“Beautiful women aren’t funny” is a persistent myth in Hollywood that’s news to anyone who’s ever seen Carole Lombard, Lucille Ball, or Marilyn Monroe act up. But if you had only caught Jean Harlow in dramas like Hell’s Angels (1930) and The Public Enemy (1931), you might have dismissed her as just another pretty face with a bodacious bod. Luckily, MGM believed in Harlow, and in 1932, helped her finally hit her stride...in a pair of Pre-Code comedies.
Slipping a scarlet wig over her legendary platinum locks, Harlow clearly relishes her role as a spouse-swiping seductress in Red Headed Woman. Filmsite.org recaps the saucy plot, noting its “lurid and sensational content that includes marital infidelity, lots of implicit sex and promiscuity, violence and sadism,” and busts Harlow as a “calculating, man-baiting, morally-questionable, flirtatious, shameless bad girl, bed-hopper, dirty little home-wrecker.”
Starting with Harlow’s opening line (“So gentlemen prefer blondes, do they?”), it’s clear she’s in good hands: Script doctor Anita Loos – who literally wrote a best-selling book called Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in 1925 – rewrote a drab draft by The Great Gatsby’s not-so-great-screenwriter F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Harlow plays gold digger Lil Andrews, a stenographer who works overtime to seduce her married boss. From start to finish, Lil unloads an arsenal of feminine wiles to separate the hapless hubs from his wife, and other rich schnooks from their wallets. Best part? Unlike most movie “tarts,” Lil gets away with it. She’s shameless – and irresistible.
Huge box-office returns for Red Headed Woman made the 21-year-old bombshell a superstar. MGM quickly teamed Harlow with up-and-coming heartthrob Clark Gable in Red Dust, one of six pictures they would make together. (Gable and Harlow were a combustible duo, sharing the kind of breezy chemistry Gable couldn’t quite replicate with Ava Gardner in the 1953 Red Dust reboot Mogambo.)
In the 1932 original, Gable manages a rubber plantation, where Harlow’s hooker-on-the-run-from-the-cops hides out. Sparks fly (natch), snappy banter follows (does it ever!), but Gable’s head is turned by the classy wife (Mary Astor) of a new hire (Gene Raymond). Talk about “steam heat”: to Harlow’s dismay, Astor and Gable hook up during a tropical downpour.
So, can Harlow win Gable’s heart in the end?
(Is water wet?)
My favorite anecdote from Red Dust is probably apocryphal, but it would be awesome (if true). While filming a scene of Harlow bathing in a rain barrel, she allegedly stood up, buck naked, and joked, “Here’s one for the boys in the lab!” No wonder crew members adored Harlow and were heartbroken when she died in 1937. (Here’s the PG-13 version from the final cut.)