Red-Headed Woman (1932)
Any fan of early talkies knows that occasionally you're going to have to adjust your modern-day (post-1933) movie-watching metronome a bit to accommodate the sometimes plodding exposition of an otherwise excellent film, which Red-Headed Woman is not. Nope, sorry. This is a looooong 79 minutes with some fun bits, a few great lines, and a couple of good performances, but Baby Face, it ain't.
The story is similar: a girl from the wrong side of the tracks uses her ferocious feminine charms to seduce a wealthy married man to improve her station in life. The gold-digger in question is Lil "Red" Andrews (Jean Harlow), an office girl, who has designs on her boss, Bill Legendre (Chester Morris), who famously loves his wife, Irene (Leila Hyams). Lil has her way with the conflicted Bill and the two embark on what the kids call a "situationship," until they are caught by Bill's wife.
Bill and Irene get divorced and he marries Lil, because, I don't know, The Women (1939), while Lil tries and fails to be accepted by the high society into which she has married. To help herself up the social ladder, Lil seduces elderly coal magnate, C.B. Gaerste (Henry Stephenson), convinces him -- somehow through hurl-inducing baby talk -- that Bill is cruel to her and that she'd really rather be happier surrounded by coal. By the way, Gaerste's chauffer is a really hot French guy (Charles Boyer) and it's win-win(-win).
Meanwhile, Bill's father (Lewis Stone), who has been suspicious of Lil from the get-go, finds Lil's hankie at Gaerste's place, shows Bill, and finally exposes Lil for what she is (and in case there was some confusion): a no-good, gold-digging tramp who will never escape the gutter. Bill hires a detective who easily obtains photographic evidence of her multiple infidelities: Bill shows Gaerste; Gaerste dumps Lil; Bill goes back to Irene; Lil shoots Bill, but not fatally. Because this is a romantic comedy -- as the home-wrecking, adultery and attempted murder would indicate-- Bill forgives Lil and she winds up in France with some old rich guy and her French chauffer.
Halfway through this picture I found myself looking up the director, trying to figure out a) if there was one and b) what else he had done. Turns out it was Jack Conway, one of MGM's staunchest company men, a guy "who forsook any pretense to a specific individual style in favor of working within the strictures of studio management (IMDb)," said management being leery of creative types who went over-budget and made films that weren't commercial successes. Conway also made one of my favorite William Powell and Myrna Loy vehicles, Libeled Lady (1936), but now I'm thinking he had less to do with its charm than did its stars -- and the fact that everyone was on the same page.
The screenplay for Red-Headed Woman had originally been adapted by F. Scott Fitzgerald from Katharine Brush's popular novel of the same name, but Irving Thalberg didn't think it was funny enough and had it rewritten by Anita Loos. Except I don't think anyone told Jack Conway or Chester Morris that it was a comedy until they were halfway through the picture -- if the first half were Fatal Attraction and the second The Awful Truth.
As a result, many of the laughs are hard won and weirdly timed. The presence of the wonderful Una Merkel as Lil's best friend is the clearest signal that the movie is supposed to be funny (because Merkel delivers), and Jean Harlow, only 21 at the time, is excellent in the title role. Unfortunately, Chester Morris plays Bill so self-loathing and miserable that in scenes with him, Lil comes across more the stalking psychopath than the charming nogoodnik she is with other characters. It's just creepy.
That said, this may be the first time I've truly appreciated Charles Boyer as an actor. He is the funniest thing in Red-Headed Woman: subtle, with an understated comic flair and -- I never thought I'd say this --not in the film nearly enough. But Una Merkel and Jean Harlow are. Just prepare for a little tedium while the picture finds its footing.
I'll do just about anything a movie tells me to do. Unless it tells me wrong...
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