Jean Harlow and Anita Loos
Peroxide enthusiast Jean Harlow once claimed that “if it hadn’t been for the color of my hair, Hollywood wouldn’t know I was alive.” So to cast platinum-plus Harlow as the lead of Red-Headed Woman, hiding her champagne-haloed bombshell beneath a ginger wig, was to work knowingly and flagrantly against type. Transforming an iconic dumb blonde into a flame-haired fatale is, however, just the first of this film’s many playful subversions.
Most credit is due to screenwriter Anita Loos, who was catapulted to fame by her 1925 smash novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (later famously adapted by Howard Hawks with Marilyn Monroe). These days, Loos is most commonly revived as a crossword puzzle clue, but at the time her work was declared a “great American novel” by no less than Edith Wharton, and William Faulkner himself wrote Loos confessing how he wished he’d thought of it first. Loos turned the tables on American culture by making a joke not out of the ditzy golddigging bubbleheads, but of the society that laid out the carpet for their ascent—and of the men who tripped on it face first.
An accomplished screenwriter since she sent D.W. Griffith scenarios (the director had no idea they came from a pig-tailed, five-foot tall teenager), Loos was regularly recruited by Irving Thalberg to rescue screenplays run amok. He had optioned her scandalous dimestore saga of a trollop’s rise and placed it in the hands of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Alas, “Scott turned the silly book into a tone poem!”
The audience had to laugh — and laugh with, not at this little sex pirate, a secretary from the waaaayay wrong side of the tracks who pins a framed portrait of her boss, a coal executive played by Chester Morris, into her garter in the hopes he’ll let her “take DIC-tay-shun.” Fitzgerald was famous for poeticizing the plight of arrogant jazz babies and the men who exquisitely tortured themselves at their feet. But Loos had no delusions about the “nitwits” who fell for such vulgar tactics nor respect for the story’s separate-bedrooms marriage, which has Morris’s character hitched to a noble childhood sweetheart. “If she wants to leave the barn door wide open, what’s to keep a girl from going in?” Loos’ red-headed heroine rhetorically asserts. Loos even recruited Jack Conway, whose own domestic bliss had barely survived a similarly interfering Girl Like That, to direct; Loos explained, “Her victim is as big a dunce as…” “As me?” Conway bashfully but gamely supplied.
Now they just needed the flame for the moths. Harlow had yet to prove her comedic chops, or any outright actorly skill for that matter (Robert Sherwood said of her debut in Hell’s Angels, “an obstreperously alluring young lady…of whom not much is likely to be heard”). But Howard Hughes was pawning off his discovery to Thalberg as more than meets the eye. She made quite a splash in her meeting with the powerful exec and (just as importantly) with Loos, who was impressed by Harlow’s poised self-awareness and sly wit. (Of her relationship with notorious germaphobe Hughes Harlow noted “one day he was eating a cookie and he offered me a bite…it could have darn near been a proposal.”) As she exited, Harlow paused in the doorway and cast the two men an effervescent half-nod which Loos immediately wrote into the script. “You know, the girl’s so bad she just might be good,” Thalberg opined.
And the character as written was so horrible, she just might be loveable (albeit, a bit scary). Loos had found her muse, for whom she scribed three more pictures. “We made it over completely for her,” Loos said of Harlow. “It was, for all intents and purposes, a Jean Harlow story.” Yet the real Harlean Harlow Carpenter (as the name on her birth certificate read) was a casual, simple gal off-screen, merely acting out her glamorous mama’s own unrealized dreams (she signed all her personal correspondence with a jejune “Me.”) Every person on the lot displayed concern and care for this generous, good-hearted gal who would have chosen a far quieter life for herself but gave it all she got regardless, like a kindergartner given finger paints; she was referred to as “The Baby.”
The Baby was so detached from her voluptuous fleshiness, so utterly devoid of vanity, she went after the cartoonish role of Lil with cheerful gusto – insincerity taken so far it became something resembling genuineness. Harlow’s offscreen earthiness perhaps contributed to George Cukor’s observation that, “She had that quality of speaking lines as if she didn’t quite understand them.” (It was meant as a compliment). Her offbeat punctuations and comic timing were so unpredictable and innately right-wrong one can almost understand her sap victims’ hypnosis by her coy, baby talk seductions. She is slapped to the floor by her fluxomed boss and gleefully begs for more as she slips the key to the room between her breasts. It cuts from Morris’s resigned approach, to her roommate listening approvingly to the sounds of “struggle” inside, then to Lil’s faux innocent post-coital shrug, “I guess it wasn’t anyone’s fault.”
Fluctuating on the turn of a dime between cuddly and feral kitten, Harlow’s Lil just never knows where to stop. Her prize husband won’t let her in the same room with his snoot friends, and denied the opportunity to show off her new pompadoured pure-breed, Jacobean bedstand, and English highboy (“No silly!” she corrects her friend’s raised eyebrows, “its an antique bureau!) Lil sets her sights on the big time: New York. She moves on to older, richer, more unattractive – and thereby more giving – slobbering dodos who don’t notice her kissing the virile chauffeur when they bend down to tie their shoes. Despite possessing the zeal of a woman who knows she’ll get what she wants, she never misses the opportunity to indulge in a good old-fashioned tantrum, lying and kicking prostate on the floor (or as flat as her assets allow her).
Una Merkel plays sardonic commentator to Lil’s shenanigans (an essential component for most Pre-Code girls on the loose), always dependable for lines like “If there’s a fire, you’d have to cover up to keep from being recognized.” Despite her constant accusations of Lil’s unapologetic stupidity and clumsy malevolence, she remains loyally bemused. She knows her life would be a lot less interesting without her, and at a New York society ball she shows she may have learned a thing or two from her wiggle-happy chum about weathering the Depression.
Maybe we all could, as underneath the film’s naughty farce lies a case study in home-brewed gumption, as well as commentary on women’s limited options for upward mobility. Warner Bros retaliated with Baby Face, but the delight of the Barbara Stanwyck vehicle sprung from its unrelenting sordidness, rather than Woman’s more breezy devilishness. Not to mention, Baby Face made Stanwyck pay. Red-Headed Woman brazenly lets Harlow come out on top. “Ultimately,” according to William Charles Morrow for The Chiseler, “Lil has her cake and happily eats it too, icing, candles, and all.” The prudes were incensed by the film, which did admittedly present America as some carnival of under- and over-sexed idiots that could be lassoed and trampled by a cocksure dame “strictly on the level – like a flight of stairs.” Then the high-heeled conqueror heads off to France, where at least they come by these things honestly.
Harlow wasn’t the only one to come out smelling roses after the film’s release. Her debonaire chauffeur/partner in crime lost his MGM contract and headed back across the Atlantic before lovesick female preview audiences demanded Charles Boyer be brought back for more. But it is of course Harlow’s show, and while subsequent roles capitalized more exuberantly on her inherent good nature (watch her go head-to-head with Gable, and bathe in a barrel, in Red Dust, screening Fri Aug 5), Red-Headed Woman set the pace for her singular brand of comedy. Her shocking death from kidney failure at the age of 26 shook Hollywood to the core, as it lost one of its greatest, most original talents, and also its best sport.
Red-Headed Woman is playing Friday, July 29 at 1:00, 4:00, 7:00, 10:00 at Film Forum