Chester Morris

Pre-Code Essentials: Red-Headed Woman (1932)

Red-Headed Woman 1932

Plot

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.


My Thoughts

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.”

Saleswoman: “Oh…”

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.

Pre-Code Essentials: The Divorcee (1930)

The Divorcee 1930 Norma Shearer

Plot

When Jerry (Norma Shearer) and Ted (Chester Morris) decide to get married, one of the most important things they both want is for their marriage to be a marriage of equals. They live together happily married for three years, but that all changes on the night of their third anniversary party. Several of their friends arrive at Ted and Jerry’s home, including Janice (Mary Doran). Ted and Janice had a brief affair some time ago and it doesn’t take long for Jerry to pick up on the fact that they aren’t just friends. She pressures Ted into admitting to the affair, but he swears it doesn’t mean a thing.

Jerry is devastated by Ted’s infidelity, but since their marriage was supposed to be built on equality, she evens the score by having an affair with Ted’s best friend Don (Robert Montgomery). She admits to it and also tells him it didn’t mean anything to her, but Ted is furious. However, Jerry is even angrier at Ted’s double standards and insists on a divorce so she can be free to pursue as many men as she pleases. But will that kind of lifestyle make her happy?


My Thoughts

I really don’t think The Divorcee gets enough credit nowadays. Although it’s widely accepted as one of the greatest pre-code films, it doesn’t get enough recognition for being a good movie in general. Time has actually been quite kind to The Divorcee, which is a lot more than can be said for many other movies from this era. It lacks the general creakiness that is characteristic of many movies from the late 1920s and very early 1930s. The writing is great and the story still feels very modern and relevant. You could do a remake of it today and audiences could forget how long ago the original story was written. Norma Shearer’s performance is still wonderful; not the sort you have to say, “Well, standards were different back then” about. It’s a very smart, well produced movie that deserves a little more recognition beyond its pre-code factor.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moments

When Jerry tells Ted she’s “balanced their accounts.”

The scene where Jerry furiously tells Ted that from then on, he’s the only man her door is closed to.

The whole plot in general.


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

The Divorcee is based on the novel “Ex-Wife” by Ursula Parrot, which was a bestseller in 1929 because of its scandalous content. Obviously, trying to turn it into a movie was going to be a very risky endeavor because being tied to such a book was going to practically set out a welcome mat for censors and moral crusaders. You might notice that the book is never directly credited as being the basis for the movie; it’s simply stated as being “based on a novel by Ursula Parrot.”

Taking on a provocative character like Jerry was also definitely a big career risk for Norma Shearer. By the time she made The Divorcee, she was an established star, but audiences loved her for playing respectable characters. But she was bound and determined to liven up her image with something more scandalous; a move that could have either brought her career to a new level or been career suicide. Her husband Irving Thalberg didn’t think she was right for the part and even Norma’s maid thought playing such a character would be a bad idea. But she certainly proved them all wrong and not only successfully changed her screen image, but won an Academy Award in the process.

The Divorcee (1930)

While staying at a resort with some friends, Jerry (Norma Shearer) and Ted (Chester Morris) decide to get married with one stipulation — that their marriage will be a marriage of equals.  Their friends are thrilled for them  and spend the rest of the night celebrating their good news.  Well, everyone except for Paul (Conrad Nagel), that is.  He’s been carrying a torch for Jerry and spends the evening getting drunk.  When the party’s over, Jerry and Ted leave separately while some others get into a car driven by the now very inebriated Paul.  Of course, this does not end well and he crashes the car and disfigures their friend Dorothy.

Ted and Jerry get married and out of guilt, Paul marries Dorothy.  Ted and Jerry couldn’t be happier together but that all comes to an end the night of their third wedding anniversary.  When some of their friends come over for a party, a woman named Janice (Mary Doran) tags along with one of the guests.  Not only has Janice already met Ted, but they had an affair one night when he was drunk and away on business.  When Janice corners Ted in the kitchen, Jerry catches them and immediately knows what’s going on.  She confronts Ted about it and he tries to brush it off, claiming that it didn’t mean anything, but Jerry is heartbroken.  After Ted leaves for Chicago on business, his best friend Don (Robert Montgomery) keeps her company while he’s out of town.  Since this was supposed to be a marriage of equals, Jerry decides to even the score and have an affair with Don.  After all, they were supposed to be equals, right? But when Ted gets back from his trip, Jerry breaks the news to him and suddenly Ted’s singing a different tune when Jerry says it didn’t mean anything.

As much as Jerry wants to make their marriage work, she can’t deal with Ted and his double standards and divorces him.  Jerry sets out on her new life determined to have plenty of affairs and boy, does she!  But while on a trip for work, she runs into her old friend Paul.  Paul is still married to Dorothy, but has never been able to forget Jerry.  The two of them begin having an affair and travel together all over the place.  Paul and Jerry even talk about getting married, but after Jerry meets with Dorothy, she doesn’t have the heart to take her husband away from her.  Meanwhile, Ted hasn’t been faring so well and has been hitting the bottle pretty hard in Paris.  When New Years Eve rolls around, Jerry decides to spend it in Paris, hoping she would run into Ted.  They meet again at a party and decide to start the new year by giving their marriage another try.

The Divorcee is one of the most essential pre-code movies and rightfully so.  I love the story, actually I think it would still make for an interesting movie if it were made today.  I don’t think it really gets enough credit for what an important movie it is.  The Divorcee is basically the movie that really put the whole pre-code era into high gear.  And if you’re unfamiliar with the pre-code era, then getting to see a woman like Jerry is a very interesting change of pace from how women were often portrayed in movies made under the code.  Norma Shearer is phenomenal in it, easily one of her finest moments.  I love the story about how Norma had to fight Irving Thalberg to get the part.  She desperately wanted the part, but Thalberg didn’t think she was right for it so to prove her point, she went and had some saucy pictures taken.  After seeing the results, he finally saw Norma’s point of view and let her have the part that went on to get her an Oscar.  It’s a great movie and if you have even the slightest interest in the pre-code era, you absolutely must see it.

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.