The first time I saw this film was at Cinefest in Syracuse, some 20 odd years ago. It was such a hit that when Toronto Film Society was planning their May weekend with guest film historian Bill Everson only two months later, we asked him to bring his print to show to our members. The next time I saw it was when I programmed it for the TFS pre-Code weekend in 2013. It’s actually kind of a good thing that memories fade. Even though life is relatively short and there is always something new we can read, watch and learn about, it’s also a lot of fun to re-watch films that we don’t quite remember the details of, yet are looking forward to with the excited anticipation of being pretty sure we’re going to enjoy it as much as we did the first time round. Sometimes we’re wrong, but in this case I’m absolutely right. Jewel Robbery is one of those we can continually enjoy!
The first meeting of Baroness Teri (Kay Francis) in the bathtub and the closing sequences are completely different from anything else shown up to that time, and rarely has the fourth wall been broken to this date. Except for William Powell as our token ladies’ man, women seem to be the ones who have the upper hand—we could actually say it’s the “theme” of both of tonight’s movies. In this one, Kay Francis’s Baroness has the rich husband, the handsome lover and all the material possessions she craves but is never satisfied for long and is always on the lookout to upgrade her level of excitement.
There’s been some debate as to whether these pre-Code gold diggers should be considered heroines or not. Even if not quite heroic, I say they should because, besides being women living during the Great Depression, in general, they are different and, in dramas, more real than the women that came after the Production Code.
In tonight’s first film, the Baroness gets all the perks that are usually reserved for men, especially rich ones—the joys of having it all. She appears to have no need to fear that she will end up losing her wealth or lovers; her personality is much too adventurous for that to happen. In our second film, Lil is certainly less refined, but bolder (we could even say a stalkeress!) in a more obvious way and most definitely does not fear that anything can or will block her path to riches and pleasure. I believe, because these are comedies, these two women seem to lack the “worry” gene, unless the worry is reserved for themselves. In dramas of this era, both business and fallen women have to concern themselves with men’s power and have to choose not to care what other people, friend and foe, think of them.
Helen Vinson plays Marianne, Teri’s best friend. This was Vinson’s film debut and she went on to play mostly the supporting female role in further films until she retired from acting altogether on the wishes of her third husband, stockbroker Donald Hardenbrook, in 1945.
What else is unusual about this film is the introduction of drugs as a totally benign prop to assist unsuspecting people pass the time and enjoy what would in reality be an unsettling situation. As a whole, this comedy is about people and their pursuit of pleasures. I hope this film will also be a pleasurable one for you!
Warner Bros. Directed by William Dieterle. Based on the novel by Ladislas Fodor. Screenplay by Erwin S. Gelsey. Cinematography by Robert Kurrle. Film Editing by Ralph Dawson. Art Direction by Robert M. Haas. Costume Design by Orry-Kelly. Music by Bernhard Kaun and conducted by Leo F. Forbstein, Vitaphone Orchestra. Released: August 13, 1932. 68 minutes.
The Robber……………………………………………………….. William Powell Baroness Teri……………………………………………………….. Kay Francis Marianne……………………………………………………………. Helen Vinson Detective Fritz……………………………………………………. Alan Mowbray Paul………………………………………………………………… Hardie Albright Count Rudolph……………………………………………………. Andre Luguet Franz…………………………………………………………………. Henry Kolker Lenz…………………………………………………………….. Spencer Charters Professor………………………………………………………… Lawrence Grant Manager………………………………………………………… Jacques Vanaire Clark…………………………………………………………………. Harold Minjur Concierge……………………………………………………… Charles Coleman Hollander…………………………………………………………….. Lee Kohlmar Henri………………………………………………………………….. Robert Greig The Maid…………………………………………………………… Ruth Donnelly The Chauffeur…………………………………………………………. Ivan Linow Leopold…………………………………………………………. Harold Walridge Alpine Tourist………………………………………………………. Herman Bing The Commissionery………………………………………….. Clarence Wilson
What they have tried to accomplish in transplanting Laszlo Fodor’s Viennese comedy, “Jewel Robbery,” to the cinema pastures is probably more praiseworthy than the way they have accomplished it. The new resident at the Strand has most of the staples of excellent warm-weather comedy. The situation is as capricious, the dialogue as sprightly and the settings as sinfully luxurious as they ought to be. William Powell as the gentlemanly thief can kiss a woman’s hand—while relieving it of a diamond bracelet—or pay a compliment or mock the constabulary as prettily as an amusing scoundrel should in an amusing romantic comedy. Kay Francis, who can be a good actress, is a definitely bad actress opposite Mr. Powell, and that may be part of the reason why “Jewel Robbery” with its several endowments is only mild.
The robber, who has learned his trade in Paris, is none of your submachine gun dullards. He loots Hollander’s jewel shop with the delicate touch of a surgeon. There are four ravishing blondes on as many corners to take care of the police, drugged cigarettes for his victims, and epigrams. The Baroness Teri, who is as weary of her lovers as of her husband, has a first-hand description of the notorious thief but cannot help the police.
That night, while the city is being scoured for the daring burglar, the baroness finds her boudoir invaded, successively, by a box of flowers, her stolen jewels and the faultlessly attired bandit himself. The rest is impetuous love and impetuous flight, midnight alarums, more epigrams and a piquant rendezvous in the robber’s apartment.
All this is nervous, brittle comedy of a sort that is sufficiently novel in the films to be stimulating. Miss Francis interprets the countess as if she were giving an imitation of an imitation, and her performance is one in which her usual intelligence and sincerity are strangely absent. An excellent subsidiary cast has been assembled, and William Dieterle’s direction has the proper daintiness and wit.
New York Times by Andre D. Sennwald, July 23, 1932
Jewel Robbery as adapted to the American stage from the Hungarian of Fodor was a bit indefinite. The screen adaptation by Erwin Gelsey and the Hollywood treatment probably account for the picture version being predominantly comedy in a frothy, satirical vein. The Powell-Francis partnership carries the action over stretches which otherwise would lag and manages to weave in a romantic thread. Shapes up as fair for deluxe trade but dubious further down the theatre scale.
There are numerous lines of dialog bright enough to insure audience laughter. There are also conversational exchanges in a boudoir scene near enough to the line to deliver a punch. The picture is essentially one for fans of some degree of sophistication. These will enjoy it as something light and different.
