Saturday, March 5, 2011

"Like an uncensored movie": Red-Headed Woman and the Code

Today, as part of the Jean Harlow Blogathon, I will discuss how the Production Code affected MGM’s Red-Headed Woman (1932, directed by Jack Conway and starring Harlow), a vice film of the Pre-Code era. It is an interesting case study, which illustrates the extent of Code activity during the earlier period. I will aim to demonstrate that even though the Production Code was not officially enforced until 1934, Red-Headed Woman underwent many revisions ordered by the Studio Relations Committee and was, in fact, heavily affected by the Code. The following write-up is based on one of my recent university essays, in which I discuss both Red-Headed Woman as well as Warner Bros.'s Baby Face (1933).

The Motion Picture Production Code, also known as the Hays Code after Will Hays, was the set of censorship guidelines that governed the production of the majority of movies released by major American studios between the years 1930 and 1968. Every story considered, script written and film produced was subjected to a thorough cleansing by industry censors before reaching the screen. The Code was a form of self-censorship on behalf of the film industry. It was created to rehabilitate Hollywood’s image after a series of notorious scandals and keep away the involvement of federal censorship. The Code marks the beginning of Hollywood’s “Golden Age”, which began with the birth of the Code - and ended with its demise. It was an integral part of the studio production system.

The Pre-Code era spans the duration of four years: from March 31, 1930, when the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) formally pledged to abide by the Production Code, until July 2, 1934, when the MPPDA empowered the Production Code Administration to enforce it. During the Pre-Code era compliance with the Code was a verbal agreement and it was supervised by the Studio Relations Committee (SRC), which Hays created to implement the guidelines. The SRC worked closely together with the studios to remove material that would offend censors and thus potentially harm the studios’ financial investments. It should be noted that in 1930 neither Hays nor the SRC had authority to order a studio or film-maker to neither remove material nor ban a movie from being screened. Pre-Code Hollywood did not generally adhere to the strict regulations on matters of sex, vice, violence and moral meaning forced upon Classical Hollywood Cinema after 1934. It is commonly argued that little censorship activity took place during the Pre-Code era because compliance with the Code was a negotiation between the SRC and the studio in question.

The Great Depression and the decline of cinema attendance during the 1930s lead the studios to seek profit by new ways, and the films containing racy and violent content resulted in high ticket sales. Vice films, also called “sex films” by the censors, were hugely popular during the Pre-Code period. The films feature aggressive and heavily sexualized female protagonists of two kinds: the bad girl or the fallen woman. Although the Production Code was adopted in 1930, it is widely understood that it was most often ignored by the film-makers and studios during the Pre-Code era, and the embrace of sex, violence and vice in the content of the films made during the period can be read as a testament to that. The producers viewed the Studio Relations Committee as advisory and saw state censorship boards and other censors as a minority effort, not as representative of mainstream America.

Red-Headed Woman stars Jean Harlow as Lillian 'Lil' Andrews, a young woman who targets her rich, married boss, Bill Legendre Jr. (Chester Morris) - and any other male - for social and financial advancement. In the film Lil breaks up a marriage, has multiple affairs, pre-marital sex and attempts to murder Bill by shooting at him. At the end of the film she gets away with all of this without any form of punishment and ends up living in luxury in Paris. Even Bill refuses to prosecute Lil despite her having moved on to a more powerful man by the time of the shooting. Maltby notes that the difference between Red-Headed Woman and previous examples of the vice film is that it lacks any sense of melodrama and provides a comic rather than melodramatic conclusion. The ending certainly is a strikingly unusual feature in the picture, considering the time it was made in. The film also features brief nudity and sadomasochistic elements. Red-Headed Woman was a box office success and not only ensured the commercial viability of Harlow’s upcoming releases but also resulted in Hays’ fear that other studios would feel themselves obliged to imitate and outdo each other in competing for the sensational element with future cinema releases.

Producer Irving Thalberg worked with screenwriter Anita Loos on the script for Red-Headed Woman, instructing her to “make fun of its sex element.” Prior to its release, Thalberg worked with the Studio Relations Committee and Will Hays Office to ensure it would receive their approval. According to Lamar Trotti, Thalberg’s contention was that the film was being played as a “broad burlesque” and that the audience would laugh the film and its situations as broad comedy. Upon the completion of the picture, Jason Joy, who was the head of the Studio Relations Committee, test-screened Red-Headed Woman to an audience and the reception was very good – the public loved it. Joy reported: “When we saw the picture with an audience we got a definite impression that the audience was laughing at the girl.” He noted that when seen with an audience the film came off so farcical that it was not contrary to the Code, despite his initial reservations. Because of the audience reaction, Joy persuaded Hays to pass Red-Headed Woman. The Hays Office approved the film after the elimination of some suggestive dialogue and shots of Harlow. However, Mrs. Alonzo Richardson of Atlanta disagreed: “We have been working for years to clean decent pictures and here in 1932 we have THIS ... Sex! Sex! Sex! The picture just reeks with it until one is positively nauseated.”

