double bill in the Harlow Before the Code series at UCLA, is a fun pre-Code romp about a woman who sleeps her way to financial success.
RED-HEADED WOMAN is generally considered one of the raunchiest pre-Code films, with Jean Harlow's title character an unrepentant tramp who not only succeeds in her scheming, sleeping around, and shooting -- but (skip down to next paragraph to avoid plot spoiler)...she's rewarded at the end with money and Charles Boyer!
Unlike HOLD YOUR MAN (1933), which has sincere emotions and naughty but basically good-at-heart characters the audience roots for, RED-HEADED WOMAN is more cartoonish in its approach. None of the characters seem very real and only a couple supporting characters are sympathetic, so the audience's emotions aren't engaged; the entertainment comes from the amusement and shock value in seeing what moves a very bad woman will make next. If the film's effectiveness is judged by how many times a viewer chuckles, shakes the head, or drops the jaw, then the movie could be called quite a success.
Harlow had a couple different basic film personas in the early '30s, and this is, needless to say, the less likeable version. Her character, Lillian (aka "Red") is a woman who is looking out for No. 1 and doesn't give a thought at any time for the feelings of others. In fact, one tends to wonder why Lil's friend Sally (Una Merkel) hangs around so long; maybe it's because Lillian becomes a meal ticket, or perhaps it's for the entertainment value! We don't ever really see Lillian do anything to merit Sally's loyalty. This Harlow is entertaining, with her comic touch helping to maintain audience interest, but I like her far more as the brassy but loving dame of films like RED DUST (1936) or the aforementioned HOLD YOUR MAN (1933).
It's instructive watching back-to-back films starring Chester Morris and Clark Gable. I've now seen Morris in a handful of films where he plays a weak-willed man caught up by compulsions; he either succumbs to temptations outside marriage or somewhat callously ignores a woman's love to focus on his career. In a couple of these films, THE DIVORCEE (1930) and SOCIETY DOCTOR (1935), Morris is easily outshone by supporting actors Robert Montgomery and Robert Taylor, respectively. In RED-HEADED WOMAN Morris serves his purpose dramatically, but his milquetoast character isn't interesting, whereas in HOLD YOUR MAN, the young Gable is unequivocally a star who commands the audience's attention, regardless of how nasty or nice his character is being at a particular moment.
As mentioned above, Charles Boyer is in the film, in one of his first roles in the U.S. Be on the lookout for him as the chauffeur, Albert. The supporting cast of RED-HEADED WOMAN also includes Lewis Stone as Morris's father and Leila Hyams as his long-suffering wife. Henry Stephenson is one of Lil's "marks." May Robson, Harvey Clark, Henry Armetta and Sarah Padden are also in the cast.
The director of this 79-minute film was Jack Conway. As with the later HOLD YOUR MAN, the cinematographer was Hal Rosson, costumes were by Adrian, and the screenplay was by Anita Loos, not to mention an uncredited F. Scott Fitzgerald (!). The script was based on a novel by Katharine Brush.
RED-HEADED WOMAN has been released on VHS, as part of the Forbidden Hollywood video series, and on DVD in the pre-Code collection Forbidden Hollywood Volume 1. The other films in the DVD set are WATERLOO BRIDGE (1931) and two different edits of Barbara Stanwyck's BABY FACE (1933), which features a plotline somewhat reminiscent of RED-HEADED WOMAN. The DVD can be rented from Netflix.
RED-HEADED WOMAN can also be seen on Turner Classic Movies.