Red Hot! How Red Headed Woman Played Hard to Get with the Censors

I made up my mind a long time ago, I’m not gonna spend my whole life on the wrong side of the railroad tracks.

Lil (Jean Harlow), Red Headed Woman

For some strange reason, in 1932 MGM really wanted to film Red Headed Woman, a trashy exploitation novel (imagine Fifty Shades of Grey for the 1930s), but they couldn’t find an actress willing enough to act like a slut on-screen (sure off-screen women could be “slutty” especially if it meant giving their careers a little boost, but on screen it was a whole different story). The film’s plot is relatively simple, Lil is a secretary eager to climb the ladder to a wealthy husband and sets her sights on her boss, Bill Legendre ( played in the film by Chester Morris), in order to achieve her ‘dream’. With its straightforward narrative, the film really needed a ”star” to sell it.

MGM stars Clara Bow and Colleen Moore said no. So MGM tried to recruit from other studios with no luck, Paramount refused MGM’s request of Nancy Carroll, RKO likewise when a test was requested of Helen Twelvetrees. Eventually the part went to Jean Harlow, who was most famous for her platinum blonde hair, no one could really picture with any other colour and therefore she was not the studio’s first choice. However; casting Harlow made a whole lotta sense, I mean she was already notorious to movie fans for the wanton women she played on-screen, but she was also notorious to critics and peers for her terrible acting (to critics she was nothing but eye candy on the screen). It was just critics who doubted Harlow’s acting abilities, Mae Clarke (her co-star in The Public Enemy). stated that Harlow “was at that time, frankly, a non-pro. She wasn’t even talented. But she was beautiful”.

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Indeed the film does make the best of Harlow’s assets, featuring her in revealing outfits; with even a flash of a naked breast. The use of nudity in the film, is humorously inserted for pure titillation, not to be erotic. However that’s not to say that film doesn’t try to be risqué. At one point Lil returns home to find her roommate wearing her pajamas and she insists that she take them off right now. With careful panning of the camera and quick edits, you see the two girls undress with lots of suggestion but very little skin, until in one very quick scene you see Sally pass Lil her pajama top and the camera zips up Harlow’s body which is naked from the waist up (and yes for about 12 frames you see Harlow’s right breast). Another racy scene involves Bill slapping Red behind a closed a door and Red gasps and moans, ”Do it again,” she yells. “I like it.” indicating that Lil is into some slight S&M.

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With its emphasis on S-E-X and a woman who had her own free will (the horror!), Red-Headed Woman, put the fear of God into the Motion Picture Producers and Directors of America (MPPDA). President Will Hays, who saw its lead character, Lil Andrews, as “a common little tart” and an “out-and-out harlot.” (Charming!). It was the character of Lil that the MPPDA had a serious issue with (a woman who saw what she wanted and went for it, even married men…much like Jean Harlow herself). Lil Andrews represented the woman who your mother warned you about, either to stay away from or not to become. However she oozes sex appeal and self-confidence, and to many women of the 30s that would have been very revolutionary. Jean Harlow manage to pull this ”Goddess” aspect of her character of, proving that she was the right woman for the role. Lil Andrews was a part that may very well have ruined a more talented or established actress, but the lead actress, with a big assist from screenwriter Anita Loos, imbued Lil with so much of Harlow that she made her human.

Critics praised the film and praised Harlow, but couldn’t quite believe what they were seeing. Hollywood Filmograph wondered “what it will be like after the censors have red-penciled it,” warning film exhibitors that “it seems pretty safe box-office advice that the red-pencil will devastate the Red Headed Woman.” Motion Picture Herald agreed in its review, also targeted to the motion picture houses: “Undoubtedly the censor boards will tone down some of the more torrid scenes, but even so, there will be plenty left to stir up the long-haired moral guardians of your community.” McCarthy of the Motion Picture Herald wrote: “Sexy, racy, bristling with snappy dialogue, funny, [Red-Headed Woman] is loaded with dynamite that can be dynamic entertainment, or an explosion of objections unless you handle it properly and with all the finesse and ability that your showmanship experience commands.”

Despite all of this praise, the film was actually banned in several places across the US and the UK. Censorship tightened its control over the studio system. The film helped Harlow’s career and she was the leading lady for several pictures up until her death in 1937. What makes this film so memorable (aside from its references to casual sex and a brief flash of side boob), is that the character of Lil makes it in the world, she gets what she wants by sleeping around, and perhaps that’s the reason why the censors got their knickers in a twist, because it hit too close to home.

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