfortunately, Courtland finds himself in hot water after the bank fails.  He turns to Lily and asks her to sell her expensive jewelery so he can afford to defend himself, but she refuses.  Rather than face ruin, he shoots himself.  But Lily realizes that no amount of money can buy true love and changes her mind.  She finds Courtland in time and she’s able to save his life.

You didn’t think I was going to spend thirty days talking about pre-codes and not mention Baby Face, did you?  There were some pretty scandalous movies made in the pre-code era, but I think Baby Face is most definitely the most sordid of all the pre-codes.  There is absolutely nothing even remotely safe about Baby Face.  It takes elements that would be controversial enough on their own, but then adds a twist to them that makes them even more shocking.  Not only was Lily a prostitute, she was pimped out at a very young age by her own father.  And not only does she use men to get ahead in life, she’s actually encouraged to do so and she doesn’t blink an eye at her own behavior.  Baby Face is Barbara Stanwyck at her toughest and she is amazing to watch.  If you’ve never seen this movie before, just watch this clip:

It’s always great to watch Barbara Stanwyck telling somebody off and the scene where Lily yells at her father is my favorite instance of that.  And I love her tough girl attitude in that scene.  Who else could break a bottle over a man’s head and go back to her drink like it was nothing more than hitting a fly with a flyswatter?  This is one of those movies that truly must be seen to be believed.

What’s on TCM: December 2010

December can only mean one thing: Christmas movies galore!  Up this month are plenty of traditional Christmas classics along with a few off-beat ones that will certainly please fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000.  In addition to that, every Thursday in December, TCM will be saluting living legend Mickey Rooney by playing 24 hours of his movies, including every Andy Hardy movie and all his pairings with Judy Garland.  Speaking of living legends, a new episode of Private Screenings will be premiering this month featuring Liza Minnelli.  To celebrate, TCM will be taking two nights to showcase some of the best movies by Liza, Judy, and Vincente.  This month’s guest programmer is Eli Wallach, who has made some very stellar choices.  Fans of John Wayne will be glad to hear that on December 22, there will be 24 hours of nothing but John Wayne.  When New Year’s Eve rolls around, why not bid 2010 adieu with Cary Grant movies all day and Marx Brothers movies all night?  And to top it all off, the final two installments of the Moguls and Movie Stars series air this month on the first two Mondays and Wednesdays.

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Lady Killer (1933)

Lady Killer 1933 James Cagney

When Dan Quigley (James Cagney) loses his job as an usher in a movie theater, he turns to running a dice game in a hotel lobby.  While in the hotel one day, he spots the lovely Myra Gale (Mae Clarke) sitting in the lobby and as she gets up to leave, she drops her purse.  Dan follows her to return it, but she leaves before he can.  He drops by her apartment later that day to return it, and she invites him in for a drink and introduces him to her brother-in-law, who is in the middle of a poker game.  Not being able to resist a card game, Dan decides to join the game and he gets taken to the cleaners.  As he leaves the apartment, he meets someone else carrying a purse and looking for Myra.  Dan quickly realizes that Myra’s purse dropping is only a ruse to lure men into a crooked poker game.  Never one to miss a business opportunity, he goes back into the apartment and demands to get in on the action.

With Dan bringing in new people to take advantage of, business is booming.  But then the gang sets their sights on a wealthy widow.  Dan stages a car accident with the woman and arranges it so that he and another member of the gang can get inside her house.  They manage to pull off the robbery, but they start feeling the heat from the police after a butler they knocked unconscious dies.  The gang flees for Los Angeles and Dan is arrested before he even leaves the train station.  When he calls up Myra and asks her to bail him out, she says she’ll help him, but instead she skips town with his money.  The police have to let him go because they don’t have enough evidence to hold him, but they warn him to either get a job in the next 48 hours or get out-of-town.