As the genteel burglar who entertains customers with his conversation and phonograph while his men clean out a Vienna jewelry establishment, William Powell is ideally cast. The same may be said for Kay Francis as the beautiful but bored and eccentric wife of an elderly banker who prefers to listen to the invader than be locked with her husband in a vault.
One of the best gags is introduced when the burglar passes around doped cigarets. This is carried into another sequence when Lenz, a special officer guarding the shop, unwittingly smokes one himself and gives the others to police officials. Spencer Charters as the smug private cop contributes much to the comic side with his dry humor.
In action the picture is so edited that censors will find it difficult to use the shears. In fact, there is only one brief kiss in the entire action.
Variety by Waly., July 26, 1932
The summer of 1932 also saw a film frankly titled Jewel Robbery, based on a Viennese comedy, with William Powell as a gentleman thief who “can kiss a woman’s hand–while relieving it of a diamond bracelet,” said the Times. He also loots jewlry shops “with the delicate touch of a surgeon.” As a baroness “as weary of her lovers as of her husband,” Kay Francis “finds her bourdoir invaded, successively, by a box of flowers, her stolen jewels and the faultlessly attired bandit himself.
From Scarface to Scarlett: American Films in the 1930s by Roger Dooley, (1979)
Jewel Robbery displayed Powell, on yet another outing with Kay Francis, as a suave jewel thief in Vienna who regards his takings as works of art, and who brings an artist’s appreciation to his clever schemes. Francis is the bored and unhappy Baroness married to stuffy Henry Kolker, and of course she and Powell, robberies and assorted chicaneries notwithstanding, are fated to meet and love.
The proceedings called out—cried out, for that matter—for the Lubitsch touch, and instead had to settle for the services of William Dieterle, at his best in costume epics and at his weakest in frothy confections like this. James Robert Parish has pointed out that 1932 audiences were particularly thrilled by a scene in which a cigarette filled with marijuana was passed about, as marijuana was an exciting novelty at that time, though familiar enough later.
The screenplay by Erwin Gelsey was amusing enough, and in Lubitsch’s hands might have been altogether captivating. Based on a play by Ladislaus Fodor, Jewel Robbery contained equal doses of light romancing and clever skullduggery, and Powell sparkled, as always, as a man irresistible to women who dares to aspire to a Baroness’s affections. Though Francis was not at her best in this (she needed special handling—meaning Lubitsch’s—to register in subtle froth like this), she did follow Powell’s lead sufficiently to emerge as competent in most critics’ estimation.
The Gelsey-cum-Fodor lines were amusing, and well-tailored to the characters, but the plot was predictable enough, having been given a run-through by many a writer in the past, but the atmosphere of Vienna was well-conveyed, even though no one got a step off the Warner sound stages and back lots in Burbank.
One critic wrote: “Mr. Powell must get mightily tired of pouring on the charm, but on the surface he gives no indication of it here, and Kay Francis, while not quite up to his standards, gives a competent rendition of a noblewoman smitten to the point of indiscretion.”
The Complete Films of William Powell by Lawrence J. Quirk (1986)
One of the mysteries of the filmic ages (and after all, what other ages really matter?) is why this scintillating comedy is so little known or shown when it should be celebrated as one of the joys of the early 30’s. Another attendant mystery is how former actor William Dieterle, newly arrived from Germany, managed so quickly to familiarize himself with American mores and Hollywood methods that within his first couple of years as a director he was able to turn out not only thoroughly American films such as The Last Flight but impeccable copies of the work of such longer established directors as Lang, Lubitsch, etc. Though less ambitious, “Jewel Robbery” is in many ways the equal of the same year’s Lubitsch classic fo Paramount, Trouble in Paradise—a similar tale with Kay Francis in a similar role. In all fairness though, it must be admitted that they key factor in the film’s success is William Powell: even he has never been quite so urbane and polished, before or since, to the extent that for once Kay Francis (his co-star in the same year’s One Way Passage) seems more like a foil than a co-star. One of the most aggressively pre-Code comedies, its sexual innuendoes are remarkably explicit and by implication marital infidelity is not only to be condoned but even to be encouraged if one’s husband is dull and elderly. But it is all put over with the most exquisite taste and almost thrown away with; if all pre-Code comedies had had the sophistication and style of this film, Trouble in Paradise and The Devil to Pay, there might have been far less trouble with the industry censors around 1933. Its first five minutes, before either star appears, is a little gem in itself, a perfect opening rather like a short before a related feature; and its fadeout shot is as unexpected as it is effective and felicitous. And if it’s almost all talk, with the first three reels representing one “act”, what matter? It’s all so smooth that theatricality never enters into it. Visually it’s a stunner too, the art direction even borrowing and reusing some pillars from Noah’s Art (!) and the climax offering some highly stylized rooftops sets. Incidentally, there’s a Freudian slip in our cast list above; Gordon Elliott could hardly be a “gendarme” in a Vienna setting, but his brief scene and the whole ambience are so Gallic that the word just slipped in!
The New School by William K. Everson, October 1, 1993
One of the highlights of Powell’s stay at Warner Bros. was the delightful Jewel Robbery. A light, silken tale of a gentleman robber (Powell) and a woman he robs and woos (Kay Francis), it sparkles with wit and is played with just the right touch.
Set in Vienna, the film depicts Baroness Teri (Francis), who is bored by her husband despite his lavish gifts to her. She meets her husband at a jewelry store where he has promised to buy her a 28-carat diamond ring for a good price.
While they are in the store, the finely attired and well-mannered robber enters and politely takes the jewelry of the store patrons. He also flirts with Teri. When he makes his getaway, she tells him she has no desire to see him arrested.
On arriving home, she finds roses in her bedroom and the 28-carat diamond ring in the safe. The robber is in her house and makes himself known. She begs him to take the ring, as she will not be able to explain how she got it back.
Teri ends up in the robber’s apartment, where he asks her to come away with him to Nice. She agrees to meet him, but when the police arrive he leaves her tied up to save her reputation. When she is released, she announces that she must go to Nice to restore her nerves.
The film was directed by versatile craftsman William Dieterle, whose European sense of refinement and glamour is well matched with Powell and Francis. It is a delicious confection.
