“Red-Headed Woman” was Jean Harlow’s ninth feature film, excluding shorts, bit parts (mostly without lines), uncredited walk-ons, or cameos in other features. It was her eighth film in the 24 months since the world premiere in LA in May, 1930, (and New York premier in August and general U.S. release in November 1930), of Howard Hughes epic production “Hell’s Angels.” I use the term “epic production” for a reason. The film wasn’t epic — only the amount of time it took neophyte movie producer Hughes to produce a finished product was epic. However, for the first time and one of the very few times in his life, Howard Hughes was guilty of bad timing.
As production of “Hell’s Angels” began in the fall of 1927, something else began as well. It was the initial stirrings of the “talkie” avalanche about to crush silent filmmaking and many of those who had long been part of it. American film producers decided to hedge their bets, at least on those productions where it might still be possible, and that was to re-shoot as much as would be necessary to make a silent AND a sound version. And in those cases where a re-shoot was impossible, to add synchronized music and sound effects. The Warner Brothers had been doing this since their acquisition of the Vitaphone sound process in 1926, with big, otherwise silent productions like “Don Juan” and “When a Man Loves.”in 1926, one year before they released “The Jazz Singer.” MGM, already having the slow reaction time of a lumbering behemoth, was still making such films, silent with sound effects, as late as 1929. At least Hughes had company. And an excuse — his inexperience.
Into this swirling maelstrom of change, amid an American film industry and thousands of film exhibitors in flux, if not near-panic, Howard Hughes made his debut in Hollywood. You can’t say he didn’t have balls. Big Ones at that. And so “Hells Angels,” shot from November of 1927 to February of 1929, was then re-shot for sound from October to December, 1929. It premiered in LA in May 1930, taken to New York for a second premier in August, and then given a general U.S. release in November 1930.
Harlow got generally poor reviews for her performance, but the blame for her stilted line readings must ultimately be laid squarely at the feet of its rookie producer, who allowed his “discovery,” his star-in-making, Jean Harlow, to be given speech coaching without monitoring either its progress before or during the shooting. Such a performance shouldn’t have been allowed to remain in the final product and a competent film producer would never have let it. As a whole the picture was thought mediocre at best by critics. But Harlow, for the first but not the last time, showed she didn’t necessarily need a successful film or a technically proficient performance as a vehicle for her own success. In “Hell’s Angels,” she became a trailblazer in the bolder sexuality that began to flourish at the beginning of the sound era.
The news media of the time recognized a good story in the wave of public interest in a new “IT” girl — someone to take the title Clara Bow had held until 1930 as Hollywood’s most popular, sexually attractive young star. Bow, though still young at 25, had become emotionally old and tired and ground down by the burdens of a career sold to the public on the basis of sexual image. It’s an image that can’t be sustained, if only because it’s not physically possible. The 19-year-old symbol of youthful sex appeal has a limited shelf life. After next year, and the next and the next, she’ll no longer be 19, and while some fans may stick around as she turns 25, those who prefer their sex queens a bit more youthful will be looking for the next nineteen year old. In 1930 that next nineteen year old turned out to be Jean Harlow: the gleaming, almost freakish white-blonde hair on white dress and white skin, her entire . . . being, white-hot. The “platinum” isn’t merely an adjective to her “blonde” hair color, but describes her very presence at the premier of “Hell’s Angels. The real story of that night was the platinum premier of Jean Harlow.
Harlow was the unwitting face and figure of the new sexuality of sound film, and her stardom, based initially on nothing more, or less, than her image, coincided with a new open sexuality in film. “Talkies” could provide both visual and spoken double entendre with the accent of a single word, or syllable. Harlow couldn’t do that, not convincingly in her first films, but by the time of her ninth feature, she would take it to a new level, assisted by the screenwriters at MGM. But at the same time she would unwittingly help usher in a new period of depression, not economic, but artistic.
By the time “Red-Headed Woman” was released in May 1932, the Platinum-Blonde-turned-Red-Headed Woman would give censors cause to declare war. Their victory came in 1934 with the Production Code, an atomic bombshell dropped on the industrial hub of American movie-making: the film factories of Hollywood. Not just “victory,” it was incineration by fire and brimstone, brought down upon the industry when it became clear that Hollywood, like every other business enterprise, was in business to make money. Everything else — art, culture, science, education or (to borrow a term from D.W. Griffith) “moral uplift” — wasn’t part of their business plan or their mission statement. Hollywood had been not been able to self-administer a standard of morality, as was attempted in the the wake of scandals in the early 1920s. By the early 1930s, it was clear to the parties who assumed the task of moral uplift of motion pictures in America that the film industry could never and would never be capable of doing so without external pressure and enforcement.
Hollywood, the world leader in film production, would now produce works that were only creative in their ability to fool the censors, but mostly they would knuckle under by making pablum — sometimes very good pablum, but rarely challenging or thought-provoking, and certainly not reflective of the reality of the 1930s. Or the 40s or 50s. Art, a man-made creation, the essence of which is to convey the realities of life through a shared medium, would be blasted into a ground zero. Film that required a maturity of thought by audiences, would only appear in mainstream Amercan film by sheer luck or accident — luck on the part of the creators to fool censors, or accidentally overlooked by the watchdogs of “moral uplift.”