As luck would have it, Dan is approached by a couple of people in the movie business who offer him some work as an extra.  It turns out he’s a natural in front of the camera, so he gets more and more work in the movies and, thanks to some clever self-promotion, he becomes quite a star.  He also wins the heart of movie star Lois Underwood (Margaret Lindsay).  When he brings Lois by his apartment one night, he’s quite surprised to see Myra there waiting for him.  Myra’s there to blackmail him into helping the gang break into the homes of movie stars or she’ll ruin his career by revealing his past.  Success hasn’t made Dan completely lose his tough guy behavior though and he grabs Myra by the hair and throws her into the hallway.  And people thought the grapefruit scene in The Public Enemy was harsh!  But Dan ultimately goes to the gang and offers them $10,000 if they leave town.  They take the money, but they don’t run.  After they steal some of Lois’ jewelry, Dan catches them and takes the jewelry to return it.  But before he can do that, the police nab him, assume he’s responsible for the robbery, and throw him in jail.  The gang realizes that Dan could really send them all up the river and decides to bail him out of jail and then kill him.  They go to bail Dan out of jail, but little do they know that Dan has a trick up his sleeve.

I love gangster movies and I love comedies, but it seems like the two of those don’t come together terribly often.  I can think of Some Like it Hot and Larceny Inc. off-hand, but it’s really a treat to see James Cagney having some fun with the gangster genre.  Cagney really had great comedic timing and I loved being able to see him work that into that tough guy part he played so brilliantly.  I loved all the in-jokes about The Public Enemy, especially when Mae Clarke is reading from a brochure about Los Angeles and looks concerned when she mentions grapefruits as one of its top crops.  It also gets in some great jabs at the film industry, especially the absurdity of having white actors play different races.  The scene where Cagney gets his skin sprayed to look like an Indian chief is hilarious! It’s another one of those great movies that manages to pack a whole lot into a short run-time.  It’s 75 minutes of pure fun and entertainment.

Christopher Strong (1933)

Christopher Strong 1933 Katharine Hepburn

While at a party one night, the hostess challenges her guests to go out and find either a man who has been married for a long time and has been faithful the entire time or a woman over twenty who has never had a love affair.  Monica Strong (Helen Chandler) and her boyfriend Harry head out to find these people.  Monica heads straight for home to fetch her father Christopher Strong (Colin Clive), but Harry ends up meeting famous aviatrix Lady Cynthia Darrington (Katharine Hepburn) after they have a minor accident on the road.  When Harry finds out that Cynthia meets the requirements, he brings her back to the party.  At the party, Monica is thrilled to meet Cynthia and quickly becomes friends with her.  Christopher is thrilled to see Monica spending time with Cynthia since he thinks Cynthia is a positive influence on her, but also because he has a growing infatuation with Cynthia.  Christopher’s wife Elaine (Billie Burke) suspects her husband has strong feelings for Cynthia and her worst fears are confirmed when Cynthia comes to stay with the family in Cannes.

While in Cannes, Cynthia and Christopher take a late night boat ride after a party and they both confess that they love each other.  When they get back to the house, they kiss, which Elaine sees, but agree that they shouldn’t be together.  Cynthia distances herself from the Strongs, but can’t help but get involved when Monica comes by her home one night on the brink of suicide.  Her mother had forbidden her from seeing Harry because he was married, but now that he’s divorced, he won’t marry her because he found out about a one-night fling she had with another man in Cannes.  Cynthia saves her by calling Harry and convincing him to give Monica another chance.  After straightening out Monica’s crisis, Cynthia embarks on a challenge to fly around the world.  She wins the challenge and becomes something of an international celebrity, but she still longs for her days with Christopher.  Much to her surprise, when she lands in New York, Christopher is also in town and eager to see her.

While in New York, they rekindle their romance and Cynthia agrees to give up flying to ease Christopher’s worries.  Even though she misses flying, she soon realizes that she has a reason to stay on the ground: she’s going to have a baby.  But before she can tell Christopher the news, he finds out that Monica (who is now married to Harry) is expecting a baby of her own.  Cynthia goes to congratulate Monica, but Monica and Harry have discovered her affair with Christopher and Monica gives her the cold shoulder.  To make matters worse for Cynthia, she feels awfully guilty when Elaine personally thanks her for helping to make Monica so happy.  She doesn’t have the heart to destroy Christopher’s marriage, so she gets back in her plane to break the world’s record for altitude and commits suicide.

