Wednesday, May 07, 2008

RED HEADED WOMAN (1932)

[Spoilers follow!!]
It's been years since I'd seen this, one of my favorite pre-Code movies, and I'm happy to review it on the occasion of its DVD debut last year as part of Warner’s first Forbidden Hollywood set. The focus of the story, set in a fictional Ohio town, is Jean Harlow as Lil, the title character, a brassy gold digger who works as a secretary for Chester Morris, a married man from a prominent family. She's decided that she'll snag him, come hell or high water, and she gets all dolled up to deliver some papers to him at his home while his wife's away. It takes some doing on her part, but eventually he succumbs to her charms; there is a gap in the narrative here which makes it unclear exactly how far things go between them, but whatever happens, it doesn't completely satisfy Harlow. However, just as she seems ready to go to bat again, the wife (Leila Hyams) comes home and chases her out (Harlow tells her roomie, Una Merkel, “There we were like an uncensored movie…”). Morris's father (Lewis Stone) tries to transfer Harlow to Cleveland, but she won't budge and continues to pester Morris. He goes to her apartment for a showdown, even slapping her, but when Harlow moans, “Do it again, I like it!” he gives up, and winds up getting a divorce and marrying Harlow. She has grand plans for crashing high society (or what passes for it in an Ohio town), but the socialites shun her so she seduces a rich businessman (Henry Stephenson) who's visiting Morris and blackmails him into bringing important folks to her house for a party. The plan works briefly, but when she finds out that her guests left early to attend a "better" party, she throws a fit and leaves town. For a time, she shacks up with Stephenson, but sleeps on the sly with his chauffeur (Charles Boyer in what amounts to a bit part) and when Morris gives Stephenson photos of Harlow and Boyer, she's given the heave-ho. Things come to a head when Harlow comes back to Ohio with a gun, looking for Morris. She shoots him, he recovers, and the shocker is that after all this "immoral" behavior, everybody winds up with a relatively happy ending: Morris remarries Hyams, and Harlow's free and easy in Paris, scamming rich old men with Boyer’s help. Morris and Harlow are in fine form and their scenes together crackle with sexual energy. The supporting cast is strong (though I wish the wonderful Una Merkel had more to do) and includes May Robson in a small role. Highly recommended, especially as a starting point for viewers unfamiliar with the pleasures of pre-Code movies. [DVD]

2 comments:

Johnny B said...

I saw this a year or so, when TCM screened it early one morning, and thought it was a hoot and a half, especially Harlow's reaction to the slap...

Needless to say, they don't make 'em like this anymore...or do they? ;)

Michael said...

Do they make 'em like this anymore? Hell, no! There are no more Jean Harlows, no more Chester Morrises, no more "benevolent tyrant" studios (for better and worse). I haven't loved the act of going out to a movie in a theater since, oh, the early 80's. But I'd hate to seem curmudgeonly, so I should shut up now.