Directed By: Jack Conway
Starring: Jean Harlow, Chester Morris, Lewis Stone
Trivia: The screenplay submitted by F. Scott Fitzgerald was rejected by producer Irving Thalberg, who thought it took the story too seriously
Jean Harlow had been appearing in movies since 1927 (she played a small part in The Public Enemy as one of Tom Powers’ girlfriends), yet wouldn’t become a star until the release of 1932’s Red-Headed Woman, a sex farce that had the censors themselves seeing red.
Harlow is Lillian, called Lil by her friends and co-workers, a secretary who's set her sights on making it big in high society. To this end, she takes aim at winning the affections of her boss, Will Legender (Chester Morris), despite the fact Legender is very happily married to his childhood sweetheart, Irene (Leila Hyams). At first, Legender successfully resists Lil’s advances, yet it isn’t long before the two are breaking a few commandments. When Legender’s marriage falls apart as a result, he finds himself living with Lil on a full-time basis, but can he continue to satisfy her as she ascends the social ladder?
There’s some pretty racy dialogue in Red-Headed Woman, much of which would be pushing the envelope even by today’s standards. At one point, Lil, knowing Legender’s wife is out of town, steals some mail off of his desk so that she can deliver it personally to his house. “If I’m lucky”, Lil says to her friend, Sally (Una Merkel), “maybe he’ll give me some dictation”. Jean Harlow is near-flawless in her portrayal of the movie’s vixen, doing everything she can to ensure no audience member will feel the slightest bit of sympathy for her character. It’s her devious performance that makes Red-Headed Woman such a shocking motion picture.
With its strong subject matter and boundary-pushing dialogue, censors from various states had a field day cutting the hell out of Red-Headed Woman. Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Ohio paid special attention to the film’s climax (which was set in France), removing several scenes dealing with Lil’s continued infidelities. As for Great Britain, they banned Red-Headed Woman outright.
Though rumor has it King George V kept a private copy on-hand at Buckingham Palace… for his own "amusement"!