Beginning in the late 1940s, television gradually took over production of the kind of entertainment that had once been a staple on the menu of the movies: Television also absorbed many film industry “refugees” who could no longer be retained by the shrinking film industry, but who found work in the new medium. Not just actors, but technicians, cinematographers, writers and directors. You can watch the credits of much of the TV product of the period 1950-65 and see a roll call of familiar names from the film world of the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s. Hollywood’s strategy to fight television was to spend more money on epic productions (without Hughes this time around). Like the Soviet Union in response to US military strength in the 1980s, they spent everything on monumental projects on top of a hollow, fast-disintegrating structure. By 1965, all it took to blow away what was left of Hollow-wood and the now-irrelevant Production Code was one word — “GODDAMN” spoken by one actor in one film, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.”
Harlow’s performances gradually improved almost in a straight line and very quickly, from poor to tolerable to good and finally — in Red-Headed Woman — very good, intense to the point of making even a modern viewer just a little uncomfortable watching it. Like a voyeur who at first doesn’t realize he is one, and then when he does, he cringes at his guilt, but yet doesn’t or can’t look away. I don’t find her portrayal of “Red” sexy, and I don’t believe the audiences of the time were expected to, either. If you want sexy Harlow, watch the two films she made just after “Red” and before imposition of the Code: “Red Dust” (MGM, 1932) and “Hold Your Man.”(MGM, 1933). Both films pit her opposite Clark Gable, and the sparks fly hot and fast. Sexy, but fun. Neither of the characters she plays in these two films degrade themselves sexually, but neither was acceptable under the Code from mid-1934 on.
Red-Headed Woman marked the beginning of the end of the first phase of the brief film career of Jean Harlow. MGM would tone down her image and never again give her (or anyone else for that matter) a role as sociopathic a sexual predator as ‘Red,” once it became clear that the possibility of institutionalized censorship of the motion picture industry by the federal government was real. That was a bullet dodged by the industry, but the result was still ugly for American film as an art form.
Harlow’s roles in her remaining films with MGM, would never again venture into the red zone of moral unaccountability denied to all American films produced after 1934, a film product that would be effectively neutered for the next 30 years. Yet perversely, by the early 21st century this same product would be seen anew through a sincere, but uninformed and misguided nostalgia, given a wholly undeserved redemption, and rebaptized, “Classic Movies.”
Images and Exhibits —
followed by a Postscript: A wish for an alternate future for Jean Harlow:
When assessing the life and career of someone who dies young, someone important to us, someone who leaves us unexpectedly while at the height of their ability and the peak of our adoration, it is so very tempting to speculate what they might have done with more time. I generally refrain from doing so, and Jean Harlow is especially difficult to assess. She was a movie star despite her own wishes, leading a life and having a career that was not her choice, but another’s.
Had she remained healthy, she had two options: leave the limelight, marry and raise children, and live to see her grandchildren. This is the course that she seems to have desired — one that she expressed in moments of doubt about her life choices, in moments of honesty brought about by the wearying life that she was living for others, not for herself.
The second alternate future would be for her to have remained in the entertainment world. I don’t see her remaining in film much beyond 1940. Although it may not have had a big influence on her, there was a significant exodus of top stars at the dawn of the 1940’s. Three of MGM’s biggest female stars, her co-stars and sometime rivals at MGM left, though for varying reasons: Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, and Greta Garbo had all departed MGM by 1942, Crawford left at the end of her conract (sparing L.B. Mayer the task of not opting for a renewal in the wake of declining box office take for her films), and moved on to Warner Brothers and arguably the most productive period of her career. Norma Shearer retired, and Garbo just left at the end of her contract, leaving film though not fame for the remainder of her life.
But I mention those three only to set the scenario for what would have been a realistic path for Jean Harlow had she chosen to continue in show business. I think the real models here, the templates for Harlow’s future in the entertainment world are the careers of two others:
I have a strong feeling that she would have chosen a path similar to that taken by another 1930’s star, Kay Francis. Francis was the highest paid actress in film with Warner Brothers from 1932 to 1939. But from almost the very beginning of her career and her early fame in Hollywood, she regretted the choice — except for the tremendous financial reward it gave her. She stuck it out after her employer, Warner Brothers, had made it clear that she and her huge salary and declining box office were no longer wanted, and they proved it by giving her role after role in what were essentially “B” movies. When her contract with Warners expired, she bailed out of mainstream Hollywood. And in 1942, she decided to use her “stardom” in service of something she considered far more important, the war effort, from 1942 until 1945. Her last film was released in 1946, and for the better part of the next ten years, she worked in live theater and on occasion, television.
I see Harlow, especially with her ability as a comedienne, taking this alternate future path with her destination being television. For one, she was the same age and had a similar back-story as the biggest TV star of the 1950’s, Lucille Ball. Lucy had never truly found her place in movies, with RKO and MGM, though her film career was twice as long as Harlow’s, it wasn’t even a tenth as memorable. But Lucy was one “platinum-blonde-turned-red-headed-woman” who switched gears and won the race that Harlow never had a chance to run. I think that another platinum-turned-red-headed-woman, one who exhibited comedic abilities close to or equal to Lucy’s, but who did not have the advantage of additional years of life, who could also have made a transition to the new medium in the late 1940s/early 50s. Along side “I Love Lucy,” could there have also been “We Love Jean?” Had she remained in show business, I think it was very possible. It is also a very bittersweet thought because we cannot know a different outcome. It was an outcome — a happy ending — denied Jean Harlow. And denied to us as well.