Vintage Movie Monday: Red-Headed Woman (1932)

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.

Vintage Movie Monday: Blondie of the Follies (1932)

Blondie of the Follies is the story of two girls living in Depression-era New York who escape poverty by going on the stage and then becoming kept women.  How scandalous!  This pre-Code film opens with an all-out slap fight between its female leads (played by Marion Davies, who also produced the film, and Billie Dove in her last film role).  From there, it moves on to depict heavy drinking and child neglect as part of life in a poverty-stricken New York tenement.

For all the glitz and glamor of the stage, this is actually a fairly dark film about the situation of women during the Depression.  It seems a far cry dialogue-writer Anita Loos’s earlier works like the snappy Gentlemen Prefer Blondes or even the lavish silent film Intolerance.

As one character outright states: “This big gay life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, is it?”

I do have to agree with Laura, who felt, “At 91 minutes the film does go on a bit too long, with Blondie and Lottie fighting and making up repeatedly, but it has a number of striking sequences, particularly in the early going.”

The scene that sparked my interest the most features a party performance of a song spoofing director Edmund Goulding’s other 1932 film, Grand Hotel.  “One look at that guy Barrymore and you’re out!”

Vintage Movie Monday: Intolerance (1916)

After working with D.W. Griffith on several smaller silent film projects, Anita Loos helped write some of the title cards for Griffith’s 1916 epic, Intolerance.  She is often not credited for this work, which is a shame.

The film is considered one of the great classics of the silent era, due largely to its epic scope and unconventional plot structure:

The three-and-a-half hour epic intercuts four parallel storylines each separated by several centuries: (1) A contemporary melodrama of crime and redemption; (2) a Judean story: Christ’s mission and death; (3) a French story: the events surrounding the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of 1572; and (4) a Babylonian story: the fall of the Babylonian Empire to Persia in 539 BC. (from Wikipedia)

The various plots have their own detailed visual styles, not only matching sets and costumes to the time period, but also utilizing color coding and themed title cards to help audiences tell them apart at a glance.  The Babylonian story, for example, has a yellowish cast and detailed title cards with historical footnotes.  The French story’s blueish title cards feature a fleur de lis motif.  The contemporary melodrama, on the other hand, has a more standard black and white look and simple title cards like the one below.

Loos worked on the titles for Intolerance, but it is impossible to know which ones she wrote.  Laura Frost hazards some educated guesses about which titles might have been Loos’s:

In most cases, we can only speculate which writer was responsible for which title, but the stylistic differences are suggestive. Loos was clear about her role. In her memoir, she recalls, “D. W. bade me put in titles even when unnecessary and add laughs wherever I found an opening. I found several” (GI, 103). Interspersed among the instructive and weighty inscriptions are lighter and more ironic captions that seem more reflective of the “Loos-style.” For example, in the scene in which The Dear One, who has jealously watched a woman’s undulating walk draw men’s attention on the street and decides to imitate her by tying her skirt into a hobble, a title dryly comments that “The new walk seems to bring results” as men flock to her ridiculous gait.

Intolerance is popping up a lot recently; the still above has appeared in both the video game L.A. Noire and this year’s big Oscar nominee, Hugo.  

It is by all counts a marvel of silent cinema, one that demands a huge attention investment from its viewers and rewards them in turn with a complicated intercut narrative structure and many gorgeous visual moments.

Loos worked Intolerance into her own later work by giving Lorelei, the protagonist of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, a story about her cameo in the film.  Fittingly, Lorelei is supposed to have played one of the vampish Babylonian maidens — frankly a perfect role for her buxom chorus girl character.  And given Lorelei’s later screen life as the perfectly-cast Marilyn Monroe, it is hard not to search those maidens’ faces for her half-lidded eyes and trademark pout.

Intolerance is now in the public domain; you can watch it for free or download it from the Internet Archive.  However, that version doesn’t include the color-coding of storylines, which I found really fascinating and helpful.  Netflix’s streaming version does, if you’d like to watch it like that.

Vintage Movie Monday: The Silent Films of Anita Loos (1912 – 1916)

The silent film has gotten a bit of a boost recently: The Artist, a modern silent “classic,” scooped up many BAFTA nominations, won big at the Golden Globes, and will probably fare pretty well at the Oscars too.  I haven’t seen it yet, but my thesis research into the career of Anita Loos has meant that I’ve recently spent time immersing myself in the art of silent cinema.

Loos wrote an incredible number of screenplays, treatments, and scenarios during the silent era, and continued working in the talkies both pre- and post-Hayes Code.  Many of these films are now lost, but several of them have luckily been preserved.  Even better, a handful are available to watch for free through the Internet Archive.

While these early silents aren’t the best demonstration of Loos’s vivid wit and style, they are a fascinating glimpse into the work of a young (very young) artist who is just getting started.

For a more scholarly take on Loos’s silent film writing work, I highly recommend Laura Frost’s article, “Blondes Have More Fun: Anita Loos and the Language of Silent Cinema.”

 

The New York Hat | 1912

The New York Hat was directed by D W Griffith for the Biograph Studio in 1912. It has many of Griffith’s stock players in it. You may spot Mae Marsh as a gossip or Lillian Gish as a customer in the store but the main roles are played by Lionel Barrymore as the pastor and Mary Pickford as he girl. The script was written by Anita Loos.

This 16-minute short film was Loos’s third screenplay and the very first to be produced.  She earned $25 for it.  It was filmed at Fort Lee, New Jersey, where many silent films were produced in the early days of cinema.

Loos would go on to write title cards for Griffith’s Intolerance, a huge boost for her burgeoning career.

His Picture in the Papers | 1916

A young man can only get the woman he loves if he becomes famous, and manages to get his picture in the newspapers. He determines to let nothing stand in the way of his doing exactly that, and in the process winds up getting involved with a gang of criminals and a locomotive chase.

This hour-long silent film was written by Anita Loos (still quite early in her career) and directed by her future husband, John Emerson.  It starred Douglas Fairbanks.  Loos write five films for Fairbanks and made him quite a star.

Her witty writing style is on display here in the title cards, which play with ideas of language, reading, and thinking.  For example, a title card introduces Count Xxerkzsxxv, with a note reading, “To those of you who read titles aloud, you can’t pronounce the Count’s name. You can only think it.” Continue reading