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Cinema has gone through many periods of great change over the course of its history, but few were as substantial as the pre-Code era of Hollywood. With the introduction of sound in the late 1920s, filmmakers now had the ability to tell a wider range of stories. Naturally, just as the introduction of the moving image in the late 1800s led to Mutoscope machine reels of ‘What The Butler Saw’, the pre-Code era gave filmmakers the opportunity to explore the more provocative and exciting aspects of society.

Hollywood’s image at the start of the 1920s was less than favourable. A highly publicised mix of off-screen scandals and on-screen eroticism had led many outspoken groups to question the principles of filmmaking. As such, the major studios set about trying to clean up Hollywood’s persona with the help of Presbyterian elder William Hays, who put together the Motion Picture Production, or Hays Code. The Code defined what was considered acceptable and unacceptable to be shown on the screen. However, despite being adopted in 1930, the Hays Code was not enforced until 1934, when Roman Catholics began a far-reaching campaign to condemn the depravity they claimed was rife within American cinema. Between 1930 & 1934, Hollywood filmmakers took little notice of this new set of guidelines that tried to creatively restrict them, meaning many of the films released at that time were driven by the themes and ideals the censorship code was deliberately trying to suppress.

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Considered to be the reigning sex symbol of the 1930s, Jean Harlow was one of the defining faces of the pre-Code era. Her picturesque natural beauty, seductive personality, and growing comedic talents made Harlow an indisputable fan favourite when she signed for MGM in 1932. Her first role for the studio, which is without doubt one of her more memorable from the pre-Code era, was playing unashamed gold digger Lillian Andrews in Jack Conway’s Red-Headed Woman.

Many films of the era portrayed strong, impulsive women seducing men in order to better their lives, but few were able to do it with as much energy as Harlow. Over the course of Red-Headed Woman, Harlow’s Lil ‘Red’ succeeds in breaking up a marriage, indulging in various pre-martial and adulterous affairs, and at one point attempts to kill the man intent on divorcing her. Yet her witty and energetic personality is contagious. Throughout Red-Headed Woman, even when she is doing something undeniably repugnant, Lil remains the film’s sympathetic driving force, which is in no small part down to Harlow’s intoxicating enthusiasm.

It’s also down to Anita Loos’ raucous script, which scandalously promotes the notion that women can have it all if they use their body. Lillian is a working-class girl whose options are limited; without any legitimate tactic of improving her life, it seems the only way is to seduce her rich and married boss Bill. It’s a hollow foundation, but one that ultimately helps the film. For, at its heart, Red-Headed Woman is an attack against men of the higher class.

From Chester Morris’ Bill Legendre to Henry Stephenson’s Charles Gaerste, the men of the film are presented as morally driven on the surface, yet superficial underneath. Legendre wastes no time in telling Lillian that he’s a happily married man, yet one flash of her garter and he’s putty in her hand. Similarly, Gaerste dismisses Lillian because of her lower status in society. However, his tune quickly changes when she begins to offer him sexual favours. While the film may be light and breezy throughout, it’s this darker element to the narrative, highlighting the hypocrisy of the higher class, which continues to reverberate through your mind once the film is over.

There’s a distinguished bravery to the way Loos and Conway express their attitudes. Many movies at the time were considered outrageous for their provocative themes and brief nudity, but few were so determined to show a woman from a lower class background reaching the top rung of society with such ease. In these contemporary times, when box office counts for nearly everything, filmmakers can rarely be commended for taking risks. Red-Headed Woman, like many of the films released during the pre-Code era, harks back to a time when filmmakers were more innovative. The Hays Code was eventually enforced because people claimed such scandalous subject matters proved there was too much depravity within American cinema, but the truly depraving thing is the restrictions in creativity such constraints led to.

★★★★

Red-Headed Woman is playing as part of a special season of pre-Code films being shown at the BFI Southbank, in partnership with ‘Sight & Sound’ Magazine. Full details can be found here.

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