Not counting last week’s WonderCon, the last festival I attended was Sundance back in January. That kicked off the same weekend as President Trump’s inauguration and, as a result, the prevailing mood cycled through versions of dour and sardonically defeatist. Maybe the folks behind the 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival had some foresight, then, when they decided that their theme would be Make ‘Em Laugh: Comedy in the Movies. God knows we need it.
I started my festival of laughs and forgetting with 1932’s Red-Headed Woman, directed by Jack Conway and starring Jean Harlow. A 1932 Hollywood movie (MGM in this case) falls into the category we describe as “Pre-Code,” even though it’s technically not. The Hayes Code, Hollywood’s self-censorship apparatus, created in response to moral outrage from the religious right, was established in 1930. But its enforcement was largely toothless until 1934, when Joseph Breen took over the operation. Red-Headed Woman was one of the major arguments that the Code wasn’t doing its job.
Now, as a well-read cinephile with a degree, I knew all of this going in, as I’m sure many of you already do. But, for any attendees who weren’t as smart as we all are, one of the uniquely delightful things about the TCM Festival is that each screening comes with a delightful introduction that provides history and context. This time around, that introduction came from the always entertaining Cari Beauchamp, who laid out not just the Code-related history detailed above, but many other juicy details about the making of the film and the rich, turbulent career of screenwriter Anita Loos, “the first American writer to joke about sex.”
Jokes about sex abound in Red-Headed Woman, with a rate of roughly one double entendre per minute. Early on, when Jean Harlow is detailing her plans to visit her boss’s home unannounced and says, “Maybe I’ll get a chance to stay and take dictation,” it’s easy to see why the movie had Catholics clutching their pearls. The plot starts out as essentially a comedic version of Fatal Attraction, with Harlow’s brazenly ambitious wanton seducing a man and then refusing to stay out of his life even after his attempts to break things off. From there, things escalate to follow Harlow’s Lillian on her unapologetic upward trajectory, fueled entirely by sex. To understand how completely and deliciously, the movie is on her side, look no further than the crossfade from a jilted wife’s crying face to that of Harlow, laughing uproariously.
Though many elements of Red-Headed Woman would rightly be described as problematic today, it’s unexpectedly refreshing to see a female character with such unadulterated agency, especially of the sexual variety. In our modern day, we remain so terrified of a woman’s sexuality, our vice president won’t even be alone with one. Who knows what would happen if he saw this movie.
Beauchamp ended her intro by saying, “Jean Harlow lives!” Of course, that’s not the case. Harlow died tragically young. But, at TCM Fest or anytime these films and these actors are projected on to a big screen, they live again for a new audience. I’ve always been puzzled (and maybe a bit curmudgeonly) when people clap during a movie for people they know aren’t present. In this case, you’d think I’d be even more annoyed; not only are these actors and filmmakers not in the room, they no long walk the earth. Yet, it makes a kind of sense at TCM Fest. The past flickers back to life here.
That’s especially true of Howard Hawks’ Twentieth Century, one of the movies (along with It Happened One Night) credited with giving birth to the screwball comedy genre. Where Red-Headed Woman, with its flat framing and inelegant fades in and out of scenes, definitely feels its age, Twentieth Century glides with expert, youthful exuberance. Seeing it, or any great comedy, with an audience is a joyous, communal experience.
Just like Jean Harlow, John Barrymore and Carole Lombard live anew here, chewing the scenery right up to the point of destroying it but always keeping things on track. Twentieth Century is the perfect forum for that brand of performance because it largely plays as a satire of acting itself. Scene after scene, we are given riotous demonstrations of how theater people only know how to be theatrical. In real life, actors just don’t know how to act.
These two movies were a marvelous start to a weekend of laughing in the dark with people who understand that, sometimes, what was funny 80 years ago is still funny today.