I thought it was odd that this movie was named after the lead male character when the women are the strongest parts of it.  This was only Katherine Hepburn’s second movie, but it really set the tone for the type of roles she’d become infamous for playing: independent, confident women with careers typically held by men.  Kate gave a very solid performance, but my only complaint was that her character is supposed to be from England, but she has no trace of a British accent.  Billie Burke and Helen Chandler were both also quite memorable, but you can’t talk about the women involved in Christopher Strong without mentioning the director Dorothy Arzner.  Just like the character of Cynthia, Dorothy Arzner was also a woman doing a job typically only held by men, so I can’t imagine a better person to direct this movie.  On the whole, I thought it had some good performances, but I didn’t think the story was anything particularly special.  If I used a star system to rate movies, I’d give it two and a half out of four stars.

It’s also worth noting that there is a scene where Katharine Hepburn dresses up as a moth, which makes Christopher Strong the second movie I’ve reviewed this month where the lead actress dresses up as some sort of insect.

Design for Living (1933)

Design for Living 1933 Fredric March Gary Cooper Miriam Hopkins

Tom Chambers (Fredric March) and George Curtis (Gary Cooper) are a couple of artistic best friends.  Tom is a playwright and George is a painter.  They may not be rich, but they’re happy living together in their dingy apartment.  But all that changes when they meet Gilda Farrell (Miriam Hopkins), an artist working for an advertising agency, on a train trip.  She immediately hits it off with both of them and the duo becomes a trio.  However, Tom and George both fall in love with Gilda and Gilda loves both of them back.  When Tom and George realize this, they agree to try to forget about Gilda, but that doesn’t last long.  The thing is, Gilda can’t decide who she loves more so she suggests that she move in with both of them so she can make up her mind.

When Gilda moves in, she helps the guys out by criticizing their work and inspiring them to be more creative.  She takes one of Tom’s plays and gives it to a producer, who agrees to produce it in London.  While in London, just as Tom is dictating a letter to Gilda and George about how much he’s looking forward to seeing them again, he gets word that Gilda has chosen George over him.  Even though Tom is heartbroken, his play goes on to become a huge success.  One night, he runs into Gilda’s former employer and wannabe lover Max Plunkett (Edward Everett Horton), who tells Tom that George has become a successful painter.  Tom goes to Paris to see George, only to find he has moved to a swanky penthouse and that George is out-of-town working on a portrait.  He’s told he can talk to George’s secretary, who turns out to be Gilda.  Gilda and Tom quickly rekindle their romance and he spends the night at their place.  They are quite surprised when George returns a few days earlier than expected and immediately figures out what happened and throws both of them out.  But before Tom and Gilda can leave, she writes each of them a farewell letter and runs off to marry Max.

With Gilda out of the picture, Tom and George become good friends again.  However, once Gilda is married, she loathes having to entertain Max’s clients and playing inane party games.  The night Max is having a very important party for his clients, Tom and George decide to crash the party and hide up in Gilda’s bedroom.  When she escapes from the party and finds them there, the three of them have a great time telling stories and laughing.  After Max comes in and finds them, he throws them out, but they just go downstairs and start a big fight with the guests.  Gilda decides to leave Max and heads out with Tom and George to resume their old lifestyle.

I adored Design for Living!  Fredric March, Gary Cooper, and Miriam Hopkins had real chemistry together, they were absolutely delightful to watch.  With Gary Cooper and Fredric March both at their most handsome, who can blame Miriam Hopkins for having a hard time choosing between the two?  The writing is smart, witty, and sophisticated, even if it was drastically rewritten from the original Noel Coward play.  Only one line from the original play made its way into the movie.  And with Ernst Lubitsch in the director’s chair, it’s got that infamous sleek, stylish touch.  I loved everything about it.  If you’ve never seen it before, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Mary Stevens, M.D. (1933)

