If she'd just been another pretty face, a cut flower from yesterday's bouquet, she would have been forgotten long ago, one of the thousands of beauties who for a brief season capture the fancy of the paparazzi and the tabloids and the fickle paying public and then quickly fade from our memory. But more than just a platinum blonde beauty, Jean Harlow also possessed an unexpected gift for comedy and self-parody, and as the pre-Code era drew to a close, she became not only America's premier sex symbol but one of its premier actresses as well.
Of what I would call the five essential performances in her career—Red-Headed Woman, Red Dust, Dinner At Eight, Bombshell and Libeled Lady—three of them were released during the award year that ran from August 1, 1932 to the end of 1933, and she's my choice for the best actress in a comedy or musical.
The Girl From Missouri
Born to a Kansas City dentist and the daughter of a wealthy real estate developer, Harlean Harlow Carpenter tried out for the movies on a dare, got the job and later signed with the Hal Roach Studios. Working under her mother's maiden name, Jean Harlow played the "swanky blonde" in four Laurel and Hardy comedy shorts and appeared in uncredited bit roles in more than a dozen movies (including City Lights) before Howard Hughes cast her in Hell's Angels. Hughes epic about World War I flying aces proved to be Harlow's big break. Although she was as skittish as a newborn foal, barely able to speak her lines, the public immediately responded to her beauty—the expressions "platinum blonde" and "blonde bombshell" were coined to describe her—and she soon landed better parts, including that of James Cagney's love interest in William Wellman's The Public Enemy, a part initially intended for Louise Brooks.
On the set, Cagney couldn't help but notice that Harlow never wore undergarments and asked her, "How do you hold those things up?"
"I ice them," she answered matter-of-factly.
She played a similar kind of role—the beautiful, unobtainable society girl—in Frank Capra's comedy Platinum Blonde (retitled from Gallagher to capitalize on Harlow's popularity) and while critics called the performance no better than "competent," the public was already clamoring for more.
Directors clearly had no idea what to do with Jean Harlow in these early efforts and mostly she stood around, serving as a symbol of something the hero thinks he wants and learns the hard way that he doesn't. The bombshell image may have packed the theaters with the curious and the salivating, but it blinded directors and producers to her talent.
"The newspapers sure have loused me up," she complained cheerfully, "calling me a sexpot! Where'd they ever get such a screwy idea?"
"One look at Harlow," screenwriter Frances Marion replied in print, "and whether you were male or female you could get no other idea; she was the Scylla and Charybdis of sex, from her provocative come-hither expression to the flowing lines of her beautifully proportioned body."
Red-Headed Woman and Red Dust: Red-Hot Harlow
It was MGM's legendary producer Irving Thalberg who determined to mold a screen image for Harlow beyond that of sex symbol. Thalberg bought Harlow's contract from Howard Hughes and cast her in the screen adaptation of Red-Headed Woman, Katharine Brush's racy novel about a woman who sleeps her way into high society. F. Scott Fitzgerald took the first crack at the screenplay, but couldn't solve the puzzle of how to make the audience like a character he himself didn't approve of, and it was instead Anita Loos, a veteran screenwriter and author of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, who drafted the final screenplay.
Although Harlow's Lillian Andrews is a manipulative gold digger—she seduces her married boss, poor sap, and breaks up his marriage—there was a sincerity to Lil's transparent scheming, and with Harlow serving up the brassier bits with humor and wounded pride, audiences found themselves rooting for her. The result was one of the biggest hits of 1932.
It was a remarkably nuanced performance from an actress who before this had always shown more leg than promise. Variety summed up the general reaction: "Jean Harlow, hitherto not highly esteemed as an actress, gives an electric performance."
Next up was an even better vehicle for Harlow, one that would both display her talent for comedy and pair her with fast-rising star Clark Gable.
Based on a failed stageplay, MGM had purchased Red Dust as a vehicle for Greta Garbo and John Gilbert, the studio's two biggest stars of the silent era. Once the couple's relationship ended, however, Garbo backed out and Thalberg cast Harlow to replace her. While adapting the play for the screen, writer John Lee Mahin recommended that Thalberg replace Gilbert with Gable, and his suggestion proved to be an inspired one. Harlow and Gable had an undeniable chemistry on screen and ended up making six pictures together, including Harlow's last, Saratoga.
Clark Gable is Dennis Carson, the overseer of a rubber plantation deep in the jungles of French Indochina. As the movie opens, Carson is on edge—production is behind schedule, his crew chief (Donald Crisp) is a drunk, and if that weren't enough to worry about, a prostitute on the run from the law decides to hide out in Carson's bed.
"You've got your yearly case of nerves," says his friend and mentor (Tully Marshall). "Why don't you go down to Saigon and blow the lid off. ... As a matter of fact, what came up from Saigon isn't so bad looking."
"I've been looking at her kind," Carson sneers, "ever since my voice changed."
But as Carson notes, the prostitute, Vantine (Harlow), is a "cute little trick" and she makes him laugh and, well, she's there and why not. Things get a bit complicated when she falls for him, but Carson is oblivious and at the end of the month, he puts her on the boat and hands her a wad of cash she doesn't want. "It isn't half enough," he tells her as her eyes fill with tears. "And when I get down to Saigon, there'll be plenty more." Harlow is terrific in this scene as we glimpse Vantine's vulnerability while never letting down the guard a woman of her profession would necessarily have developed.
And then things really do get complicated. As Vantine gets on the boat, Barbara Willis (Mary Astor) gets off it, and though she's the wife of his latest hire, Carson is immediately smitten. Mrs. Willis represents everything that he, as a poor kid with his nose forever pressed against the glass, has ever wanted and he sets out to seduce her.
When the boat soon after runs aground and Vantine is thrown back into Carson's care, a worldly-wise Harlow immediately sizes up the situation. "What a pleasant little house party this is going to be." The women's rivalry is not just one of sex and love but of class, education and manners—everything Mrs. Willis takes for granted, everything Vantine has struggled to survive without—and this is where Harlow really hits her stride as an actress. As Vantine competes with Mrs. Willis (and Harlow with Astor) with gestures both subtle (a mocking description of a fictional blue-blooded background) and not so subtle (bathing in the company drinking water), Harlow is funny, bawdy, hurt, angry, and then as much as her Vantine wishes she weren't, compassionate, too, protecting her rival when she could just as easily destroy her.
As the Movie Diva put it in her review of Red Dust, Harlow's "uniquely effortless vulgarity, humor and slovenliness create the rarest of Hollywood goddesses, the beautiful clown." It's one of the best performances of the pre-Code era.
The movie itself has been selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.
Despite being known as a "man's director," Victor Fleming was remarkably adept at getting strong performances from actresses—Clara Bow in Mantrap, Judy Garland in The Wizard Of Oz, Vivien Leigh in Gone With The Wind—and he probably deserves more credit than he usually gets for establishing Harlow as an actress (he also directed her in Bombshell and Reckless). He liked to create onscreen the sort of women he preferred to spend time with in private—"resourceful, strong-willed and sexual," as David Denby put in The New Yorker (May 25, 2009).
Harlow's Vantine was all that and more.
[To read Part Two, click here.]