RED-HEADED WOMAN, written by Anita Loos and directed by Jack Conway, with Jean Harlow and Chester Morris (1932, 79 min.)
I thought I was a Jean Harlow fan, at least after seeing her in DOUBLE WHOOPEE, THE PUBLIC ENEMY, PLATINUM BLONDE and BOMBSHELL (not counting her easy-to-miss bits in CITY LIGHTS and THE LOVE PARADE), but this abrasive late-Prohibition comedy, included in TCM’s “Forbidden Hollywood” collection, volume one—“her breakthrough film,” according to James Harvey’s book ROMANTIC COMEDY—gives me some pause. In fact, I think the real auteur here is Anita Loos–who makes Harlow’s ruthless and promiscuous flirt both a successor to Lorelei Lee in her 1925 best-seller GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES and a predecessor of Marilyn Monroe’s version of Lorelei in 1953.
Harvey rightly points out that Harlow’s character in RED-HEADED WOMAN is both a villainous schemer and a triumphantly comic golddigger, reflecting an overall uncertainty about how to regard her, which is why this movie has separate endings to accommodate each aspect. But this makes her at best a dialectic; by contrast, Monroe’s Verdoux-like performance is an improbable yet lethal synthesis, a reshaping of venal Lorelei to make her an image of the opulent 50s, not the flapper 20s or the Depression 30s. Monroe’s much closer to a Tex Avery conceit. Harlow makes the character’s desperate nihilism more apparent, yielding an interesting period ambience with less charisma. I find her scary but not sexy; Monroe is clearly both. And as a comment on economic desperation, Barbara Stanwyck in BABY FACE (1933), released the following year–also included in the same TCM package, in its censored and uncensored forms–is a lot more pungent. [7/19/08]