Today is the centennial of Jean Harlow's birth. In her honor, I'm posting this Reader's Digest version of the four-part, 5000 word essay I wrote about her last year.
If she'd just been another pretty face, 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.
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 Chaplin's 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 gangster classic The Public Enemy, and the unobtainable society girl in Frank Capra's comedy Platinum Blonde.
Directors clearly had no idea what to do with 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?"
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 played a manipulative gold digger—she seduces her married boss and breaks up his marriage—there was a sincerity to her transparent scheming, and with Harlow serving up the brassy bits with humor and wounded pride, audiences found themselves rooting for her. The result was one of the biggest hits of 1932.
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, Red Dust starred Gable as the overseer of a Vietnamese rubber plantation, Harlow as the "cute little trick" who falls for him, and Mary Astor as the wife of the plantation's latest hire, a woman Gable sets out to seduce.
"What a pleasant little house party this is going to be," Harlow quips. The women's rivalry is not just one of sex and love but of class, education and manners—everything Astor's Mrs. Willis takes for granted, everything Harlow's Vantine has struggled to survive without—and as the love triangle plays out, Harlow really hits her stride as an actress. As Vantine competes with Mrs. Willis (and Harlow with Astor), she 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.
Harlow's "uniquely effortless vulgarity, humor and slovenliness," wrote Movie Diva in her review of Red Dust, "create the rarest of Hollywood goddesses, the beautiful clown."
It's one of the best performances of the pre-Code era.
The following year Harlow gave what may be her best-remembered performance, that of none-too-bright social climber Kitty Packard in the comedy-drama, Dinner At Eight.
A successful play by Broadway legends George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, Dinner At Eight is a loosely-connected series of vignettes about a group of wealthy Manhattanites preparing for a dinner party as their respective worlds fall down around their ears. For the movie adaptation, producer David O. Selznick assembled the brightest of MGM's stars, including the three male leads from Grand Hotel, and added America's most popular actress Marie Dressler as a faded Broadway star, Billie Burke as the twittery hostess of this train wreck, and Harlow as the spoiled young trophy wife of Wallace Beery's crooked businessman.
Director George Cukor, fresh off Katharine Hepburn's successful debut in A Bill Of Divorcement, cast Harlow over the objections of Louis B. Mayer, who felt she wasn't actress enough to keep up with her more experienced co-stars. But Red Dust had convinced Cukor that Harlow had a gift for comedy and with the director's help, she wound up stealing the show. Harlow's Kitty manipulates her men, bullies her maid, and otherwise lazes around, eating bonbons and complaining of boredom. Yet because she hungers to improve herself (even if she seems to think the surest path to knowledge is to sleep with an educated man), we find ourselves cheering her on.
"I'm going to be a lady if it kills me," she vows.
In terms of its complexity, the role of Kitty Packard was a leap for Harlow, but where she had been ill-equipped to handle early roles in Hell's Angels and Platinum Blonde, now she was ready. In Red-Headed Woman, she'd learned how to gain an audience's sympathy despite playing an unlikeable character. In Red Dust, she'd learned how to deliver tough wisecracks while conveying hurt and vulnerability. In Dinner At Eight, she found the last piece of the puzzle, "the ability," in the words of Frank Miller, writing for Turner Classic Movies, "to deliver lines as though she didn't quite know what they meant."
The result was the best performance of her career, and when Harlow finished her last scene for the movie, she went to her dressing room and cried, perhaps knowing that nothing she would ever do afterwards would top this performance.
"Harlow played comedy," said Cukor, "as naturally as a hen lays an egg."
Movie-going audiences loved Dinner At Eight and loved Harlow in it, not only because she looked great in her backless evening gown (designed by Adrian, it was known as the "Jean Harlow dress" and was so tight she couldn't sit down in it), but also because she had proven herself once and for all as one of Hollywood's great comedic actresses.
"Acting honors," said Variety at the time, "probably will go to Dressler and Harlow, the latter giving an astonishingly well-balanced treatment of Kitty, the canny little hussy who hooks a hard-bitten and unscrupulous millionaire and then makes him lay down and roll over."
"I was not a born actress," Harlow confessed later. "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."
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 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 his cult classic Alternate Oscars, Danny Peary chose her performance in the screwball comedy Libeled Lady as the best by an actress in 1936.
In contrast to her movie career, Harlow's personal life was marked by scandal and heartbreak. Harlow's mother was overbearing and controlling, living out dreams of movie stardom through her daughter. In 1932, Harlow's second husband Paul Bern died of a gunshot wound under mysterious circumstances. In 1933, MGM arranged a quick, short-lived marriage to cinematographer Harold Rosson to cover up Harlow's affair with a married man. Like her character Lola Burns in the 1933 comedy Bombshell, Harlow was hounded by greedy studio bosses, greedier family members, stalkers, fraudsters, slicky boys and the tabloid press, and treated more as a cash cow than a flesh and blood woman.
"She didn't want to be famous," said Clark Gable, "she wanted to be happy."
In 1935, 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 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, a fitting tribute to her brief but brilliant career.
You can check out other tributes to Jean Harlow at the Kitty Packard Pictorial, a site devoted to all things Harlow. The Pictorial is also promoting a new biography, Harlow in Hollywood: The Blonde Bombshell in the Glamour Capital, 1928-1937 by Darrell Rooney and Mark A. Vieira.