Star persona is a fascinating and often under-utilized tool when looking at cinematic analysis. How does the popular persona of an actor play into the construction of a film? Jean Harlow stands as one of the most unique women to cross the silver screen, yet her shortened career, and the passage of time has complicated what seemed to be a once crystal clear star persona. So, as Feminist Friday continues, let’s dive into a look at the actress’ career and talk about Red-Headed Woman.
The 1932 drama marks what can best be termed the beginning of Harlow’s tenure as MGM’s resident “Blonde Bombshell”. The highly problematic Pre-Code film is an interesting, but definitely complicated viewing, particularly when approached from a contemporary perspective. The movie is an interesting study in not only star persona, but also in sex and gender, continuing to show just how complex the Pre-Code era in Hollywood was.
Red-Headed Woman follows secretary Lillian “Red” Andrews (Jean Harlow) as she burns her way through the love and friendship of the men around her with the goal of landing a rich husband. Along the way, she destroys a marriage (Chester Morris and Leila Hyams) as well as breaks a heart (Henry Stephenson). The film is directed by Jack Conway from a script by Anita Loos and F. Scott Fitzgerald (to name a few).
What is striking is how thoroughly unlikable Lillian is throughout this film. While Harlow wasn’t shy about playing gold diggers in other movies, this part is as close to un-reedemable as she gets. Each of these stories show Harlow’s characters as girls just trying to make something of themselves (it is the Depression, dearie). However, Lil’ doesn’t care who she hurts (or screws) if it means getting what she wants in Red-Headed Woman. In fact, in a particularly annoying pattern, whenever someone (male) attempts to call her out on her behavior, she manages to baby-talk her way out of it. Lil is not a character for women. Rather, this one is written for the boys. While Harlow’s later roles are not always the most likeable, her “neighborhood girl” quality is always relatable. Red-Headed Woman feels like a stark contrast from her other work, as Harlow is very much the antagonist of this picture. In fact, it is a definite stretch to see just how Red-Headed Woman (outside of a likely fierce studio publicity effort) built what would later become her star persona.
Red-Headed Woman is the first movie where we truly see Harlow’s accepted star persona taking shape. Prior to this, most of her filmography includes bit parts and uncredited roles. The only exceptions are Public Enemy and her breakout in Hell’s Angels. One more film, Platinum Blonde, features Harlow billed third under Loretta Young and Robert Williams. Red-Headed Woman opens with a self-reflexive line, a smiling Harlow stares straight into the camera, “Who says blondes have more fun?”. Even those who are unfamiliar with Harlow’s in-depth career are still likely familiar with her platinum blonde hair as well as her blonde bombshell reputation. This is truly a star-making vehicle for the young actress.
In Red-Headed Woman the narrative sets up an early example of an uncontrollable, toxic masculinity. In fact, it is established in the opening scene that Bill (Chester Morris) is so completely aroused by Harlow’s “Red” that he actively avoids her out of his fear of what “he’ll do” to her. We see this same character trait pop up two years later in The Girl from Missouri when Eadie is finally alone with Tom (Franchot Tone). He tells her to get far away because, “You’ll be sorry, and I’ll feel like a heel”. This view is still disturbingly prevalent in contemporary popular culture, allowing men to place blame for crimes of a sexual nature squarely on the shoulders of their victims. They just shouldn’t have been so beautiful. How can men be expected to control themselves?
Like Red, it’s a challenge to truly feel bad for our protagonist, Bill. However, this admittedly results from examining the film through a contemporary perspective. Ultimately, he is responsible for his own actions. Red is not a demon who pulls a man in with every hip wiggle… it doesn’t matter how many times the narrative tries to tell us otherwise. Men do have a say in cheating on and leaving their wives.
However, Morris brings a definite youth and vulnerability to the role, which plays into this perceived helplessness (and at the same time, his likability). Interestingly, Morris later developed a reputation as somewhat of a heavy, playing lead in a number of crime and detective pictures. The youth which comes across in his performance is absolutely vital to this role, setting Red firmly as the antagonist. Ultimately, Bill would have been a completely different role in the hands of a Gable, or even a Robert Montgomery, once again showing just how important star persona can be in the casting of a movie.
However, perhaps most worthy of discussion is the presence of violence against Red, particularly early in the narrative. We see this in two of Harlow’s later films in The Girl from Missouri and Red Dust. In both of these works, we see Harlow on the receiving end of some fairly substantial physical violence. In this first feature it is at a new level. We see the tension escalating between Bill and Irene (Hyams) early in the movie. He soon goes to see Red after she makes yet another play for his affections. Holding her roughly by the arms, Bill gives the (much smaller) Red an open palmed slap across the cheek, to which she responds “Go ahead, do it again! I liked it!”. Later, he throws her to the ground. The shot then cuts to see Sally (Una Merkel) listening at the door. We hear thuds and cries. After a few minutes the shot returns inside to see Lillian still on the floor, crying. It’s not a huge stretch of the imagination to assume that Bill just raped her. The audience hasn’t seen her true colours yet, but it can only be assumed that she’s a gold-digger, she must deserve it. Right?
Perhaps even more surprising, at least when viewed through a contemporary perspective is that the very next shot after the assumed rape shows the Legendre’s getting divorced (followed then by his quickie marriage to Red). How is this ultimately productive for either one of them? It doesn’t get much more problematic than this…
Perhaps one of the most difficult jumps to make about this film involves the narrative progression towards the ending. Coming at Red-Headed Woman from a contemporary perspective, it is quite difficult to shake the expectations of The Production Code. All of these characters are horrendously unlikable and they each do some pretty terrible things to each other. It ultimately feels right that there should be some punishment doled out at the end. However, in Pre-Code fashion, this isn’t the case. After the drama peaks (with Lillian shooting Bill as he tries to go off with Irene), the action cuts to a few months in the future, and everyone is happy. While this is fascinating to watch, it feels forced when considering this particular group of characters. Someone needs to take the fall here.
In watching Red-Headed Woman, the film stands as a fascinating study in Jean Harlow’s star persona, marking the beginning of the actress’ rise to popularity during the 1930s. However, the movie is also a drastic outlier in terms of Harlow’s work. How does this baby-talking somewhat detestable gold-digger turn into the fondly remembered star she would become?
Red-Headed Woman is currently streaming on FilmStruck.