Mary Stevens M.D. 1933 Kay FrancisIn a time when it was rare for women to hold any job more advanced than a secretary, Mary Stevens (Kay Francis) manages to buck the odds and become a doctor.  She and her boyfriend Don Andrews (Lyle Talbot) both become doctors at the same time and even start their own offices together.  Even though many people are reluctant to be treated by a female doctor, Mary builds a good reputation for herself as a pediatrician.  Don, on the other hand, becomes only interested in climbing the social ladder.  He starts dating Lois (Thelma Todd), daughter of the prominent political figure Walter Rising.  With Lois in his life, Don becomes more and more neglectful of his practice and even begins to steal money from his practice.  After Lois and Don are married, he’s given a pretty nice political job, but he manages to blow that when he shows up to perform an operation completely drunk.  Don and Mary go their separate ways and they don’t see each other again until two years later when they run into each other on vacation.  Mary has become quite a renowned pediatrician, but Don is hiding from the law.  They begin having an affair again and decide they want to get married, but Lois’s father won’t let them get a divorce for at least another six months.  Once Don’s father-in-law has cleared Don’s name, the two of them return to New York to wait for the six months to pass.  But after returning home, Mary finds out she’s pregnant.  Thrilled, she’s dying to tell Don, but then he announces that Lois is pregnant so the divorce is off.

Mary heads off to Paris with her loyal friend and nurse Glenda (Glenda Farrell) to have her baby.  She had a healthy baby boy and is quite happy as a mother until she hears from Don that Lois wasn’t really pregnant after all so he’s able to marry her now.  She gets on the next boat back to New York, but on the trip back, she has to take care of two young girls with Polio.  Unfortunately, Mary’s baby also catches Polio.  She’s able to save the two girls, but her baby dies.  Mary is absolutely devastated by the fact that she couldn’t save her own baby and vows to never practice medicine again.  She’s on the verge of suicide when she finds out about a child who has swallowed a pin and is choking on it.  Not willing to let the child die, she dives right in and saves the child using her own hairpin.  With her confidence restored and Don still wanting to marry her, Mary is eager to start her life over again.

I thought Mary Stevens, M.D. was a pretty interesting movie.  It offered up a rich role for Kay Francis and gave Glenda Farrell the chance to play an awesome sidekick.  And it’s definitely interesting to see a movie about a woman doctor, because they were most decidedly a real rarity in the 1930s.  The ending gets pretty melodramatic and far-fetched, but it’s otherwise enjoyable.

Dames (1934)

Dames 1934 Busby Berkeley

Busby Berkeley loved to taunt censors and uptight people, so I guess it’s no big surprised that he did a whole movie making fun of the morally self-righteous.  In Dames, Hugh Herbert plays Ezra Ounce, an eccentric millionaire with exceptionally high moral standards.  He’s looking for family members he can leave ten  million dollars to in his will and it looks like his cousin Matilda Hemingway (ZaSu Pitts) is one of his few options.  The catch is that he wants to leave his money only to the most upstanding family members, so nobody like his distant relative Jimmy Higgens (Dick Powell), who has his career in showbiz.  To make sure Matilda and her family meets his high standards, he goes to New York to live with them for a while and his stay is a disaster before he even arrives.  Matilda’s husband Horace (Guy Kibbee) accompanies him on the trip by train and returns to his cabin to find showgirl Mabel Anderson (Joan Blondell) sleeping in his bed.  She needed a way to get out-of-town after her show closed so she snuck into his cabin.  Trying to avoid a scandal, Horace gives her $200 and tells her not to mention it to anybody.

Meanwhile, Horace’s daughter Barbara (Ruby Keeler) has been having an affair with Jimmy (they’re 13th cousins) and wants to star in one of his shows someday.  With Uncle Ezra in town, it’s a challenge to keep all these juicy details from costing them their inheritance.  Especially when Mabel comes back and blackmails Horace into giving her the money Jimmy needs to put on his new show so that she can star in it.  When the press writes about the new show, they say it’s positively scandalous and that it’s being backed by a mysterious millionaire.  On opening night, Horace, Ezra, and Matilda show up just to see how bad it is.  The first musical number doesn’t shock them too much, but then Barbara does her first number and they’re pleased with how harmless it was.  By the end of the show, they think it’s great!  But their change in mood also had something to do with the fact that they spent the entire show drinking a health tonic that happens to be 23% alcohol.  But at long last, Uncle Ezra realizes that being high and mighty is awfully overrated!