One of the intriguing elements of the picture from a modern perspective is the robber’s passing out drugged cigarettes (apparently marijuana, although the word is never used) to his “victims” just before he leaves the jewelry store. Later, a police officer picks up what appears to be a half-empty pack of cigarettes at the crime scene and takes it with him; inevitably, he offers one to his superior at the police station. The film gets some humorous mileage out of their subsequent silly behavior.
It is a measure of how quickly Hollywood sometime worked in the 1930s that the 1931 play on which Jewel Robbery was based (Ekszerrablás a Váci-uccában by Lázló Fodor) was purchased by Warner Bros. on February 8, 1932 and filming began March 2!
Of the $291,039 budget for the film, more than a third–$100,000—went for Powell’s salary. Kay Francis was paid $27,000.
During production in spring 1932, Warners executive Darryl Zanuck—who would later be head of 20th Century Fox—expressed concern about Dieterle’s work in memos to the director and to others.
Zanuck told Lucien Hubbard on March 26 to “keep your eye very close on the rushes of Dieterle…as he has a habit of shooting his most important scenes with the camera moving or sweeping around or going back and forth, and you miss the most important point of all.”
But in a memo to Dieterle on April 5, Zanuck said: “The rushes continue to be very excellent, and I like the manner in which you are continuing to put movement and action in all of the scenes…Keep this up: this is very fine.”
In a memo to Dieterle dated April 11, Zanuck focused on a different issue: “We want to watch out and be very careful in our scenes between Powell and Kay Francis that they are not too overly-polite and not played too ultra-sophisticated…we want to keep them sincere and human and real at every moment and not have the feel that they are just putting on a performance for each other’s benefit.”
In a criticism that sounds as if he had been watching Ernst Lubitsch films, Zanuck wrote that “if (the actors) are bowing and scraping and nodding t each other, it’s going to become one of those musical-comedy situations and a musical-comedy plot, and the sincerity and the real romance of the story will go out the window. I especially criticize it with Powell. He gets almost bird-like and like a fairy, bowing and scraping too much. Keep him manly and keep him dashing and then you’ll have a great romantic, adventurous story, and that’s what it is.”
When the film was released, the Hollywood Citizen News complained that Dieterle “seemed uncertain whether to take his material seriously or to abandon himself to a satirical mood. In striving to inject a Lubitsch touch, Dieterle has gotten rather muddled up with the treatment of this picture.” The reviewer said Powell was well cast, but Francis “seems to have forgotten how to act. She is self-conscious, and a little silly. At no time can you believe in her or her type.”
Columnist Harrison Carroll was kinder, calling the film “daring and amusing,” and adding that none of the gentlemen thieves of older films “were as suave, as competent, as resourceful or as romantic as William Powell, playing this nemesis of the Viennese police department.”
William Powell: The Life and Films by Roger Bryant (2006)
In July 1932, Kay’s third release for Warners hit the theaters. It was the fifth outing for the Kay Francis-William Powell team. Jewel Robbery, based on a 1925 play by Ladislaus Fodor, was a fun, racy, satirical romp with a sophisticated edge. The ads promised, “He stole her jewels—but that wasn’t all!” The Los Angeles Evening Herald Express tattled that “Kay is naughty again. I mean naughty! She plays Terri, the vivacious Viennese in Jewel Robbery. It is quite the naughtiest role she has done in pictures!”
Jewel Robbery was probably the “naughtiest” film anyone associated with it had ever made. Kay (a replacement for Barbara Stanwyck) played the pampered wife of wealthy Henry Kolker. She has a lover on the side (Hardie Albright), whom she’s ready to dispose of, and spends her time and husband’s bank account on jewels and furs. Kay plays her role with the enthusiasm of a frivolous coquette whose most cherished desire is a new thrill. When she meets her husband at the jewelers to buy the 28-caract Excelsior Diamond, they are confronted with an attractive, sophisticated jewel thief (William Powell). She is captivated by him. He flirts with the same finesse he uses to rob the store. Considerate to a fault, he supplies marijuana cigarettes to everyone to calm their nerves. Kay declines, saying, “I prefer to keep my wits about me, thank you!” (The studio was bombarded with letters asking the contents of the curious cigarette.) When Powell escorts her to be locked in the safe, she asks him to join her. “What would I do in there alone?” she queries. As an alternative, Powell offers to drop her off in the suburbs, untouched. “Untouched in the suburbs! Oh, no!” Kay refuses. When she slaps him for taking the Excelsior Diamond off her hand, Powell smiles, saying, “How intimate!”
Back at her mansion, Powell appears out of nowhere after watching Kay change into her negligee. “You were everything I anticipated!” he compliments her. In gratitude, a surprised Kay offers him cognac. Powell tries to seduce her, saying he lives “only for the present.” Peeking into her bedroom he suggest, “if you wish, at dawn we shall have a secret behind us.” Managing to conjure up a smidgen of self control, she refuses. Through an amusing ploy, Powell and Kay end up at his hideaway, where his man-in-waiting escorts them to the bedroom. Powell shows some protocol. “No, no, no,” he admonishes the valet, “supper first!” Kay agrees. “there are so many pleasant, intervening steps,” she says happily. “Show me your jewels!”
Their rendezvous is cut short when the police arrive. Powell escapes to Nice after inviting Kay to join him there at the Hotel Negresco. When Kay’s husband shows up, she feigns that she’s been kidnapped. Her nerves are “shattered, simply shattered.” She must get away “for a long rest.” She walks toward the camera with a smirk on her face saying, “I think I’ll go to Nice! Yes, Nice. On the first possible train.” Placing her index finger to her lips, she admonishes the audience, by looking straight into the camera as if we’re privy to her little secret. A very funny, original ending.
Kay’s sleek lines and fashion-sense were complimented throughout Jewel Robbery by designer Orry-Kelly. Like Kay, Orry-Kelly was an east-coast transplant, who had been Cary Grant’s roommate in the 1920s. Kelly and Kay got along famously. Margaret J. Baily in Those Glorious Glamour Years commented: “Kay Francis was a favorite of the costume designers because she rarely questioned anything they made for her. She never told Orry-Kelly to change a line or redo the skirt folds. Kelly once commented on professional stars like Francis to Motion Picture Magazine: ‘They know that I know my business, which is to make them look superlatively well on the screen. They understand to the point where they know, too, that if they look badly on the screen, if their clothes fail to bring them distinction, that they are not as much at fault as I am.’” Bailey emphasized that Kelly’s reputation was secured when Kay donned such creations as the velvet negligee she wore for Jewel Robbery. “Kay Francis was queen of the matinee audience,” said Bailey. “Women would stand in line, come rain or shine, to see what their favorite star wore because it was terrifically important to them…Francis kept them coming back for more. It was Hollywood glamour, and moviegoers love it.”
