Jean Harlow is unforgettable as the amoral ruthless “Lil” in this Pre-Code film, unclassifiable as drama, comedy or romance. There is a lightness to the tone, an insouciant devil-may-care quality, that makes one think one is watching a comedy, but the behavior of Lil is so terrible, that the laughs come at the expense of … oh, a moral compass. Similar to Baby Face starring Barbara Stanwyck (and that is a far better film), Red-Headed Woman makes no apologies for its main character. A mere two years later, with the enforcement of the Code, the ending of Red-Headed Woman would no longer be possible. “Good” would have to be affirmed, no matter how much bad seemed to prosper during the course of the films … in the end, the world is righted again.
Here, there is no right-side-up. Lil, I suppose, could be classified as evil, but only if you see her in the context of human society. Do you consider lions evil when they kill gazelles? Is a spider evil when it spins its web knowing it will mean the deaths of the many bugs that stumble into it? Of course not. Lions and spiders act according to their natures, and so does Lil. She has no sense of right and wrong, only a clear drive to get what she needs. Those who are destroyed in the process are irrelevant. And because Lil is played by the adorable Jean Harlow, we are predisposed to like her. This feeling goes on for the entirety of the film. It’s very unbalancing. Red-Headed Woman is a nasty brutal film.
The first shot is sudden, startling: After the short credits sequence, we see Harlow, lying back in a chair, wrapped in a sheet, her hair a dark shiny color, unlike her normal platinum, and laughs up at someone off-camera, saying, “So gentlemen prefer blondes, do they?” A wink at the audience, who know Harlow only as a blonde, and also a sign: The movie is called Red-Headed Woman, and in the first shot, it is revealed that she dyes her hair that color. It is not an unimportant detail. A red-headed woman is unexpected, even more attention-getting than a blonde (I know of what I speak), and Lil knows that.
The film then cuts to the next shot of Harlow, in a dress, standing in front of a window asking an off-screen clerk, “Can you see through this dress?” We hear the answer, “Yes.” Harlow grins and says, “I’ll take it.” End-scene.
We move right on after that. It is a series of images, showing us Lil “in her natural habitat”. There is no clue yet that she will be a homewrecker, an adulterer, a tramp, especially because Jean Harlow’s smile is so irresistible that we want her to get what she wants. Over the unfolding of the film, we stop wanting that for her, we want someone to step in and stop this woman (there’s a Fatal Attraction-type storyline, although Lil is more interested in money than love) … and her tears and rage at how she is treated by the judgmental people of the town seems pretty silly. What did you expect, Lil?
Her conquests are as follows:
She goes after her boss William Legendre, Jr. (played by Chester Morris). He is already married to his childhood sweetheart (played by the gorgeous Leila Hyams). This does not stop Lil. She clearly offers him sex with no strings attached. At least at first. It is only later that the strings become heavy cables. He succumbs, causing great consternation amongst his family and his business associates. His wife is much loved by all, and everyone sides with her. He divorces her and marries Lil the following day. Lil is shunned by the town, despite her position as his wife. He starts to descend into a netherworld of boozing and partying. Lil seems to never get dressed, lolling about in pajamas. A famous elderly businessman named Mr. Gaerste (Harry Stephenson)comes to town, an old family friend of the Legendres, and refuses to associate with Lil. That is, until she tricks him by sleeping with him in his hotel room, only telling him who she is afterwards, and that she demands that he come over to a dinner party she is hosting, a clear signal to the town that she has “made it”. Lil has this gentleman by the balls, literally, and she now has blackmail material, and so he succumbs as well.
Her treachery is discovered by her husband’s father (she left her monogrammed handkerchief behind in the businessman’s hotel room), and Lil, not knowing this, begs to be allowed to “go to New York”, just to “get away for a bit”. Her husband allows it. She goes to New York, where she immediately sets herself up as the mistress to Mr. Gaerste. She is still a married woman, remember, and Mr. Gaerste knows this, but she is so captivating, so sexy, that he throws caution to the wind and asks Lil to marry him.
Meanwhile, her husband back home has been having her trailed. Lil has also been carrying on a sexual affair with Mr. Gaerste’s French chaffeur (played by Charles Boyer), right under Mr. Gaerste’s nose. At this point, Lil is married to one man (whom she stole from another woman), engaged to another man (an old family friend of her husband), and sleeping with yet another man (an employee of her fiance). Lil has no qualms about any of this. If I had to guess, I would say that she was actually in love with the French chauffeur (her energy with him is much softer than with the other men, where she tends to use a grotesque baby-talk seduction technique), but he doesn’t have a dollar to his name so he is clearly not suitable as a mate. But Lil sees no reason to choose. Why should she choose? Why should she make a choice prematurely before she has her next situation all set up?
Her treachery is again discovered, and she is shunned yet again, by Mr. Gaerste, who fires the chauffeur and banishes Lil.
Lil is a force of nature, as played by Harlow. She is funny, ambitious, volatile, and, when pushed, full of resentment and rage. She rails against the “hypocrites” in the town, the small-minded folk who don’t like her, not quite realizing that it is her behavior that created such a situation. She thinks that social status is everything, and that it demands respect in and of itself, but once she reaches the upper echelons of society, she finds that she is not accepted, that her social status has conferred upon her nothing. She will still always be the tramp that stole another man’s wife. To Lil, this is unfair.
Jean Harlow plays her role with no sentimentality, and no desire to be liked or understood by the audience. She does not plead for sympathy from us. Lil pleads for sympathy, but that’s a big difference than the actress herself wanting to make sure that we out there in the dark still like her. It is a very brave performance. Lil is a treacherous woman: having a run-in with her would be like having a run-in with a grizzly bear or a tsunami. You can’t bemoan the existence of tsunamis and grizzly bears. You just need to make sure you stay as far away as possible from such things, understanding their natures, and understanding the consequences.
The men in the film are portrayed as nice guys, doing their best, but when sex comes into the picture they melt like butter. They are willing to throw it all away for a night of passion. They are not to be trusted. Consequences bedamned, when that redheaded woman starts insinuating herself into your life, all you can do is lie down and submit. They regret their actions once they realize the nature of the woman with which they are dealing. Lil does not give up easily. Once she’s in your life, she won’t let go without a fight. She is scary at times. The men in the film basically beg her to leave them alone. They try to pay her off. Hasn’t she done enough damage? But all she has to do is crook her little finger at them, and call out their name in a sickening baby-voice, and they are inflamed with lust, all other considerations out the window. The film is very frank about sex. Irene Legendre (the scorned wife) lashes out at Lil at one point: “You caught my husband using sex. But sex is all you have. And when that fades, what will be between you? Certainly not love.” There is no euphemism here.
With an excellent script (by Anita Loos, and oh my God, F. Scott Fitzgerald), Red-Headed Woman is an uncompromising film that does not betray its lead character by either killing her off or punishing her, or having her have a change of heart and repent her evil ways. No. Red-Headed Woman goes to the limit. The people whose lives she ruined say to themselves, “She’ll get hers, just you wait …” but methinks they will wait a long time. Yes, karma is a bitch, to most of us, but not to a sociopath. That’s the most infuriating thing about them.