A short season of new prints of pre-Code Hollywood films has been touring UK cinemas since last year when it was put together by ‘Cinema Rediscovered’ at Watershed in Bristol. By all accounts they have been attracting healthy audiences. I couldn’t go in Bradford but I remembered I’d been given a trio of films from the TCM Archive titled ‘Forbidden Hollywood’ and two of them were titles included in the tour. The Production Code, often referred to as the Hays Code, came into force in 1934 and was put into practice by Joseph Breen as responsible for the PCA (Production Code Administration). The Code was Hollywood’s (the studios’) self-censorship body designed to protect the industry in the face of religious lobbies and moral guardians who might make life difficult for the industry. The list of rules was long and the Code took a lot of fun out of the movies but arguably helped to improve the artistic quality in some cases. The Code became ineffective by the late 1950s/early 1960s as a result of progressive changes in society and an influx of European films which openly broke many of the rules.

Una Merkel (left with banana) as Sally with Jean Harlow as Lil

Red-Headed Woman (the hyphen seems to come and go) was a relatively prestigious adaptation of a 1931 novel by Katherine Brush. MGM studio head Irving Thalberg initially sought an adaptation by Scott Fitzgerald but was unsatisfied with what he received and turned instead to Anita Loos, who had exactly the right approach and plenty of experience by this stage. The eponymous character is played by a young Jean Harlow (at 20/21). The narrative, popular at the time, follows that of the gold-digger. Harlow is Lil, a stenographer at a bank who sets her sights on her boss, a young married man and the son of the owner. Lil has the support of her room-mate Sally (Una Merkel). Her quarry is Bill Legendre (Chester Morris) who is married to Irene (Leila Hyams), a woman from a similar wealthy background. Lil’s pursuit is relentless and any obstacles are generally overcome by an appeal to older wealthy men such as Bill’s father and a wealthy coal magnate. Lil has no back-story, but wherever she came from, she has an innate sense of how to charm helpless men and how to always land on her feet.

Lil approaches her prey, Chester Morris as Bill Engendre

The film would break many code rules if they had been in force at the time. One of the most important was that ‘bad people’ like Lil must never ‘win’ – and Lil does. Secondly, divorces are easily achieved in this narrative and infidelity is imputed. Harlow was a very physical performer and manages to comport herself to ‘expose a lot of skin’ without actually disrobing. This was her first leading role and she certainly ‘goes for it’. The film is billed as a comedy drama on IMDb, but on the poster above it presents as shocking and thrilling. I’m not a Jean Harlow fan as such but I can see she gives a spirited performance and the stuck-up men deserve little sympathy. Personally, I was more taken by Una Merkel as Sally. The direction by Jack Conway is not particularly distinctive but both he and cinematographer Harold Rosson were experienced filmmakers. Cedric Gibbons the legendary MGM art director was also involved, alongside Adrian as MGM’s ‘gowns’ man. There are some interesting sets, including a beauty salon where Sally gets to tease Lil and her new-found wealth. It was only a few years since sound had became standard and it’s interesting that most of the music in the film is diegetic, including a performance of the title song and radio and gramophone recordings, but there are no music credits as such – presumably the exploitation of recorded music by the studios was still in its infancy – although musicals were becoming very popular at the time. The whole film runs only 79 minutes and is certainly a light and pacy ride. Wikipedia suggests that Irving Thalberg accepted some cuts suggested by the Code although it was not yet operational. Even so it was rejected in the UK and only seems to have been given a certificate in 1965!

Charles Boyer appears as Albert the chauffeur

I think I need to compare this film with Baby Face (1933), the Barbara Stanwyck picture I did see many years ago but which is now being shown again in this mini-season. I was very impressed by Stanwyck. Whatever I thought of Red Headed Woman (that it was OK, but not standout), the trade papers liked the film a lot and so did audiences. As well as the fun of seeing Lil overcome the men, there is a social critique of sorts as Lil attempts to call out the snobbery of the wealthy classes and this would have been popular during the Great Depression. IMDb suggests it made $1.65 million worldwide having cost MGM around $400,000 making a modest profit. It made Harlow a star for the brief time she had left (she died in 1936). It’s also worth mentioning that Charles Boyer appears in the last section of the film and that the story ends in Paris. Here’s a clip from the opening section of the film: