Monday, March 01, 2010

Melodrama Meets Screwball: Red-Headed Woman (1932)

Melodrama meets screwball comedy in this bizarre offering from MGM.

MGM, the studio of gloss and glamour, with “more stars than there are in the Heavens”, was capable of producing some pretty off-beat stuff in the early 30s. One can cite the obvious examples-films like “The Unholy Three” (Jack Conway, 1930) and “Freaks” (Tod Browning, 1932), both of which have their origins in the Lon Chaney-Tod Browning cycle that was so popular for the studio during the 20s. But to take a much less obvious, and therefore much more interesting example of the kind of strangeness that existed even at the mightiest and most conservative of Hollywood’s major studios, one need look no further than this 1932 melodrama from director Jack Conway. The delirious, hysterical and contradictory “Red Headed Woman” remains as fascinating for its contradictions as anything else.

The plot involves a scheming gold digger, Lil, played by “platinum blonde” Jean Harlow, her usual blonde hair dyed red for the title role of this picture. She pays a little visit to her boss, the young and handsome Bill Legendre (Chester Morris) to convince him to give her a promotion. Bill’s wife Irene (Leila Hyams) is out of town, but returns unexpectedly at the worst possible moment, and all hell breaks loose. Divorce follows, as Bill marries Lil, who proceeds to bask in her new wealthy lifestyle, even going so far as to start an affair with the head of a rival company (Henry Stephenson) that is in competition with her husband. What she doesn’t realize, of course, is that everyone else is laughing at her behind her back, and when Bill and Irene begin to make plans to get back together, Lil will stop at nothing short of murder to preserve her happiness.

The film is a weird mix between melodrama and elements of the screwball comedy (which, even though it didn’t really become fully formed for another two years after this film was made, elements of it pop up in the kind of over-the-top romantic wheeling and dealings that take place between the film’s protagonists). The script, by Anita Loos, presents Lil as an absolutely psychopathic characterization which borders on the satiric. Harlow is first presented to the audience underneath a towel, after which her new red hair is revealed. Loos inserts a delightful little inside joke here, as Harlow, commenting on her new hair style, says “So, gentlemen prefer blondes, do they?”

Both Harlow and Morris give outstanding performances. The supporting cast is great, too. Leila Hyams conveys the perfect amount of strength and vulnerability as the wife whose world is rocked by Harlow’s gold digging antics, providing a good dramatic counterpart to Harlow’s often light-comical portrayal. Lewis Stone is Morris’ wise and patient father (a kind of forerunner of his Judge Hardy character), and May Robson is a delight as always as the humorous Aunt Jane. Special mention should be made, too, of Una Merkel as Harlow’s wise-cracking roommate, and an early appearance by Charles Boyer as a chauffeur with whom Harlow begins yet another affair while on a trip to New York.

The film is decidedly “pre-code” in its attitudes and sensibilities, although as an MGM film, still skirts some of the harsher issues that films by Warner Bros., say, were grappling with during the depression era. There’s a strange kind of moral compass in the film which doesn’t seem to know quite which way it’s pointing at any given time. Harlow’s character, whom we’re clearly meant to sympathize with as she’s the star, is strangely unlikable. I’d argue that this is largely due to shortcomings in the emotional range that Harlow is able to project in her films, which is a consistent problem I’ve had with viewing her work. Playing the role more as a caricature, the audience is left to decide for themselves how we should be reacting. If this were a more open-ended drama, that would work fine, of course. But in a film such as this, with plot and narrative wrapped up so tightly and moving at such a quick pace, there cannot be any room for doubt. Unfortunately, the film, largely as a result of the one-note performance delivered by Harlow, fails in this respect, making it much less satisfying dramatically than films like “Baby Face” (Alfred E. Green, 1933) from the same period that dealt with similar subjects. Plot-wise, it tends to get a bit overcomplicated toward the end, and gravitates away from the two most sympathetic characters (Morris and Hyams) who really keep the viewer invested in the plot.

The workman-like direction of Jack Conway doesn’t help matters, either, as the film tends to get slowed down at points during which it should really keep moving. Conway was one of MGM’s most reliable “house” directors, and could deliver great genre pictures and star vehicles, where a strong directorial style was not a requisite. With a film such as this one, and especially considering the wildly varying emotional tones of Anita Loos’ script, a director like William A. Wellman, or even Howard Hawks, would have perhaps been ideal, with their ability to keep things moving and to veer between comedy and melodrama with the speed and precision of a race-car driver. Harold Rosson’s cinematography is similarly flat and uninspired here, with the camera serving more as a recording device rather than being allowed to engage in the kind of interesting transitions and visual metaphors that helped propel so many early sound films. The art direction, attributed to Cedric Gibbons, is strangely flat as well, lacking the best Art Deco gloss that makes films of this period so visually distinctive from a standpoint of production design. It’s tempting to speculate that, because of the subject matter, MGM made the decision to “dress down” their sets for this one. Unfortunately, it tends to get stuck in a kind of artistic middle gear between the grittiness of Warner Bros. and the “Grand Hotel” opulence of MGM’s signature style.

In some ways inspired by the “vice” pictures so popular at the time, which studios like Warner Bros. tended to specialize in, MGM was ultimately the wrong studio for this kind of thing. In an age when film studios are but one asset among hundreds owned by giant corporate conglomerates, it sounds positively absurd to argue that “one” studio was right for a film while “another” wasn’t, but one has to remember the absolute authorial control of the studio heads such as Jack Warner and Louis B. Mayer. While Warner’s studio might have seen this film as an allegory for survival during the depression, Mayer’s approach tended to emphasize the star, and the glamour aspect, which seems positively at odds with the actual story at work here. There are a number of contradictions at work in the film as a result, aside from the fact that we’re asked to identify with a schemer capable of murder in her selfish pursuit of money just by virtue of her star image (this is the kind of thing Alfred Hitchcock would have great fun playing with in his casting of stars like Cary Grant in films like "Suspicion". Hitchcock was master enough to subvert star image and genre; Conway seems to play everything at face value). There’s the stylistic contradiction between melodrama and comedy, and the contradiction between the glossiness of the studio style and the grittiness of the subject matter. The opposition between comedy and melodrama is most obvious in the last scene, in which the strong melodramatic conclusion we have just witnessed is capped off with an unnecessary prologue featuring a cute wrap-up gag with Harlow’s character. It’s a stylistic violation, a kind of winking at the audience as if to say, “you know Jean Harlow wouldn’t really do anything like that.”

Despite the contradictions at work in the film, it still makes for interesting viewing in terms of understanding the kinds of approaches and studio styles toward different subject matter. While not the kind of film MGM specialized in as a studio, the movie has still has strong performances to recommend it. The film may be of the most interest today for anyone examining the role of star image and star vehicles in studio-era Hollywood.

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