Filmgoers still favored the team of Kay Francis and William Powell. Kay commented,
I shall never forget when we started Jewel Robbery. I was worn out having made four pictures in a row, finishing the last one at seven o’clock one night and starting Jewel Robbery early the next morning. We were on location and it was frightfully hot and I became cross, really, very irritable. Finally I blew up in my lines and went all to pieces. Bill sauntered over and sat down beside me saying, quietly, ‘Kay, if I didn’t love you and understand how utterly exhausted you were, I’d, well, I’d—I’d spank you!” That made me laugh. We both howled at the imaginary picture his words suggested and this broke the tension I had been on. Everything was serene after that.
Jewel Robbery is now a cult favorite amongst pre-Code aficionados, but when released it got mixed reviews. Some critics couldn’t decide whether to take it seriously or not! From the “oom-pa-pa” polka music of the opening credits to Kay’s tongue-in-cheek look into the camera at the finish, it’s hard to understand how anyone could misconstrue the film’s intent. Elizabeth Yeaman didn’t get it. She complained, “Jewel Robbery is one of those pictures which you decide not to take seriously and suddenly find that you are expected to take it seriously…it is not a little puzzling.” The confused Yeaman then gives her first full-blast lambaste against Kay’s acting. “Kay Francis…is required to speak lines of flip sophistication. But they sound pretty unnatural coming from her. For some reason Miss Francis seems to have forgotten how to act. She is self-conscious, and a little silly. At no time can you believe in her or her type. Helen Vinson…has only a small role, but she reveals charm, beauty and acting ability. Perhaps if she did not handle her sophisticated dialogue so well the deficiencies would not be so apparent.” (Ouch!) It was a typical Yeamn ploy to compare Kay with a female co-star in order to point out what she saw as Kay’s deficiencies. Over the next few years Yeaman never let up on Kay. Harrison Carroll was charmed by Jewel Robbery and reported, “That old cinema favorite, the gentleman thief, is viewed through the eyes of humor in Jewel Robbery…an unmoral tale, but one so completely tongue in cheek and so continental in flavor that who shall condemn it?…Both Kay Francis and William Powell enter thoroughly into the spirit of occasion and William Dieterle adds the proper touch to the direction.”
Kay Francis: I Can’t Wait to Be Forgotten by Scott O’Brien (2007)
Blogs written by other film enthusiasts:
Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings, November 25, 2009 http://laurasmiscmusings.blogspot.com/2009/11/tonights-movie-jewel-robbery-1932.html
Stalking the Belle Époque by Joseph Crisalli, November 7, 2010 http://stalkingthebelleepoque.blogspot.ca/2010/11/sunday-viewing-jewel-robbery-1932.html
Immortal Ephemera by Cliff Aliperti, November 28, 2011 http://immortalephemera.com/14929/jewel-robbery-1932/
The Cutest Blog on the Block: Noir and Chick Flicks by Dawn, December 2, 2011 http://dawnschickflicks.blogspot.ca/2011/12/pre-code-jewel-robbery-1932.html
Mondo 70: A Wild World of Cinema by Samuel Wilson, December 2, 2011 http://mondo70.blogspot.com/2011/12/pre-code-parade-jewel-robbery-1932.html
Un Cinéphile, December 13, 2011 http://unecinephile.blogspot.ca/2011/12/jewel-robbery-1932.html
Pre-Code.Com by Danny, August 21, 2012 http://pre-code.com/pre-code-jewel-robbery-1932/
The E List – classic film reviews by Newslowe, November 28, 2013 http://elistfilmreviews.blogspot.ca/2013/11/jewel-robbery-1932.html
Vérité by Vanessa Buttino in Cinema Obscura, May 22, 2014 http://www.veritefilmmag.com/blog/pre-code-cinema-doesnt-get-naughtier-than-1932s-jewel-robbery
Black and White: Cinema and Chocolate by Miguel, June 1, 2014 http://cinemaandchocolate.blogspot.com/2014/06/kay-francis-diamonds-jewel-robbery-1932.html/
Lets Misbehave: A Tribute to Precode Hollywood by Emma, June 10, 2014 http://letsmisbehaveprecodefilmtribute.blogspot.com/2014/06/drugs-for-laughs-jewel-robbery-1932.html
The Hollywood Revue by Angela, November 3, 2014 https://hollywoodrevue.wordpress.com/2014/11/03/pre-code-essentials-jewel-robbery-1932/
Alt Film Guide by Marcus Tucker, 2014/15 http://www.altfg.com/blog/film-reviews/jewel-robbery-william-dieterle/
RED-HEADED WOMAN (1932)
This is one of the best-known, possibly one of the top ten favourite pre-Code film that has all the elements of what makes this genre such a delight. A sexy, scheming, manipulative, narcissistic, unrelentless woman who goes after what she wants and doesn’t let up or let anything—like, say, a man’s marriage—stop her from getting her way. And when she does achieve her goal, goes on to be very, very bad and still gets away with everything.
Anita Loos, who started her very long writing career in Hollywood in 1912 at the age of 23, is considered most famous for her stories of Lorelei in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” which was published in November 1925. In 1932, she was married to actor/director/writer John Emerson and when they were offered to write films for MGM, Hollywood’s most prestigious studio by production head Irving Thalberg, Emerson refused. So Anita took the $1,000-a-week job solo. Her first project was tonight’s film, taking it over from F. Scott Fitzgerald who was having a difficult and unsuccessful time adapting Katherine Brush’s novel. Red-Headed Woman, completed in May 1932, was the smash hit that established Jean Harlow as a star and made Loos once again one of the hottest screenwriters in town. MGM producer Samuel Marx had this to say about Anita: “Loos was a very valuable asset for MGM, because the studio had so many femmes fatales—Garbo, Crawford, Shearer and Harlow—that we were always on the lookout for ‘shady lady’ stories. But they were problematic because of the censorship code. Anita, however, could be counted on to supply the delicate double entendre, the telling innuendo. Whenever we had a Jean Harlow picture on the agenda, we always thought of Anita first.”
It’s been a number of years since I last saw this picture and I hope now you are looking as forward to viewing as I am. It’s a real treat!
