Hef's Movie Notes: Red Headed Woman

By Hugh Hefner

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Hef introduces the pre-Code classic starring Jean Harlow and Chester Morris.


Tomorrow night: Barbara Stanwyck, with George Brent, Donald Cook and John Wayne in the pre-Code “BABY FACE.”

On Sunday: Hugh Jackman in “REAL STEEL.”Next Friday: James Dean and Natalie Wood, with Sal Mineo in “REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE.”

And on Saturday–a week from tomorrow—Joan Crawford, with Jack Carson and Zachary Scott, in her Academy Award winning performance in “MILDRED PIERCE.”

Tonight: Jean Harlow and Chester Morris in the pre-Code classic “RED HEADED WOMAN.”

Harlow’s first feature role was as a blonde bombshell in the Howard Hughes’ classic “HELL’S ANGELS” in 1930.

But subsequent parts in films such as “PLATINUM BLONDE” for Colombia and “PUBLIC ENEMY” for Warner Bros. did little to advance her career.

It was not until she downed a red wig and played the trollop in “RED HEADED WOMAN” for MGM in 1932 that she became a star.

MGM bought her contract from Howard Hughes for what has been variously reported as $30 to $60,000, and then didn’t know what to do with her, because Louis B. Mayer prided himself on “family films.”

“RED HEADED WOMAN” was a sensational novel written by Katharine Brush in 1931 and serialized by the Saturday Evening Post.

Irving Thalberg originally purchased the property for Garbo, but she turned it down.

Joan Crawford was considered for the part and so was Barbara Stanwyck.

Warner Bros. refused to loan Stanwyck to MGM, but starred her in a similar amoral role in the pre-Code “BABY FACE” the following year.

And we’ll see that one tomorrow!

Clara Bow was considered for tonight’s film, because she really was a red head.

Paramount refused to loan Nancy Carroll for the film.

Tests of Ann Southern, Dixie Lee (Mrs. Bing Crosby) and Ethel Merman (yes, Ethel Merman) proved unsatisfactory.

It was the ill-fated MGM producer Paul Bern who finally convinced Production Chief Irving Thalberg to use Jean Harlow in the role.

Harlow is sensational in the picture. An unrepentant sinner! Sexy! Scandalous! And hilarious, too—because this is a satire on sex.

At least that’s what Thalberg said when the Hays Office objected to the film.

“She’s a harlot,” said the Hays Office. “A common little tart using her body to gain her ends.”

Harlow played a shameless stenographer who, in the words of Time magazine, “Cooed and screwed her way to the top—and got away with it.”

Film critic Leonard Maltin calls this “the sexiest performance in screen history.”

There’s even a flash of bare breast in one dressing scene with Una Merkel, but you’ll probably miss it, because it’s only there for a moment.

When news that Harlow had been chosen to star in the picture reached Louis B. Mayer, he warned Thalberg that any consequences that might come from this unsavory project would be on his head.

Thalberg gave the role of supervising producer on the picture to close friend Paul Bern, Harlow’s mentor.

When Bern asked Irene Mayer Selznick what she’d think if he married Harlow, “I didn’t have to think,” Louis B. Mayer’s daughter remembered. “I just answered, ‘You’d blow your brains out!’”

And he did.

Harold Rosson was the cinematographer on the picture.

After Paul Bern’s death, Harlow fell into an affair—and married—Rosson, but it didn’t last.

The final, great love of Harlow’s life—before her untimely demise in 1937—was William Powell, who reminded her of her mentor, Paul Bern.

Marcel de Sano was originally chosen to direct tonight’s picture. And MGM story editor Sam Marx nominated no less than F. Scott Fitzgerald to write the screenplay.

Thalberg approved Fitzgerald’s $1,200 a week salary—most of which went toward medical expenses for his mentally ill wife, Zelda.

Working at MGM, the studio brass soon learned that Fitzgerald had a drinking problem.

“He gets drunk (just) sniffing the cork on a bottle of wine,” director de Sano observed at the time.

Fitzgerald finished a screenplay, but Thalberg and Bern concluded that the author of “The Great Gatsby” had no real empathy for the character.

It was de Sano who told Fitzgerald that his script had been rejected and that Anita Loos, the author of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” would be writing a new, more satirical version.

According to Sam Marx, Scott Fitzgerald was devastated by the news, and “didn’t draw a non-alcoholic breath for a month.”

Thalberg then fired director de Sano for telling Fitzgerald that his work has been rejected.

This incident, together with a memorable party at Thalberg’s home, inspired a short story Fitzgerald wrote called “CRAZY SUNDAY,” which led, in turn, to his famous unfinished novel, “THE LAST TYCOON,” eventually made into a 1976 film in which Robert DeNiro played the Thalberg character.

Director de Sano soon committed suicide.

A new director, Jack Conway, was assigned to the project.

He was an efficient craftsman at MGM, making “VIVA VILLA” with Wallace Beery in 1934, “A TALE OF TWO CITIES” with Ronald Colman in 1935, and four films with Harlow, including her last, “SARATOGA,” with Clark Gable in 1937.

Costarring in “RED HEADED WOMAN” is Chester Morris, a child actor who played tough guy roles in the ‘30s, and Boston Blackie in films in the 1940s.

Lewis Stone, best remembered as Judge Hardy in the Andy Hardy films with Mickey Rooney, has a supporting role.

And Charles Boyer has a cameo role at the end of the film. Unknown in America, Boyer would become the definitive French lover later in the decade, starring opposite Garbo, Dietrich and Hedy Lamarr.

As Thalberg explained to Anita Loos: “We’ve got a French actor here on a six month option, but I’m letting him go because nobody can understand the guy’s English. His option is up in two weeks, which would be just long enough for him to do the part of that chauffeur.

“So take a look at his test and tell me if you think it’s worth a rewrite to make the chauffeur a Frenchman.”

Production on “RED HEADED WOMAN” began on April 28 and wrapped on May 27, 1932.

When the picture was previewed in Glendale, the audience didn’t know what to make of the Harlow character.

So Thalberg added the montage of humorous moments at the start of the film to establish that this was intended as farce.

It didn’t matter to the would-be censors. This film, and others like it, led to the repressive Production Code in 1934.

And the Catholic church began discussions that led to the establishment of their own Legion of Decency.

Parts of tonight’s film were cut by local censors throughout the country and the picture was banned in England.

But the public loved the film—and Harlow in it!

With the success of “RED HEADED WOMAN,” Harlow was rushed into “RED DUST” with MGM’s other new, rising star, Clark Gable.

On July 2, 1932, one month after “RED HEADED WOMAN” was released, Jean Harlow married her middle-aged mentor, Paul Bern.

On September 5, Harlow’s husband died, an apparent suicide, while “RED DUST” was still in production—just as Irene Meyer Selznick had predicted.

Within five years, Harlow, herself, would be gone.

And now–from 1932— Jean Harlow in the pre-Code classic–

“RED HEADED WOMAN”

 


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