Red-Headed Woman (1932): Jack Conway’s Pre-Code Romance, Star Vehicle for Jean Harlow

Jack Conway directed Red-Headed Woman, a romantic serio-comedy, adapted to the screen by Anita Loos based, on a novel of the same title by Katherine Brush.

Red-Headed Woman

Theatrical release poster

In this Pre-Code film, Harlow portrays a “scandalous” woman who uses sex to advance her social position: She breaks up a marriage, has multiple affairs and pre-marital sex, and even attempts to kill a man.

Harlow plays Lillian “Lil” Andrews, a young woman living in Ohio, who will do anything to improve her social status. She seduces her wealthy boss William “Bill” Legendre Jr. (Chester Morris) breaks up his marriage with his loving wife Irene (Leila Hyams). Irene reconsiders and tries to reconcile with Bill, only to find he has married Lil the previous day.

But Lil is still shunned by high society, including Bill’s father, Will Legendre, Sr. (Lewis Stone), because of her lower-class. When Charles B. Gaerste (Henry Stephenson), a coal tycoon and the main customer of the Legendre’s company, visits the city, Lil schemes to force her way into the highest social circles.

She seduces Charles, then blackmails him into throwing a party at her mansion, knowing that no one would dare offend him by not showing up. It seems like a social coup for Lil, until her hairdresser friend and confidante Sally (Una Merkel) tells her that the guests have left early to attend a surprise party for Irene, who lives across the street.

Humiliated, she decides to move to New York, even if it means separation from her husband. Will Sr. finds Lil’s handkerchief at Gaerste’s place and shows his evidence to his son, who then hires detectives to watch Lil. Lil is caught conducting two affairs, with Charlie and with his handsome French chauffeur Albert (the young Charles Boyer, who calls her “mon amour, ma cherie”).

Bill shows Charlie the evidence, a set of photos of Lil and Albert in compromising positions; one of the couple kissing while he is tying his shoelaces.  Albert gets fired for his treachery, and when he informs Lil she tell him, “Stay still, I’m trying to think.”

When Lil learns that Charlie is aware of her conduct, she returns to Bill, only to find him with Irene. Furious, she shoots him, but he survives and refuses to have her charged. However, he does divorce her, and remarries Irene.

Two years later, he encounters Lil at a racetrack in Paris, with an aged Frenchman. He then discreetly hides Irene’s binoculars.

In the final scene, Lil and her elderly companion get into a limousine driven by Albert.

Visual Pleasure:

Harlow is in almost every scene, displaying her sexual allure in a set of dresses and robes that reveal her beautiful body–she is not wearing bra, exposing her well-shaped breasts.  She would become a sex symbol not only due to her looks (later on, platinum blond), but also due to the specific way she looked at men, often sizing them up and down, and then throw herself into their arms.  In this movie, she tells Morris: “I’ve noticed the way you always look me up.”

Harlow was also good in delivering racy and snappy lines of dialogues in a mode that made the words seem clever, spontaneous, and ironic. And no matter how mean or manipulative her role was, she always remained likeable and relatable–sort of the sexy good-time girl.

The film was banned in the U.K. and other countries.

Although uncredited, Jean Harlow’s then husband Paul Bern was the film’s production supervisor.

Jean Harlow as Lillian “Lil”/”Red” Andrews Legendre
Chester Morris as William “Bill”/”Willie” Legendre, Jr.
Lewis Stone as William “Will” Legendre, Sr.
Leila Hyams as Irene “Rene” Legendre
Una Merkel as Sally
Henry Stephenson as Charles B. “Charlie”/”C.B.” Gaerste
Charles Boyer as Albert
May Robson as Aunt Jane
Harvey Clark as Uncle Fred


Directed by Jack Conway
Produced by Paul Bern
Written by: F. Scott Fitzgerald (uncredited)
Screenplay by Anita Loos, based on Red-Headed Woman by Katherine Brush
Music by Richard A. Whiting
Raymond B. Egan
Cinematography: Harold Rosson
Edited by Blanche Sewell
Distributed by: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release date: June 25, 1932
Running time: 79 minutes

End Note:

TCM showed n April 28, 2019 a double-feature: Red-Headed Woman and Baby Face, starring Stanwyck in another racy Pre-Code film.  It’s interesting to note that in both films, the lead character’s name is Lil (Lillian or Lily).