When it comes to hair colour, blondes and brunettes have been best “frenemies” for a very long time. Even film titles contribute to this battle between the two different hair colours: My Favorite Blonde (1942), My Favorite Brunette (1947), and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). If blondes are ditzy and have more fun and brunettes are sensible, where do redheads fit in?
Many of classic Hollywood’s greatest stars have been redheads. The “Queen of Technicolour” herself, Maureen O’Hara, features radiant red locks (we do not say “ginger” on The Scarlett Olive).
In many classic films, redheads are portrayed as sexually forward, tempestuous, dangerous, spunky, and zany.
Ann Sheridan was considered an “oomph” girl in the 1940s. Rita Hayworth (although not a genuine redhead) built her star persona on her attractiveness. Ona Munson will always be remembered by her role as the “madame” from Gone with the Wind (1939), Belle Watling. Another redhead not to be trifled with is Mary Astor in her role as Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon (1941).
Billie Burke (or “Glinda the Good Witch” as most people know her) was typecast as the dizzy, rich mother who wasn’t ever sure of what was going on. Of course, we can’t forget the zany antics of Lucille Ball in all of her television series and films – another bottle redhead.
Okay, so redheads are either sexually aggressive, dangerous, or comedic. Must redheads be confined to these categories?
Thankfully, women such as Katharine Hepburn, Deborah Kerr, and Greer Garson were not characterised by their hair colour (although Katharine Hepburn was nicknamed “Red” by Cary Grant in The Philadelphia Story (1940). Their red hair was just an added feature to their star quality – not the thing that defined them. These actresses played women who fell in love, had families, faced tragedies, and lived their lives.
Now what about the red-haired actors? Compared to the actresses, there is a significantly smaller amount of red-haired actors. They tend to be comedians/second bananas (Red Skelton, Danny Kaye, Mickey Rooney) or the sensitive types (Leslie Howard and Van Johnson). I personally do not think of Van Johnson as a romantic lead. He seems more of the “boy-next-door” type which implies less masculinity than the typical romantic lead of say, oh,Clark Gable.
One burly actor who fits into the assumed/culturally accepted definition of masculinity is Howard Keel and his baritone singing voice. Also, don’t forget his six dancing red-haired brothers in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954): Jeff Richards, Russ Tamblyn, Tommy Rall, Marc Platt, Matt Mattox, and Jacques d’Amboise. The red hair of that family is part of the Technicolor spectacle. Another family in the limelight of Technicolor spectacle is the Day family from Life with Father (1947).
But is that it for the actors? Actors in musicals are typically feminised by males in this day and age. So is Howard Keel the only somewhat “manly” representation for red-haired men? Why aren’t there more red-haired romantic leads? If there are a number of redheads on screen at one time, why are they a spectacle? It wouldn’t matter in black-and-white films. Even in contemporary Hollywood there are not many famous actors who have red hair. Perhaps the stigma around red hair is still influencing society’s perception of this certain shade of hair.
During the Middle Ages, it is supposedly believed that red hair and green eyes were an indication of someone being a witch, werewolf, or vampire. Another possibly true fact says male redheads in ancient Egypt were sacrificed to the god Osiris because his enemy, Typhon, was a redhead.
Although the appeal for red-haired women has increased since these ancient times, I think the men could be shown a little bit more love. Don’t you think?
Shifting back to actresses, overall, they can be a diverse group. They can be sexually aggressive, typically hot-tempered, normal, and as sweet as Janet Gaynor. Oddly, red-haired actresses and characters are portrayed as stronger than their male counterparts if you compare how each gender is framed in classic films.
Here is a list of red-haired actors and actresses of the Golden Era not mentioned in this blog that I found while doing some research:
Can you think of any more red-haired actors or actresses not seen in this list?
Katie is a Film Studies student in Canada and the co-host of a classic film podcast called The Scarlett Olive. The biggest star she and her co-host have interviewed so far is Ed Asner. For more information be sure to check out her website, The Scarlett Olive.