“Do it again,” she…pleads? commands? sneers? “I like it!” And with that line, she robs a weak man of his illusion of control. She subverts a submission — being slapped in the face and begging for more — into an act of dominance. The man realizes, but cannot accept, that he is, in every way, bested. He can’t outwit her, can’t outthink her, certainly can’t outsex her, and his pathetic attempt at physical intimidation elicits nothing but defiance that sends him scurrying, confused and afraid, from the room pursued by peals of her victorious laughter. The battle’s barely begun, and he’s already lost the war.
There are a lot of reasons Jean Harlow became one of the brightest stars of the pre-Code era. This scene, from Red-Headed Woman (1932, Jack Conway) has to be among the top. It is every bit as unsettling, comedic, peculiar, and viciously absurd as Jimmy Cagney grinding a grapefruit into Mae Clarke’s face in 1931’s The Public Enemy (in which Harlow had a small role). It’s like trying to come to terms with the Crystals tune “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss),” a poppy girl group tune that, obviously, carries a dark message. But where the Crystals don’t come out the victors in that song, Harlow is a conquering Visigoth, laying waste to any and all. Every weapon deployed against her, every attack, every insult, she turns back on her attackers and annihilated them. It is at times off-putting. It is frequently ridiculous. And it is glorious.
With minimal tweaking, just a nudge here and there, Red-Headed Woman could have been a horror film, a forerunner to the sort of psycho-sexual melodrams that were becoming Alfred Hitchcock’s stock-in-trade. Put James Whale behind the camera, cast Colin Clive as yet another twitching man whose hair flops greasily into his face when he flails about, and Red-Headed Woman could have been a pre-Code Fatal Attraction exploring the sinister, self-destructive impulses born of selfishness, unrequited lust, and tendency of married men to philander then blame the “other woman” for their inability to remain faithful. Such a film, One More River, would come out of Universal in 1934, a minor transgressive masterpiece full of sexual sadism which was, coincidentally, directed by James Whale and starred Colin Clive. All of the same elements are there in Red-Headed Woman: passion, vindictiveness, cruelty, domination, submission, manipulation, and overt sado-masochism. But it’s not a horror film. It’s a comedy.
It was a Very Good Year
“It goes away off on what is still called the deep end.” — New York Times review of Red-Headed Woman
That’s the sort of weird stuff that happened 1932, one of the great years in cinema history and arguably the best year of what became known as pre-Code Hollywood. The pictures of 1932 were packed to bursting with fetishism and deviance. Whippings, rackings, and brandings. Shirtless men, and women in tattered slips, were suspended over hot coals or pits full of punji sticks. Voyeuristic villains leered with sexual arousal as their sweat-sheened victims squirmed and squealed. And it wasn’t just the horror films; dramas, comedies, and adventure films all got in on the game. 1932 contained releases as shocking and varied as Tod Browning’s Freaks, Howard Hawks/Howard Hughes’ Scarface, and Ernst Lubitsch’s caper comedy Trouble in Paradise. Horror films flooded the screen with an parade of chilling depravity. In 1932 alone, viewers were subjected to The Most Dangerous Game, Island of Lost Souls, Murders in the Rue Morgue, White Zombie, The Old Dark House, The Mask of Fu Manchu, the technicolor Doctor X, and Boris Karloff in The Mummy, among others. Looming over them all was “the wickedest movie in the world,” Cecil B. DeMille’s unabashedly sleazy historical epic, Sign of the Cross.
1932 was also the year Jean Harlow, one of the brightest flames of the pre-Code era, caught fire, topped by a mane of fierce red hair — ironic, given that her image had been forged only months before in Platinum Blonde. Entering 1932, Harlow was, at best, a publicity stunt, not unlike Jayne Mansfield would later become. Howard Hughes liked her, but for typically Howard Hughes reasons. She had turned some heads and made some headlines, but no one regarded her as a talented or even passable actress. Well, no one except MGM studio exec Paul Bern. Hughes loaned Harlow to MGM in 1932, and the studio featured her in The Beast of the City. Bern was convinced they had something in Harlow. He convinced studio head Louis B. Mayer to buy out her contract. He also married her.