Red-Headed Woman features content that might come away as shocking even to contemporary audiences. It not only depicts vice but also glorifies it, a fact that is emphasised by its unapologetic ending. As Doherty puts it: “Virtually every diegetic ellipsis in the film is occupied by the certainty that Lil and the man she was with in the prior scene have spent the interim in an illicit sexual encounter.” Any imaginative gaps are filled by subsequent, sexually suggestive dialogue. “There we were like an uncensored movie,” Lil gloats in one scene. In another scene a drunk Lil, upset about Bill standing her up and getting back together with his wife Irene (Leila Hyams), storms in at the Legendre mansion and confronts Bill about their affair right in front of Irene. An enraged Bill follows Lil back to her house and is lead by Lil’s roommate in her bedroom, where Lil is waiting to entrap her prey. Bill attempts to bribe Lil to leave town but instead of agreeing to his pleas, she kisses him aggressively. He tries to leave but she blocks the door and locks him in the room. Lil provokes Bill to stop trying to resist the attraction between the two of them, which angers him even more. He slaps her, which gets Lil going. “Do it again! I like it. Do it again,” she commands him in ecstasy and aggressively kisses him again. This is followed by a cut to Lil’s roommate listening in outside of the door and reacting to sounds of punching and hitting happening in Lil’s bedroom. Next Lil is seen lying on the bedroom floor, crying and trying to get up after supposedly taking a beating from Bill. He lifts her up, carries her to the bed and asks for the key once more. In between sobs Lil takes the key and slowly drops it inside of her shirt. Bill’s ominous shadow blocks the view and ends the scene. While the beginning and end of Red-Headed Woman is largely comic in tone and the film comes off farcical at times, a scene like the bedroom scene does not play on comic elements and hence leaves a different impact on the viewer. It is interesting that Hays and Joy were worried about suggestive dialogue and shots of Harlow - and yet passed such a scene that comes with strong undertones of sadomasochism.

Despite the approval from the Hays Office, several state and local censorship boards throughout the United States and Canada required additional eliminations before Red-Headed Woman was accepted for distribution. Massachusetts and Pennsylvania cut most scenes of Lil's romance with her chauffeur while Ohio cut the unapologetic ending. The UK banned the film altogether until 1965. After the release of the film, several letters of protest were sent to the Hays Office from various civic and religious leaders, particularly in the South, who felt that the movie should not have been approved for release at all. Darryl Zanuck, then an executive producer at Warner Bros., also wrote the Studio Relations Committee in protest when he heard that Joy had used audience reaction as an argument to approve the film. “I insist that you give Warner Bros. the same privileges you gave MGM.” Sure enough, Warner Bros. was planning Baby Face, which was conceived as a response to MGM's Red-Headed Woman. Baby Face would become one of the most notorious vice films of the Pre-Code era and it directly led to a tougher Production Code during its production.


AFI Catalog, ‘Red-Headed Woman (1932)',

Black, Gregory D., Hollywood Censored: Morality Codes, Catholics, and the Movies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994)

Doherty, Thomas, Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930-1934 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999)

Maltby, Richard, ’Baby Face or How Joe Breen Made Barbara Stanwyck Atone for Causing the Wall Street Crash’, Screen, Volume 27 (March-April 1986), 22-45

Vieira, Mark A., Sin in Soft Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1999)

Please note that I left off references from this blog post as it is not intended to be an academic essay, unlike my original paper. If you'd like to know where a specific point is sourced from, please do not hesitate to ask and I'll happily provide the details.


  1. So glad I found your blog :) I haven't had to chance to read much on Jean Harlow or the films she made yet, though I do love them. Very insightful! Thanks!

  2. Great essay! I know you haven't gotten your marks back yet, but I'm sure you got an 'A'!

  3. Rueby - Thanks for stopping by and for leaving such a sweet comment! :)

    Kendra - Thanks, lovely!

  4. Now that I have seen this movie, I went back and read the essay and really enjoyed your writing. It was very informative and I have a real interest in seeing some of the other films around the code. Your point about the beating scene was especially good because the whole time I was thinking that's a little violent and I know there was mainly controversy from the sex, which is insanity considering the violence towards a female there. Anyways, really enjoyed the read now!

  5. Mycah - Oh yes, it must have been a lot more interesting for you to read now that you've actually seen the film. Glad to know that you enjoyed the re-read! :) You should really check out some more Pre-Code films. They're some of my very favorites! I will send you recommendations whenever I see good ones airing on TCM.