Metro-Goldwyn Mayer. Directed by Jack Conway. From the book by Katharine Brush. Screenplay by Anita Loos. Cinematography by Harold Rosson. Costume Design by Adrian. Art Direction by Cedric Gibbons. Film Editing by Blanche Sewell. Released: June 25, 1932. 79 minutes.
Lillian ‘Lil’/’Red’ Andrews Legendre……………………………. Jean Harlow William ‘Bill’/’Willie’ Legendre Jr…………………………….. Chester Morris William ‘Will’ Legendre Sr………………………………………… Lewis Stone Irene ‘Rene’ Legendre……………………………………………. Leila Hyams Sally………………………………………………………………….. Una Merkel Charles B. ‘Charlie’/’C.B.’ Gaerste……………………….. Henry Stephenson Aunt Jane…………………………………………………………… May Robson Albert……………………………………………………………….. Charles Boyer Uncle Fred………………………………………………………….. Harvey Clark
What the critics said about Red-Headed Woman:
All this viciousness, and a dose of gratuitous snideness to boot, is transferred to the screen version of Red-Headed Woman, which was presented to a generously admiring audience yesterday at the Capitol as a fast and at times hilarious satirical comedy…. Whether the pleasure of the first audience of the picture was derived from appreciation of Miss Harlow’s satirical characterization of a feminine type, or from the belief that she is the hottest umber since Helen of Troy started her career of firing topless towers, was difficult to determine. That it enjoyed the film vastly was patent. – New York Herald Tribune, Lucius Beebe
Red-Headed Woman—red hot cinema! The Capitol’s current offering is lurid and laugh-enticing in the bigger and better box-office manner. And the ex-platinum Jean Harlow now sparkles as a titian siren, her emoting improved immeasurably along with the change in the shade of her tresses. Svelte, slender and seductive, Harlow gives a splendid performance, making the picture more a character study of a woman who trades on her physical charms than a narrative romance. – New York Daily News, Irene Thirer
Filled with laughs and loaded with dynamite, it exposes the males as chumps and convincingly describes what the tired businessman likes. The answer is Harlow. This shapely beauty gives a performance which will amaze you, out-Bowing the famed Bow as an exponent of elemental lure and crude man-baiting technique. New York Daily Mirror, Bland Johaneson
The Films of Jean Harlow, edited by Michael Conway and Mark Ricci (1965)
The major difference between Harlow and all the other cinematically fallen women (except Mae West) was that, once she hit her stride in Red Headed Woman (1932), she played hers most successfully for alughs. In this Anita Loos screenplay (both more dramatic and far wittier than the Katherine Brush best seller on which it was baed), she played a character somewhat parallel to Stanwyck’s in Baby Face and even closer to Crawofrd’s in The Women, a scheming stenographer from the wrong side of the tracks who traps her married boss (Chester Morris) into divorce and remarriage to her. Still snubbed by the local gentry, she sets her cap for a New York tycoon (Henry Stephenson), is caught in an affair with his chauffeur (Charles Boyer) and thus drives her husband back to his first wife (Leila Hyams). Two years later, in Paris, she has found a wealthy old French protector, but still has the chauffeur on the side–an ending that outraged the Hays Office.
Presented seriously, the gold digger could easily turn into a cold-blooded husband-snatcher, like Stanwyck in Baby Face, Harlow in Red Headed Woman or Crawford in The Women. On the other hand, softened by sentimentality, she would become a Cinderella, the poor but honest girl who lands not the elderly millionaire as protector but his handsome son as husband, and that only as virtue’s reward. (A few gold diggers did indeed marry for love, but seldom without money.)
From Scarface to Scarlett: American Films In the 1930s by Roger Dooley (1979)
Once She Done Him Wrong entered American theaters with the Hays imprimatur, the General fielded the protests. Father Daniel Lord, who had drafted much of the Production Code, turned livid over She Done Him Wrong, “which everybody knows is the filthy Diamond Lil slipping by under a new name.” He acknowledged that some pictures adapted from plays or novels had been only “somewhat dirty”; he also acknowledged that filth was profitable, whether the traffic was opium, cocaine, whores, or motion pictures. But he warned that producers who decided to “shoot the works” would face a “day of reckoning.” Perhaps the states would take control of the movies, perhaps even the Church would. The ‘motion picture industry will be very unwise to incur the militant enmity of the Catholic Hierarchy,” Lord told Hays. “It has come perilously close to this with the type of thing produced of late.”
Moved by fear, shame, or jealousy of the Paramount product, even some of the moguls condemned She Done Him Wrong. Fox Film president Sidney Kent wrote to Hays less than a day after viewing “the worst picture” he had ever seen:
It was the real story of Diamond Lil and they got away with it. They promised that that story would not be made. I believe it is worse than Red Headed Woman from the standpoint of the industry—it is far more suggestive in word and what is not said is suggested in action, I cannot understand how your peple on the Coast could let this get by. There is very little that any of us can do now. I think the place to have done anything was at the source.
The Dame in the Kimono: Hollywood Censorship and the Production Code from the 1920s to the 1960s by Leonard J. Leff and Jerold L. Simmons (1990)
Red-Headed Woman was a short story by Katherine Brush, which MGM had bought for F. Scott Fitzgerald to turn into a suitable screenplay. Fitzgerald, already in the twilight of his career, turned in a depressing, unusable script and seemed unwilling or unable to make the necessary revisions. He was fired and Anita Loos (author of the brilliant comic novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) took his place. Thalberg asked her to transform the turgid mess into a sex comedy, much to the unease of director Jack Conway, who saw nothing amusing in the story of an amoral secretary who breaks up marriages, leads men to destruction, and winds up happy and wealthy at the fade-out. His own marriage had been destroyed by a similar mantrap, and he was convinced that audiences would share his feelings on the subject. Everyone involved agreed that it would take a remarkable actress to make such a horrid tramp into a laughable heroine.
Every actress at MGM had been considered for the role and rejected. Garbo was too languid. Crawford was too intelligent. Shearer and Davies were rejected out of hand; neither of their mentors was about to assign them such an unsympathetic role. Red-headed Clara Bow was briefly considered; even aging comic Marie Dressler borrowed a red wig and jokingly demanded a test.
