This saucy pre-Code comedy was originally set to be adapted from Katharine Brush’s novel of the same name by F. Scott Fitzgerald. When he took the picture in too serious a direction, the studio asked Anita Loos to step in and rewrite the script.
In Loos’s hands, the film became a raunchy and fun tribute to the social-climbing red-head at its center, played by (the usually blonde) Jean Harlow. While I haven’t checked the original book, I’m fairly certain Loos added in the humorous opening in which Lil Andrews (Harlow) wryly name-checks Loos’s popular novel from seven years earlier: “So gentlemen prefer blondes, do they?”
Lil is a girl with a mission: to seduce Bill Legendre, the wealthy son of her boss.
Unfortunately for all parties involved, Bill is two things: already married but also powerless in the face of Lil’s fiery sexuality. The script hints fairly baldly that Bill and his icy blonde wife, Irene, don’t have sex. When Lil points her lips or shockingly exposed her garters at him, he’s violently overcome.
After a series of adulterous encounters discovered by Irene, she divorces him and is left sleeping with her adorable puppy.
Lonely in the wake of the divorce, Irene decides to try to reconcile with Bill, only to find that he has married Lil in a blisteringly fast ceremony. The marriage is doomed, however, both by Irene’s continued presence in their lives and the social outcast status that the divorce and remarriage have caused for the new couple.
High society can’t accept Lil, whose increase in status has made her snobby but not proper or decent. Because this is pre-Code, the film has some serious fun portraying Lil’s incorrigibly sexual behavior with increasingly racy scenes of her disrobing.
After several more rounds of love and betrayal and a snazzy dance scene to Lil’s own theme song, Bill ruins her chances to remarry by exposing the affair she’s having with her lover’s French chauffer. She attacks the once-again reconciled Bill and Irene, shooting off a gun and causing Bill to wreck his car and nearly die.
But that’s not the end of it! In any other film, one might expect Lil to be punished for her actions; instead, she ends the film married to an even richer (though uglier) old dude while also continuing her affair with the Frenchman, now employed by her husband.
As TCM notes,
The movie, and Harlow, achieved another kind of notoriety as well. Guardians of public morals throughout the country were incensed not only by the film’s frank treatment of sexuality but even more by the fact that Lil, an irredeemably bad girl who selfishly wrecks the lives of everyone around her, doesn’t get any kind of comeuppance or learn her lesson by the end of the story. Rather, she ends up rich, happy and accepted by high society without ever having to pay for her sins. Because of this, Red-Headed Woman is often cited as one of the motion pictures that brought about more stringent censorship under the Production Code, ushering in an era of enforced “morality” and coy dodges around sex for decades to come.
In the absence of the 1928 Gentlemen Prefer Blondes film (which has been lost), it’s fun to see Loos exercise her snappy wit and racy proto-feminist politics with yet another social climber who escapes punishment in the end.