Around that same time, the studio was struggling to find a lead for their latest property, Red-Headed Woman, based on a bestseller by Katherine Bush. Bush, already successful, had sold the rights to MGM before the book was even published. When it was published, serialized throughout 1931 in the Saturday Evening Post and as a novel in 1932, it was an immediate hit. It was also branded as controversial, even trashy, for its frank portrayal of a woman willing to wield her sexuality like a sledgehammer to get what she wants. It would be a difficult sell to cinema censors, but MGM felt the book was popular enough to make it worth the fight.
They hired a successful journeyman, Jack Conway, to direct. Conway, fresh off the successful and racy Arsene Lupine starring John and Lionel Barrymore, let his actors take center stage rather than trying to dazzle people with directorial flash. MGM even hired F. Scott Fitzgerald to write the screenplay, though they insisted he work with someone else, Marcel de Sano. Scott and de Sano did not get along. The script they eventually turned in was, in the opinion of MGM producer Irving Thalberg, too serious. They wanted something dandy, and he gave them something dark; something “too literary” for an adaptation of a pop bestseller (even though the novel itself had not been all that light-hearted). MGM commissioned a full rewrite and hired Anita Loos, a seasoned vet of the movie business and a natural fit for the material, having become most famous for her 1925 book, Gentlemen Preferred Blondes, which was very much in sync with the tone the studio wanted: audacious, controversial, but also humorous, if at times wickedly so. Fitzy would repay Thalberg by using him and MGM as the basis for The Last Tycoon, his unfinished final novel.
With the writing settled, and with the inevitable game of chicken with the Hays Office accepted, MGM still had one major hurdle to getting Red-Headed Woman into production: there was no lead actress. Depending on who is mentioned, this is either because no A-list star wanted to be involved with such salacious material (as was claimed by essayist and film critic Cliff Aliperti 1), or it was because every A-list star wanted to be involved but none of them were right for the part. In an essay for TCM, Rob Nixon writes, “Garbo was too languid and continental. Joan Crawford too hard-edged and intelligent…Thalberg wasn’t about to assign his wife, Norma Shearer, to such an unsympathetic role…William Randolph Hearst took the same position when it came to his mistress and protégé, Marion Davies.” 2 Clara Bow, struggling in 1932 to make a name for herself in the talkies after being huge during the silent era, was also mentioned, as was her fellow silent film superstar, Colleen Moore. But, for this reason or that, none of them got or took the part. Instead, Red-Headed Woman went to MGM’s newest hire, Jean Harlow. It and another film from 1932, Red Dust (opposite rising star Clark Gable), would transform Harlow into one of the icons of the pre-Code era. Ah yes. The Code.
Harlow vs. Hays
“Ethics of the subject are sufficient to make a church deacon gulp and stammer.” — Variety
“Pre-Code” is something of a misleading name applied to films made between, roughly, 1928 and 1934. There was a Code during those years, overseen by Will Hays and the office that took his name. Although often characterized as a censorship board, the Hays Office was meant to help studios avoid censorship. Granted, it was via self-censorship. There was no national censorship law at the time, and no one in Hollywood wanted such a thing. That meant that the was a patchwork of inconsistent and often contradictory local regulations. What was acceptable in one place might not be acceptable a state, or even a city, over. This could result in a costly, time-consuming process in which studios would have to cut and recut films to conform with local decisions.
The Code was meant as a lighthouse to guide studios through this confusing sea of demands. “This particular item,” the Code would warn, “is likely to cause problems somewhere.” By following the cautious recommendations of the Hays Office, you could avoid spending extra money creating different cuts. Suggestions from the Hays office were just that: suggestions. They weren’t legally binding (the Hays Office was created by Hollywood as a method of self-governance), but it also wasn’t particularly wise to blow them off. Unless, of course, you figured the value of a controversy would offset the cost.
Which, often, was the case. Filmmakers were cavalier about the Code, either circumventing it or relying on the often too-literal minds of local censorship boards to catch on to innuendo. They also frequently submitted one version of the film, with the recommended cuts, then when it came to screen the film, used their original uncensored versions. The Code under the stewardship of Will Hays was openly mocked by filmmakers, critics, and audiences, though the relationship between studios and Hays was usually cordial. This changed when the Office was taken over by fire-and-brimstone conservative Joseph Breen, who responded in often draconian fashion to make sure the Code wasn’t brushed off.
