How Thalberg tied up Loos ends

Book excerpt

One of the early champions of test screenings was Irving Thalberg. One film transformed by that method is recalled in this excerpt from “Anita Loos Rediscovered,” a biography interwoven with fiction by the author of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” just published by U. of California Press.

“Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” had proved Anita Loos could write witty dialogue, and that was why Irving Thalberg, MGM’s production chief, decided she was just the person he needed to quickly fix the script for “Red-Headed Woman.”

Anita arrived in Los Angeles in mid-December 1931. The next morning she was in Thalberg’s office, discussing the script. “Red-Headed Woman” was a novel by Katherine Brush, first serialized in the Saturday Evening Post and bought by the MGM story department before they knew how it ended.

It turned out to be an absolutely straight melodrama of Lillian Andrews, a conniving Midwest sexpot from the wrong side of the tracks who sets her sights on her happily married boss as her vehicle to rise in society.

Katherine Brush was known as “the wicked lady novelist,” and although it meant walking a censorship tightrope, a well-publicized story was such a leg up at the box office, it was assumed to be worth the effort.

The first writer assigned to adapt “Red-Headed Woman” was F. Scott Fitzgerald, but Thalberg found that Scott tried to turn the silly book into a tone poem. Thalberg ordered Fitzgerald released from his contract and, with time running out, turned in desperation to Anita.

The production had been announced to ride the wave of popularity the story had enjoyed in serialization, and the publicity department was busy promoting a search for the actress to bring Lil Red Andrews to the screen.

Clara Bow, Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwick, even Garbo had been mentioned in the press as possibilities. So many tests were reported being made that the sixty-year-old comedienne Marie Dressler mugged for photographers wearing a red wig, underscoring the point that every MGM actress was being considered.

Thalberg knew that for the film to be a success, Lil Andrews had to be a caricature more than a character, and he had his eye on Jean Harlow to play the role. Anita, like just about everyone else who knew her, enjoyed Jean enormously but thought the actress looked about sixteen and her baby-face seemed utterly incongruous against the flaming wig.

When Anita and Irving met with Harlow, she told them a few stories from her own life that assured them the actress had the right attitude to make the audience laugh with her, rather than at her, as she sashays her way up a string of men, each richer and older than the one before.

For “Red-Headed Woman,” Anita massaged what could have been a banal soap opera into a script riddled with double entendres and clever one-liners.

She particularly liked the sequence where Harlow tells her girlfriend Jane, played by Una Merkel, “I’m in love and I’m going to be married,” quickly and pertly clarifying that she is going to marry the octogenarian Coal King and is in love with his chauffeur, played by a very young Charles Boyer.

The preview for the movie revealed that it took the audience too long to get a handle on Lil’s attitude toward life and love; then came word from the Hays Office: “Red-Headed Woman” would never be approved.

Thalberg had been in communication with Will Hays’ office, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association, about the story, and MGM had been assured that “we read the synopsis of the ‘Red-Headed Woman’ and with proper treatment it could be produced without offending the code or official censors.”

But synopses were just that, and when he saw the film, the Hays Office representative insisted on changes if it was to be released. Thalberg responded that the representative was “100% wrong” but agreed to make it clearer that MGM’s intention was to play the picture as a road burlesque.

To accomplish this and to help audiences immediately identify the type of woman Red was, Irving told Anita she had to write a scene so blatant it would appease both the audiences and the Hays Office. She went back to her yellow pad and wrote a classic sequence (and a plug for herself in the process).

In close-up Harlow smiles knowingly at her own reflection in a hand mirror and rhetorically asks, “So gentlemen prefer blondes, do they?”

The camera then cuts immediately to a scene in a store’s dressing room.

Red holds out her skirt, sashays in front of a window, and inquires sweetly of the sales lady, “Can you see through this? When the offscreen female voice responds, “I’m afraid so,” Jean breaks into a devastating grin and says, “I’ll wear it then.”

In less than sixty seconds we know who and what Red is, and the next preview left the audience howling.

The Hays Office representative asserted that “the changes make all the difference in the world” and added, “May I take this opportunity to congratulate you on the very fine job you have done.”

The picture was an immediate hit.

From the book ANITA LOOS REDISCOVERED. Edited and Annotated by Cari Beauchamp & Mary Anita Loos. Copyright 2003 by Cari Beauchamp & Mary Anita Loos. Just published by University of California Press.