|RED-HEADED WOMAN (1932)|
|"Don’t you worry. When I kiss a man he stays kissed for a long time."|
|Time: 79 mins.|
Rating: Not Rated
Harlow is bad girl Lil Andrews, a morally questionable young woman sleeping her way up the social ladder, using whomever it takes to gain respect and money…though not necessarily in that order. Her performance is powerful, funny and downright sexy. She’s so unconscionably wicked (and damn fun to watch) it’s no wonder the Hays Office started enforcing the Production Code. In fact, this film is one of the reasons why the Hollywood studios lost control over content. It would be a long, long time before another actress was allowed to portray such a manipulative, promiscuous character onscreen again. The only reason it managed to pass through the censorship board is because the story is played for laughs; however, as you’ll see the only character amused by Lil’s shenanigans is Lil.
Bill Legendre (Morris) is a happily married man until Lil storms into his life. His eye may have wandered her way, but he’s truly in love with his wife Irene (Hyams). Lil is discontented by her place in the world a mere secretary in the steno pool and decides to sink her claws into Bill, her young and handsome boss. She hits his life like a train wreck, employing the oldest female trick in the book free use of her body to entice him into an affair. Bill eventually reconciles with Irene and even tries to buy Lil’s disappearance from his life, but she’s not about to leave, especially after laying all the groundwork for her rise to high society. Bitterness and booze cloud Lil’s judgment, giving her the impetus to ruin Bill’s marriage once and for all and take Irene’s place at his side.
She believes all her dreams of wealth and acceptance will come true once she becomes his wife, but the reality is far from pleasant. All of Bill’s friends refuse to associate with the little tart that destroyed Irene’s happiness. Even Bill is beginning to regret his decision to marry Lil. She may be an irresistible sexual partner, but she’s gives him nothing but trouble outside the bedroom. Boredom, and an intense desire to become part of the upper class world, spurs Lil to make a new acquaintance she’s sure will help her cause. Charles Gaerste (Stephenson), a very wealthy, old family friend of the Legendres, has no idea what he’s in for when he succumbs to Lil’s charms. When even Gaerste’s seal of approval fails to get the results Lil seeks (she remains scorned by the local elite), she “convinces” Bill to send her to New York to recuperate from her humiliation.
Of course, she has other plans: to seduce Charles into becoming her second husband. A plan Bill is only too happy to get behind. He wants out of his marriage with Lil so he can return to the loving arms of Irene, a place he never really wanted to leave in the first place. Everyone is warned about the wrath of a woman scorned, but men can be equally callous when deceived and Lil’s deceptive and slutty ways quickly put an end to her marriage and any hopes of a future with Charles. Rather than wait for a divorce, Lil attempts to extricate herself from the holy bonds of matrimony with a bullet. Fortunately for her, she’s a poor shot and Bill is willing to forgive as long as she leaves for good, a deal Lil quickly agrees to. It’s hard to replace a rich husband from behind bars. Besides, she’s still got her youth, her brains and has even found the love a good man. He’s too poor to marry, but doesn’t mind sharing her as long as he gets to share the dough as well. A happy ending for all that allows Lil to get away with her scheming, an outcome that would have been totally unacceptable had the film been produced a year later.
Despite the emotional mayhem caused by Lil, Harlow imbues her with such chutzpah, you’re more likely to laugh than be horrified by her behavior. Harlow’s honest and humorous performance turns a potentially hateful creature into someone you not only sympathize with, but want to succeed. Lil’s actions are so outrageous you can’t take the story seriously, even though it deals with adultery, blatant promiscuity and cold-hearted deception. The fact that Harlow gives such a powerfully nuanced and clever performance at the age of 21 is astounding, especially considering the sheltered and proper upbringing of her life up to this time. She was known throughout Hollywood as one of the nicest, sweetest, most down-to-earth leading ladies and one completely unaware of the effect her looks had on men, which makes her transformation into the ultimate man-eater a delightful surprise. She may not have been the most talented actress of her day, but she was improving with every picture and there’s no telling how good she could have become if she had not died so prematurely. Even in her more mediocre films there’s no denying her immense screen presence. This film made her a major movie star and is one you should seek out if you want to see what her legend is all about.