TCM Pick for March: Pre-Code
I’m barely squeaking in under the wire this time – but I couldn’t pass up the chance to offer up my pre-Code pick of the month for March – Red-Headed Woman (1932). One of the first pre-Codes I ever saw, and one of the most scandalous, Red-Headed Woman airs on TCM on the morning of Monday, March 25th – and you haven’t seen this one, you’re in for a real treat. The film stars Jean Harlow and Chester Morris, with an awesome supporting cast that includes one of my favorite pre-Code gal pals, Una Merkel, along with Leila Hyams, Lewis Stone, and May Robson.
Social-climbing Lillian “Lil’” Andrews (Jean Harlow) works as a secretary and has her eye on more than her typewriter – she’s got a hankerin’ for her boss, Bill Legnedre (Chester Morris), and the fact that he’s happily married is of little consequence. As for Bill, he’s no match for this red-headed home-wrecker – no matter how hard he tries!
There are lots from which to choose, but I do love the economical opening of the film, which gives us a glimpse into Lil’s character in just three short frames. In the first, she’s just finished having a facial and comments, “So gentlemen prefer blondes, do they?” She then takes a look at herself in a mirror and concludes, “Yes, they do” (which, as I learned a few years after my first viewing, really means “Yeah, right” in 1930s-speak). The next one – and my favorite of the three – shows Lil in a dress shop trying on a new frock. She addresses an off-camera saleslady, asking her if she can see through the dress. When the woman reluctantly affirms that she can, Lil responds, “I’ll wear it.” And the third just shows Lil’s legs as we hear her say “Hmm, the boss’s picture.” We watch as she takes a picture of his face, clipped from a newspaper article, and fits it neatly inside a frame on her garter. “Well, it’ll get me more there than it will hanging on a wall,” she comments. With these three brief sequences, totaling less than a minute in length, we see that Lil has a high (and deserving!) opinion of herself, that she’s a bit of an exhibitionist, and that she just may be the type of gal who’ll stop at nothing to get what she wants.
“You won’t have him long. You caught him with sex, but sex isn’t the only thing in life and it doesn’t last forever, and once it’s gone, you’ll lose him. Because then he’ll want love, and love is one thing you don’t know anything about and never will!” Irene Legendre (Leila Hyams)
- The original screenplay was by F. Scott Fitzgerald, but MGM production chief Irving Thalberg thought the tone of Fitzgerald’s script was too serious. He brought in Anita Loos to do a rewrite with a lighter tone.
- Jean Harlow wore a red wig for the film.
- Leila Hyams, who played Bill Legendre’s wife, was one of the top female stars of the pre-Code era, but her career ended in 1936, when she retired from the big screen to concentrate on her marriage. It was worth the sacrifice – she remained married to the same man for 50 years, until her death in 1977 at the age of 72.
- Charles Boyer has a small part in the film as a chauffeur.
- The film was banned in the UK until after 1965.
- Director John Conway also directed Harlow in Libeled Lady (1934), The Girl from Missouri (1936), and her final film, Saratoga (1937).
- Watch for this goof. In the scene where Sally removes her pajamas and hands them to Lil, she tells her friend to “hang on to that bootlegger of yours.” Lil, standing near the door, gestures to a man’s framed picture on a table and says, “What? Go on with Al after Bill Legendre?” But the guy in the photo looks nothing like Al (William Pawley), who we saw in an earlier scene with Lil.
Don’t miss Red-Headed Woman, airing on TCM on March 25th. You only owe it to yourself!