1933 was a truly spectacular year for Busby Berkeley.  He added his signature touch to three of the most iconic musicals of all time, 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933, and Footlight Parade, all in the same year.  With a year like that, it should come as no surprise that by 1934, he’d be slowing down just a little bit.  Dames most definitely doesn’t live up to the standards of Footlight Parade, but in all fairness, it would have been extremely difficult for him to live up to anything he had done the previous year.  The story and the musical numbers simply aren’t as solid or memorable as some of his previous efforts.  I’ll walk around with The Shadow Waltz stuck in my head all day, but Girl at the Ironing Board doesn’t have the same effect on me.  Even though we get to see a lot of the classic stars of Busby Berkeley movies like Joan Blondell, Dick Powell, and Ruby Keeler, they just don’t shine as brightly as they had before.  But with all that being said, I did enjoy Dames.  I loved the Dames number and I Only Have Eyes For You.  It was also very funny.  Gold Diggers of 1933 and Footlight Parade definitely had comedy in them, but Dames was a lot sillier than either of those.  And just because the stars didn’t have quite the same spark as they had before, they certainly weren’t bad by any stretch of the imagination.  It’s a fun three-star follow-up to an unbeatable four-star streak of movies.

Rafter Romance (1933)

Rafter Romance 1933 Ginger Rogers

Mary Carroll (Ginger Rogers) and Jack Bacon (Norman  Foster) are two people with very different lives.  Mary has just moved to New York and it took her a while to find a job selling iceboxes by telephone.  Jack is an aspiring artist and a security guard by night.  What they do have in common is that both of them are having a hard time paying their rent.  So their landlord Max Eckbaum (George Sidney) comes up with an idea where both of them move into the attic and split the rent.  Since Mary works during the day, she’ll be gone while Jack needs to sleep and Jack will be working while Mary is sleeping; they would never actually be home together at the same time.  Neither of them is particularly happy about the arrangement, but they don’t really have much of a choice.  However, as their arrangement progresses, they each do stuff that annoys the other person even though they aren’t there at the same time and they grow to despise each other.

But what they don’t realize is that they have met before.  While waiting for her turn in the apartment one evening, Mary sits outside of a deli working on her sales pitch.  James walks out of the deli and starts flirting with her.  The two of them meet up again and James even promises to buy six iceboxes from her.  When they arrange to meet up again, they inadvertently end up sabotaging each other.  Mary stops at home for a quick shower, only to find her roommate has rigged the shower to fall and hit her on the head.  So Mary gets revenge by putting his good suit in the shower so it would get all wet.  Jack leaves Mary waiting for him in the rain while he tries to get his suit taken care of.  When he tries to call her the next day to explain, she won’t talk to him and accepts an invitation from her boss for a night out.

While she’s out with the boss, Elise, a wealthy older woman with designs on Jack visits Jack at the apartment and realizes he’s living with a woman.  They get into a fight that results in Elise refusing to leave and Jack having to leave his own apartment.  While he’s out, he runs into Mary and convinces her to have dinner with him and Jack agrees to be Mary’s date to the company picnic the next day.  They have a nice evening out, but what Mary doesn’t expect to find when she comes home is Elise asleep in her bed.  The next day, Jack and Mary have a lovely time at the company picnic, but as they are leaving the picnic, Jack sprains his ankle.  Mary takes him home and realizes that Jack is the roommate she despises so much.  The two of them fight, but everything works out for the best and the movie has a happy ending.

The story reminded me a lot of The Shop Around the Corner and Pillow Talk, but compared to those two movies, Rafter Romance is a downright obscure movie.  Rafter Romance was produced by Merian C. Cooper, and in the 1940s, Cooper sued RKO for money he wasn’t paid for movies he had produced in the 1930s.  As part of the settlement, he was given full ownership of six RKO titles, including Rafter Romance.  While he owned them, he only allowed Rafter Romance to be played on television in 1955.  It wouldn’t be seen again until 2007 when TCM acquired the rights to the movies owned by Cooper, restored them, and started airing them.  I thought Rafter Romance was a pretty cute movie.  It isn’t nearly as scandalous as a lot of other pre-codes and it’s not meant to offer any serious commentary on society, but it’s a fun little movie.

Red-Headed Woman (1932)

Red Headed Woman 1932 Jean Harlow Chester Morris

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.