(director: Jack Conway; screenwriters: Anita Loos/F. Scott Fitzgerald; cinematographer: Harold Rosson; editor: Blanche Sewell; cast: Jean Harlow (Lil Andrews), Chester Morris (Bill Legendre), Lewis Stone (William Legendre Sr.), Leila Hyams (Irene Legendre), Henry Stephenson (Charlie Gaerste), Una Merkel (Sally), May Robson (Aunt Jane), Charles Boyer (Albert), William Pawley (Al); Runtime: 74; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Albert Lewin; Universal Pictures; 1932)

“Saucy romantic comedy.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Jack Conway (“Saratoga”) directs this saucy romantic comedy about an unsympathetic trampy gold digger played by Jean Harlow; it comes with a warning about giving in to the temptations of lust. It’s based on a story by “wicked-lady” novelist Katherine Brush (which first appeared as a serial in the Saturday Evening Post) and is written by Anita Loos and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

It’s set in the small company town of Renwood, Ohio, where Lil “Red” Andrews (Jean Harlow) and Sally (Una Merkel) are roommates. Lil is bootlegger Al’s girl, but she has her sights set on her rich married boss Bill Legendre (Chester Morris) where she works as a file clerk for the last two months and is willing to throw herself at him if it means snaring him. Bill’s happily married to his childhood sweetheart Irene (Leila Hyams), but she’s out of town with her Aunt Jane (May Robson) when Lil comes over to his house to deliver the office mail. She seduces the reluctant Bill just as his wife cuts her trip short and comes home to catch him in the house with Lil. The next day Bill’s father (Lewis Stone) promises to get her a job in Cleveland, but she refuses to leave and sets her sights on nailing the hapless Bill. Lil gets him to make love to her after he slaps her around, and Irene divorces him. Lil is not accepted by Renwood society after she marries Bill. She thereby seduces the elderly NYC coal king tycoon Charles B. Gaerste (Henry Stephenson), who is Bill’s biggest customer, and blackmails him into inviting the Renwood society folks to her dinner party. Things backfire when the guests leave her party early to visit Irene. Lil is sick of the small town and travels alone to NYC where she becomes Gaerste’s mistress. But old man Legendre hired private detectives and they take pictures of not only her in compromising poses with Gaerste but with his French chauffeur Albert (Charles Boyer, a small role before he hit stardom). When Lil returns home, old man Legendre offers her a check for $500 to leave town, but she goes into a rage seeing that Irene and Bill are back together and plugs Bill. He recovers and refuses to press charges. The film picks up two years later with Irene and Bill remarried and vacationing in Paris. While at the races Bill spots Lil. She has become the mistress of an elderly millionaire and is being chauffeured by Albert.

The film immediately catapulted Harlow into stardom, showing she had a flair for comedy as well as being a femme fatale and a sexpot. Though the film did well at the box office, the protectors of public morality felt the film was too sexually frank (lots of Harlow in garters, adultery and promiscuous sex) and that Harlow’s character doesn’t get any kind of payback or learn her lesson by the conclusion. Red-Headed Woman is cited as one of the films that brought about a cry for greater censorship under the Production Code, which soon followed in the ensuing decades.

Red-Headed Woman Poster