Bob Bernard's Corner: Seeing "Red"

Jean Harlow and George Gershwin

By Bob Bernard

Residing a continent apart – and worlds apart, aesthetically – Gershwin and Harlow had one memorable situation when their disciplines intersected.

Gershwin began adapting Du Bose Heyward's 1925 novel Porgy in 1932, for what would be the 1935 premiere of his Porgy and Bess. Working on Act Two’s storm scene, Gershwin inserted the villainous character of Crown into what Heyward had written. So, in the opera, Crown swims back from Kittiwah Island, appeals to Bess, taunts Porgy, blasphemes G-d, and goes out into the storm again in an attempt to rescue Clara.

Circumstantially, Gershwin must have seen the 1932 (same year, again) Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer motion picture Red-Headed Woman because – in addition to the above - he had Crown (rather disjointedly) call out, “How ‘bout dis one, Big Frien’?”, and then abruptly sing a bawdy song about the "accessibility" of red-headed women.

Here are glimpses from the motion picture and the opera:

  1. From the motion picture’s opening scene: Jean Harlow as Lil Andrews
  2. From the 1993 Glyndebourne DVD of the opera: Gregg Baker as Crown


Certainly, a cross-country tip of the hat from Gershwin to Harlow and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

It is gratifying to note that almost every artist associated with this analysis remained in type.

  • Harlow, consistent as a film diva, had this film fit right in with her roles as the title character in Goldie (1931), as Vantine in Red Dust (1932), and as Lola Burns in Bombshell (1933).
  • The opera’s Bess maintained her appeal to Porgy and Crown, just as Harlow’s Lil Andrews maintained her desirability to actors Chester Morris, Charles Boyer, and Lewis Stone in the motion picture.

The sole exception to this was the film’s screenwriter, Anita Loos, whom we recall had always previously maintained that ……

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

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