Femmes fatales are often revered by women, feared by men and adored by the camera. Within the first few minutes of Red-Headed Woman, we are charmed and seduced by Lil “Red” Andrews (Jean Harlow), despite her deceitful intentions and our moral sensibilities. She is an enigmatic figure who seems to be constantly playing roles, adopting different voices, performing for audiences.
In the opening scene, Lil excitedly reveals to her friend, Sally (Una Merkel), that she is going to surprise her married boss, Bill (Chester Morris), at his house that night to help him write some “important letters.” Sally claims that Bill is madly in love with his wife, but Lil persists. As soon as Lil’s husband walks into the bar and sees her gossiping, she puts down her bottle of breath-freshening spray and rushes over to him with an unthreatening smile now plastered on her face. She gushes, “Hello, hon!” It’s not long before he’s wiping her lipstick from his face with a handkerchief, while she’s fixing herself with a victorious smirk.
Lil is confident and certain about every single detail of her seductions, and can anticipate the effect that her presence will have on men. Before Bill even knocks on her door, she casually primps her hair in the bathroom mirror and announces that he can come in. She predicts their every move, while simultaneously acting as though she isn’t already steps ahead of them. Whenever she appears to suddenly accommodate the desires of men in her life, it’s merely a façade. She refuses to be ignored or denied by these men, so she initially uses their expectation of her innocent passivity to her advantage.
When her boss confesses his attraction to her, she feigns modesty with a sweet, almost Southern lilt in her voice. Before he can respond, she declares, “I’ll take a drink now!” without waiting for him to extend the offer. Her facial expression immediately changes once his back is turned, revealing a determined woman who is constantly plotting and advancing her next move.
After a series of successful double-crosses, triple-crosses, and even quadruple-crosses orchestrated by Lil, practically everyone she meets becomes captured by her appeal, providing her with personal satisfaction and sexual freedom.
When Sally teases her about being a homewrecker, Lil maintains, “A girl who doesn’t get ahead’s a fool!” Lil’s use of her sexuality to “get ahead” is what provides her with agency and social mobility. By weaponizing her own sexuality, she ultimately outsmarts both the judgmental townspeople who ridicule her behavior and the men who don’t realize that she is manipulating them for her own gain.
In addition to being a fascinating representation of a wonderfully immoral and complicated female character, the film’s script is also exceptionally smart and funny. There are some fantastic lines, such as, “When I kiss ‘em, they stay kissed for a long time!” or, “You’re going to invite your guests to a party at my house in your honor, and if you don’t invite them within five minutes, I’ll make a scene that Shakespeare couldn’t top.” A witty exchange with Sally that takes place toward the end of the film reveals the excitement that Lil feels from her romantic freedom:
Lil: I’m in love, and I’m going to be married!
Sally: You’re gonna marry Albert?
Lil: No, Charlie Gaerste!
Sally: You’re in love with Charlie Gaerste?
Lil: No, Albert!
Both of the women are grinning during the conversation, understanding that Lil doesn’t feel morally compelled to make a choice between the two men. Red-Headed Woman highlights this comedic exchange to contribute to larger themes of female agency and sexual independence. Many noir films would later utilize this characteristic as a means of justifying the liberated woman’s inevitable downfall; the so-called “dangerous woman” is often reproached, exiled, or even murdered for her immoral behaviors. Her fate is ultimately determined by forces and anxieties that locate the dangerous woman’s existence as cautionary, her errant behaviors worthy of punishment.
While Lil does fulfill some common characteristics of the dangerous woman in her manipulation of men for social gain, she, refreshingly, does not receive a moral treatment at the end of the film. These men are forced to reconcile their attraction to her with the knowledge that, ultimately, she will always be the arbiter of power. At the end of this Pre-Code film, Lil is surrounded by a group of interested men and is doing what she wants: being charming, performing, and getting ahead.