Leila Hyams

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.

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.