Obviously, a movie about an unrepentant maneater and social ladder climber was going to rankle the suits in the Hays Office, even if censors were going to miss the meaning of lines such as, “Maybe I’ll get a chance to stay and take dictation,” uttered as Harlow’s Lil storms her mark’s home with the intent of seducing him. Then there’s the near-nudity, the lingerie, the legs, and the fact that Lil is a “homewrecker” without remorse who, ultimately, pays no price for her transgressions against polite Christian behavior. Hays himself said the movie was “a very grave problem,” and described Harlow’s character as “a common little tart” and “an out-and-out harlot.” 3 And yet the film was released, much to the delight and shock of critics, who praised it and Harlow, the actress with no talent who grabbed them and shook them until they had no choice but to admit she had bested them. Despite its racy content and subversive social commentary, the film only ran into censorship issues in Pittsburgh. Even New York’s infamously prudish censorship board let it slide.
Eat the Rich
“A quick, caustic biography of an alert, successful strumpet.” — Time Magazine
From the opening scene — a joke about both Harlow and Anita Loos, in which Harlow is seen getting her auburn red hair done and semi-breaks the fourth wall by looking toward the camera and, in her distinctive “why I oughta!” voice saying, “So gentlemen prefer blondes, do they?” — Harlow commands the screen and makes no bones about who Lillian “Red” Andrews, is. She’s Jean Harlow, or at least a satirical exaggeration of who Jean Harlow was in the media. After she leaves the salon, Lil visits a department store and inquires if the dress she’s trying on is see-through. When the slightly abashed sales girl admits that it is, Lil enthusiastically barks, “I’ll wear it!” She then sets her sights on Bill Legendre (Chester Morris), a handsome, rich, weak-willed sort of guy who likes to give into temptation then blame the temptress. That he is married isn’t seen as much as an obstacle. Lil has him in her grips in short order.
On its surface, and from a vantage point more than 85 years after its release, Red-Headed Woman is a vampy campy battle of the sexes comedy. But in 1932, with the Great Depression raging, many saw the movie as about something else entirely: economics and class warfare. It’s a movie about someone shut out of society and kicking in the door. It’s about someone not settling for what she’s been given. Critics and audiences alike reveled in Lil sticking it to the rich and powerful who are, it turns out, so weak and so undeserving of their privilege. It’s difficult to think of anyone but Harlow who could have brought the same level of uncouth, at times even vulgar, charisma to the role. Is she a villain? An avenger? When is life ever that simple? She’s both and more. And who cares, when it’s this much fun?
Her ambition to get her piece of the pie by any means necessary puts her in the league of others disillusioned with but doggedly fighting to attain the American Dream, men like Edward G. Robinson’s Rico in Little Caesar (1931). By random lot — being an immigrant, being from the wrong side of the tracks, being a woman — they are shut out from the dream, exiled from polite society, discriminated against. So they vow to take it by force, whether by guns or gams. Rico shouldn’t be sympathetic, but he is. Because we recognize the hunger in him, the insecurity, and the bum hand he was dealt. The same is true of Harlow’s Lil. She should be abrasive, a villain, but there’s something about her. She’s vain, very likely a sociopath, and at one point, she even tries to murder someone. But it wasn’t her decision to be born into a world where men are gifted all the institutional power. She’s pampered, prejudiced society’s biggest fear: a low-class dame who can beat them at their own game.
It’s part of the subversive beauty of the film. When you meet this sorry lot of sad sack men, it’s hard not to enjoy watching Lil eviscerate them. When polite society turns up it nose at her and treats her cruelly, it’s hard not to delight in the way she pulls it all down, exposing the cracks and the hypocrisy. It’s a bit like watching Jean Harlow herself storm the ramparts of Hollywood. She may not come from a family rich in acting heritage. She may lack the sophistication of Greta Garbo or the elegance of Kay Francis, but she’s going to take what’s hers and God help the fool who tries to stand in her way.