Paul Bern was convinced that Jean would be perfect. He knew she longed to return to comedy, to prove where her talents really lay. He recognized that Jean’s childlike glee, her impish personality, would redeem the character in the eyes of audiences, and that she was the only actress capable of mixing sexual lure with wholesome innocence. He arranged for Jean to meet with Thalberg and Loos to plead her own case. She showed up for the meeting in a flaming red wig and tried to charm the two over.
“Do you think you can make audiences laugh?” asked Thalberg. “With me or at me?” “At you,” Jean was told. She smiled and shrugged. “Why not? People have been laughing at me all my life.” After the meeting Thalberg told Loos, “I don’t think we need worry about Miss Harlow’s sense of humor.” Jean was officially signed on as the star of Red-Headed Woman.
She certainly didn’t win any friends when Bern’s sponsorship got her the part, but it proved to be worth the possible antagonism of her peers. The role would have been easy to botch. It required a very light touch and expert comic timing. Jean was sure she could play this part to perfection, but her employers took a wait-and-see attitude. She embarked wholeheartedly on the project, playing her vamp reputation for laughs, sending up not only the title character, Lil Andrews, but also Helen, Rose, Gwen, Daisy, and all the other humorless sluts she’d so unrewardingly played in the past. Loos and Thalberg guessed that audiences would be so touched and surprised at this about-face that any possible deficiencies in her performance would be overlooked.
Red-Headed Woman was the story of Lil Andrews, an ambitious girl from the wrong side of the tracks in Renwood, Ohio. Lil is determined to get to the top, much to the dismay of her roommate (Una Merkel) and bootlegger boyfriend. Lil barges in on her married boss, Bill Legendre (Chester Morris) and brazenly seduces him. She does not—cannot—take no for an answer. She is so single-minded, she can’t even take insults or physical abuse for an answer: “Do it again—I love it!” she purrs when Legendre slaps her. She has no trouble winning the spineless boob from his wife, and she quickly marries him. Failing to charm the local elite, Lil moves on to a wealthy New Yorker, vamping both him and his amorous chauffeur. When Legendre tries to warn this latest victim, Lil shoots him (one of the few false notes in the film). Escaping prosecution, Lil flees to Paris and is last seen hobnobbing with the upper crust, her oversexed chauffeur still in tow.
Lil was an entirely new and refreshing kind of trollop. She didn’t glower or breathe heavily behind cigarette holders. She was humorous, good-natured, and full of glee. This was an upwardly mobile young lady with whom depression-era girls could identify. She wanted to claw her way out of poverty and a dead-end career the only way she knew how, and went about it with a childlike cheer that made her more a role model than a figure of scorn.
The Red-Headed Woman set was a happy one, which helped calm Jean’s nerves. She was unsure about the red wig, but cameraman Harold Rosson eased the tension by making small talk and comparing golfing tips (both were avid golfers, and Rosson had occasionally teed off with Marino). Jean soon got used to the wig and even grew to like it, although she assured fan magazines that “as soon as the picture is finished this red hair is going to be given a nice place among my souvenirs.” She also made a point of burning as many bridges behind her as she could, stressing that she’d been “trying for a long time to get away from the type of character started by Hell’s Angels. Perhaps if I can prove that I can do more than one thing I will be given a chance to play a variety of roles in the future.
At least one MGM executive had faith that Jean’s time had come. When Grand Hotel opened at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on April 16, the most visible couple attending were Jean Harlow and Paul Bern. This was the first public notice that the two that the two were more than good friends.
Bern’s acquaintances weren’t surprised at the pairing. During his years in Hollywood, the slight, balding forty-three-year-old producer had managed to get his name linked with some of the industry’s top sex symbols, including Joan Crawford, Mabel Normand, and the ill-fated beauty Barbara LaMarr. LaMarr was one of the First National’s stars in the 1920s, and Bern had allegedly attempted suicide after her fifth marriage. LaMarr died in 1926, under circumstances which have never been fully explained.
When Bern squired Jean to the Grand Hotel opening, Hollywood gossips winked at each other and whispered that it was another case of a grateful young starlet making herself “agreeable” to an influential executive. Red-Headed Woman was still shooting, so most people didn’t know that Jean was on her way up and no longer needed that kind of “protection.” Daily rushes indicated that her latest performance might make her a major star, on a par with Crawford and Davies.
No one was willing to believe that she might care for Bern for his own sake. Writer Carey Wilson and producer Al Lewin spotted them at the premiere and recognized Bern’s bent for molding impressionable young actresses. “He’s got that goddam Pygmalion complex,” said Lewin, “He’s hellbent on finding someone to make over and fall in love with.”
After this, their first date, the two returned to Bern’s newly built home in Beverly Hills. It was a strange, isolated house at 9820 Easton Drive, near Benedict Canyon. Set back some three miles from the main road, it looked like the abode of a Hans Christian Andersen gnome: all gables and turrets, surrounded by pine trees and footpaths, with bizarre rainspouts carved as portraits of Bern’s silent-screen-star friends. There was a large swimming pool and bevy of servants: John and Winifred Carmichael were his butler and cook; Harold Garrison his chauffeur, and Clifton Davis his gardener.
When Jean returned to her Club View Drive house late that night, she told Mama Jean that Paul was the first man who hadn’t chased her toward the bedroom on their first date. Jean was a divorcee, not a schoolgirl, and not averse to a sexual relationship. But she was also oldfashioned and more interested in romance than sex—tired of outrunning wolves. Paul Bern seemed more interested in her mind than her body; this was an unusual experience for Jean and it intrigued her.
Paul Bern believed in her. He recommended books he liked, helped coach her speaking voice, encouraged her writing talents, introduced her to European manners and morals. For a homespun girl from the Midwest, this was a revelation: a man who kissed your hand, saw you to your door without trying to break it in and took “no” for an answer. Before long, Jean had fallen hard. She was able to overlook Bern’s lack of good looks and sexual drive. After several dates, she actually felt a sense of relief that here at last was a man who took his time. She wasn’t going to let this one get away.
In the meantime, she returned to work on Red-Headed Woman with renewed vigor and with Bern’s constant support and supervision. Jean was now the official protégée of one of MGM’s top producers, and the cavalier treatment she was used to became a thing of the past. The better she was treated, the better her performance got; the better her performance, the more respect she received on the set. It was obvious to director Conway that Jean was stealing the film from her more experienced costars, and that it had nothing to do with Bern’s sponsorship. An actress may get a good part due to higher influence, but it’s up to her to prove herself. Jean was just plain good.
