[To read Part One of this essay, click here; for Part Two, here; and for Part Three, here.]
Beyond The Legend
Perhaps Jean Harlow was always more than just one of the legion of lovelies populating the backlots of Hollywood's studios. On looks alone—those platinum blonde tresses fascinated men and women alike—she had enjoyed box office success with Hell's Angels, The Public Enemy and Platinum Blonde, and frankly, less attractive actresses with even more limited talent than Harlow displayed in those early efforts managed careers that lasted for years. But Harlow didn't rest on her beauty, and worked hard to develop into, arguably, the finest comedic actress of the decade.
"I was not a born actress," she confessed without embarrassment. "No one knows it better than I. If I had any latent talent, I have had to work hard, listen carefully, do things over and over and then over again in order to bring it out."
She wasn't coy about her looks— you might as well ask the sun to be coy about the dawn— but unlike her con- temp- orary, Mae West, who played the vamp as broadly as a drag queen and reduced sex to a quick, cheap commercial transaction, Harlow acknowledged her appeal with a shrug then moved past it, as if to say, "Of course I like sex—what's that got to do with you and me?" and as a result was much sexier than Mae West ever dreamed of being.
"She has a walk that's a marvel," critic Gerald Weales wrote. "It contains little of the teasing seductiveness that Hollywood sex goddesses are supposed to display. Her sexuality is direct and matter-of-fact: she moves like an athlete."
Cary Grant had the same sort of thing. Yes, he was incredibly handsome, suave, sophisticated; yet he was so secure, he was willing to make a complete fool of himself (think of the scene with the chair in The Awful Truth, if you've been lucky enough to see it) and as a result is all the more handsome for it.
Same thing with Jean Harlow. She was beautiful but it's her sense of humor and lack of self-importance that you react to. That curvy little body winds up being icing on the cake.
"Harlow was rather like a boy," screenwriter Anita Loos observed. "She had no vanity whatsoever. Things which she did that seemed outrageous, she did because she had no feeling of any kind herself, so she didn't think they affected other people. Also, she had this extraordinary beauty which she'd been born with and had for her whole life, so she wasn't conscious of it. But utterly no vanity. None at all."
Off screen, she was much like the characters she played—not educated but not dumb either, sharp as a matter of fact; beautiful but not interested in her own beauty; funny and disarmingly down-to-earth, without guile or vanity; and cursed with a disastrous luck in men—with two chief differences: she hadn't scrabbled her way up from the working class, but had in fact been born to the purple in Kansas City's upper class society; and she hated wearing those tight-fitting gowns that designers such as Adrian always sewed her into, preferring sports clothes, loose sweaters and slacks.
"Underwear makes me uncomfortable," she said, "and besides, my parts have to breathe."
After the critical and commercial successes of Red Dust and Dinner At Eight, Jean Harlow leapt to the top of her profession, surpassing Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo and Norma Shearer as the most popular actress at MGM. And although Hollywood began enforcing the Production Code in 1934 and as a result toned down the more explicit sexuality of her movies, Harlow nevertheless remained an audience favorite. In fact, from 1932 until her untimely death in 1937, Harlow had at least one movie, and often two, finish among the top ten grossing films of the year.
Despite her success with critics and audiences, Harlow was never nominated for an Academy Award—comedic performances rarely are—but she did rank twenty-second on the American Film Institute's list of the top 100 movie legends and forty-ninth on Entertainment Weekly's list of the all-time greatest movie stars.
In 1935, after the end of her third marriage, Harlow fell in love with William Powell, her co-star in the movie Reckless, and finally after years of turmoil, her personal life began to match the success of her professional one. The two secretly engaged although never married—in his early forties, Powell worried about being linked to such a young actress, and Harlow also claimed MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer didn't approve of the union.
In 1937, during filming of her sixth movie with Clark Gable, Saratoga, Harlow fell ill with a serious kidney ailment, which likely had gone undiagnosed for years, and died before the end of production. The studio finished the film with long shots of a stand-in and released the film with much fanfare. It was the highest grossing film of 1937. (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which has been re-released many times, eventually passed Saratoga as the year's top money maker.)
"She was the bravest girl I ever met," said Clark Gable.