As the film wrapped in late May, Jean wrote to friend and fan Stanley Brown, “Can you imagine ME singing—or, rather, TALKING to music! Ye Gods, I get in one morning and Mr. Conway says, ‘Jean, it won’t take you long to learn this song, will it?’ I guess I nodded a few times and proceeded. My Lord, what procedure!”
The film was an exciting one for her, but also exhausting: “I got beaten, fired a gun, and delivered a long speech in FRENCH. Other than that I did nothing but work.” Her social schedule during filming was curtailed. She and Bern saw each other largely during the day, when one or the other could escape for a quick lunch or brief dinner date after viewing the day’s rushes. But both the hard-working actress and the driven executive were home in their respective beds by ten at the latest. Both worked six-day weeks, so their courtship had to be taken in fits and starts. It’s no wonder that film people found it so difficult to marry outside the profession; outsiders couldn’t cope with the hours.
Free evenings were spent in Bern’s home, reading. Jean had confessed her literary ambitions, terrified that he would laugh at her impertinence. Instead, Bern suggested that she begin thinking of writing a novel—nothing overly ambitious, but a story the studio might buy for a film project. He recommended books, and the Victrola in her dressing room became silent as she spent free moments perusing works of European and American literature and philosophy. She never brought these books to the set, as she knew the kind of ribbing she’d get from cast and crew. It was bad enough that the press had caught on to the “bombshell and the egghead” story. A similar situation arose some twenty-five years later, when Marilyn Monroe began dating playwright Arthur Miller; both couples found it difficult to withstand the obvious jokes and public spotlight on their private romance.
The story of Jean’s showing on the Red-Headed Woman set was being kept under careful wraps. Nothing prejudices reviewers so much as telling them how terrific a performance is going to be. This all changed in mid-June when the film opened to glowing reviews. Irene Thirer in the New York Daily News called it “Red-hot cinema…lurid and laugh-enticing.” Bland Johaneson of the New York Daily Mirror found it “filled with laughs and loaded with dynamite,” and Lucius Beebe of the New York Herald Tribune called it a “fast and at times hilarious satirical comedy” (although he also thought it translated the “viciousness” and “gratuitous snideness” of the Brush story to the screen too well).
But more importantly, Jean herself garnered the first unreserved raves of her career. She’d been given at best grudging admiration for her dramatic roles, mostly suffering the slings and arrows of the worst scorn. Now she was suddenly proclaimed the triumphant centerpiece of a successful film. The New York Daily News made a special point of noting that “the ex-platinum Jean Harlow now sparkles as a titian siren, her emoting improved immeasurably along with the change of her tresses. Harlow gives a splendid performance, making the picture more of a character study of a woman who trades on her physical charms than a narrative romance.” The Mirror called her performance “amazing…out-Bowing the famed Bow.” Only the Tribune wondered if the audience was applauding “Miss Harlow’s satirical characterization…or from the belief that she is the hottest number since Helen of Troy.”
The acclaim was well deserved; Red-Headed Woman is a thoroughly delightful film and still holds up after more than fifty years. Jean is surrounded by a fine cast, including Una Merkel, who appeared in three more films with her. Merkel’s personality shouldn’t have meshed well with Jean’s, as they were both tart, wise-cracking blondes; but somehow they avoided canceling each other out and made a fine pair. Chester Morris was appropriately stuffy as Legendre, and character actors Lewis Stone and Henry Stephenson were excellent in minor roles.
The small but crucial part of Lil’s oversexed chauffeur was played by MGM contract actor Charles Boyer, who had been a big hit in his native France but was dying in America. Boyer was so disgusted at being cast in this bit part that he insisted his brief but important footage be deleted in France, which must have confusingly altered the plot line for French audiences. Boyer didn’t make it big in the U.S. until 1938’s Algiers (in which, by the way, he never said, “Come wiz me to ze Casbah”).
MGM’s star costume designer, Adrian, arrayed Lil in a wonderful series of revealing, gaudy outfits. For a formal party to which her guests wear socially correct silks and chiffons, she bursts onto the scene in an outrageous creation of shimmering threads, looking like a Ziegfeld girl gone berserk. To make up for the “subtle” red hair (the film was, of course, black and white), Jean was given a great deal more makeup than usual; huge eyes and a bee-stung mouth helped emphasize Lil’s trashy personality.
Jean was also given her first full-blown temper tantrum in Red-Headed Woman. These comic fits would become a trademark for her, used frequently in her later films. Waving her little fists about, shrieking wildly, eyes popping, and shoulders thrust forward, Jean spat out her lines at breakneck speed, somehow making these tantrums endearingly comic rather than grating. Her smile, like that of a mischievous five-year-old, also went far to mitigate Lil’s appalling actions.
Loos thought it wise to let the audience know immediately that this was a comedy, so she inserted three vignettes right after the opening credits: Lil gazing into a mirror and purring, “so gentlemen prefer blondes, do they?”; Lil buying a dress after the saleswoman assures her that it is indeed transparent; and Lil snapping her boss’s photo into her garter, where it would “do some good.” After that, even the slowest audience would realize they were permitted to laugh at this woman.
Religious groups, however, weren’t laughing when Red-Headed Woman was awarded the Hays Office seal of approval. Write-in campaigns were directed to MGM and to exhibiting theaters, but the studio surprisingly held firm and refused to withdraw or reshoot the picture. Jean herself was the target of adverse criticism, as moralizers seemed unable to separate the actress from her role. This would plague her throughout her career and would be one of her greatest heartaches.
Lil Andrews, against all rules of censorship, went happily unpunished for her sins at the end of the film. Bad women had been portrayed on-screen, but the loosely enforced Hays Office censorship code stated that they must either repent or be punished. Lil does neither. The same year that Red-Headed Woman was released, several characters even more morally bankrupt than Lil Andrews appeared on-screen: in Baby Face, Barbara Stanwyck played a gold-digging tramp who made Lil look like a Girl Scout; Stanwyck’s character, however, repented when the right man came along. The sadistic half-caste played by Clara Bow in Call Her Savage went through the tortures of the damned before earning her happy ending, and Greta Garbo’s Mata Hari went to the firing squad not so much for her spying as for her seduction of innocent Ramon Novarro.
Red-Headed Woman was banned entirely in Germany and England, which put a substantial dent in MGM’s profits. Interestingly, England’s royal family kept a print to show guests at Buckingham Palace, despite their government’s official condemnation of the film.
Platinum Girl: The Life and Legends of Jean Harlow by Eve Golden (1991)
There is every indication that the MPPDA (Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America) was aware of the nature and extent of the criticisms being directed at Hollywood. For example, writing of the film Red Headed Woman in 1932, an industry censor compared the figure of the gold digger and that of the gangster, and noted that in each case complaints centered upon the problem of glamour:
There is a striking similarity between the treatment of this character and the earlier treatment of the gangster character…. Because he was the central figure, because he achieved power and money and a certain notoriety, our critics claimed that an inevitable attractiveness resulted. And that was what they objected to in gangster pictures. They said we killed him off but that we made him glamorous before we shot him. This is what you are apt to be charged with in the case. While the Red Headed Woman is a common little creature from over the tracks who steals other women’s husbands and uses her sex attractiveness to do it, she is the central figure and it will be contended that a certain glamour surrounds her.
Many gold-digger films, including Bed of Roses, Red Headed Woman, Baby Face, The Greeks Had a Word for Them, She Done Him Wrong, and I’m No Angel, would probably be classified as comedies by most film critics, and hence at the perimeters of the fallen woman genre, properly conceived as a subset of melodrama. Industry censors, however, classified comedies like The Greeks Had a Word for Them as “sex pictures,” in tandem with films like Madame X which we would consider pure melodrama. Indeed, they gave much attention to the ways in which comedy could be used for strategic purposes, as a means of justifying otherwise unacceptable material. These films are thus interesting precisely because they crossed the boundary between comedy and melodrama. Their comedy frequently derives from a parodic inversion of genre conventions. They played havoc with the traditional characterization of the fallen woman, and the corresponding notions of innate feminine passivity and innocence.
I propose to consider the process of self-regulation in some detail in the case of Baby Face. The film is of interest because it is clearly a limit case, one which provoked a great deal of comment both inside and outside the industry. Made by Warners in 1933, it was banned in Switzerland, Australia, three Canadian provinces, and in the United States in Virginia, Ohio, and initially New York (where it was later released). It was widely criticized in the popular press and was one of the films listed by Martin Quigley as particularly offensive to the Catholic Legion of Decency. The Studio Relations Committee’s failure to protect the industry on this score was not the result of a simple oversight. In the first review of the script, James Wingate, who was working for the industry at this time, warned the studio that the story was likely to run into trouble: “it is exceedingly difficult to get by with the type of story which portrays a woman who, by means of her sex, rises to a position of prominence and luxury.” He even cautioned that a film with a similar theme (probably MGM’s Red Headed Woman) had been banned in several Canadian provinces. Thus, the Studio Relations Committee’s difficulty with Baby Face did not stem from a difficulty in anticipating the responses of external agencies, but rather lay in the form of the revision enacted according to the Studio Relations Committee’s standard operating policy and procedure.
…Thus, it became even more difficult for industry censors to negate the image of the calculating, aggressive woman, or reinstate a normative view of the relations between the sexes.
At the conclusion of Red Headed Woman, for example, the heroine is rejected by her wealthy husband, who has been reconciled with his virtuous former wife. Town gossips predict the redhead will end “in the gutter,” but this punishment does not occur. Instead a tag ending shows her in Paris, in the company of a rich old marquis and a handsome young chauffeur (played by Charles Boyer).
The Wages of Sin: Censorship and the Fallen Woman Film, 1928-1942 by Lea Jacobs (1991)
Her miracle year was 1932. In February, The Beast of the City opened, and suddenly Harlow could act. She played another gangland moll, but there was something natural and relaxed about her quality—and sympathetic, too. On the strength of her performance, MGM bought out her contract. The producer Paul Bern had the insight that Harlow’s métier was comedy, and she was cast in Red-Headed Woman (1932).
Again she was a sex vulture, but this time she was a lampoon of one. She was Lil, a gold-digging secretary who sets out to seduce her boss and ruin his marriage. When she meets a richer, older man, she seduces him, too, and behind his back, carries on with the old fellow’s chauffeur (Charles Boyer). “Sex! Sex! Sex!” a local censor from Atlanta complained. “The picture just reeks with it until one is positively nauseated.”
Lil’s wheels are always turning. When the boss (Chester Morris), enraged by her efforts to break up his marriage, slaps her, Harlow’s face lights up. “Do it again! I like it! Do it again!” she exclaims. She is unstoppable, a man’s nightmare presented to comic terms by a woman screenwriter (Anita Loos) and acted by a sharp comedienne. Red-Headed Woman, in addition to proving that Harlow was funny, revealed her as a valiant performer. In this and subsequent films Harlow throws herself into scenes, unguarded, in a volatile free-fall.
Complicated Women by Mick LaSalle (2000)
Blogs written by other film enthusiasts: Pre-Code.Com by Danny, September 26, 2010 http://pre-code.com/red-headed-woman-1932/ The Sheila Variations by Sheila O’Malley, October 15, 2010 http://www.sheilaomalley.com/?p=28487 Harlean’s Heyday by Riikka, March 5, 2011 http://harleansheyday.blogspot.ca/2011/03/like-uncensored-movie-red-headed-woman.html Snoodlebug by Lisa, June 6, 2011 http://snoodlebugvintage.blogspot.ca/2011/06/old-movie-madness-red-headed-woman-1932.html The Everyday Pinup Girl by Dixie Rising, June 14, 2011 http://everydaypinupgirl.blogspot.ca/2011/06/jean-harlow-in-red-headed-woman-1932.html Alt Screen by Brynn White, July 29, 2011 http://altscreen.com/07/29/2011/red-headed-woman-1932-loos-conway-harlow/ Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings by Laura, August 6, 2011 http://laurasmiscmusings.blogspot.ca/2011/08/tonights-movie-red-headed-woman-1932-at.html Cinema Romantico by Nick Prigge, April 12, 2013 http://cinemaromantico.blogspot.ca/2013/04/fridays-old-fashioned-red-headed-woman.html Virtual Virago by Jennifer Garlen, July 25, 2013 http://virtualvirago.blogspot.ca/2013/07/classic-films-in-focus-red-headed-woman.html Joining me for the evening was Ronda, Andrea, Rael, Melissa, Lyle, Pamela and Bill.