Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Nominees For Best Actress Of 1932-33 (Drama)

Kay Francis (Jewel Robbery and One Way Passage)

Greta Garbo (Queen Christina)

Katharine Hepburn (Little Women)

Barbara Stanwyck (The Bitter Tea Of General Yen and Baby Face)

Fay Wray (The Most Dangerous Game and King Kong)

Note: TCM is showing One Way Passage this Thursday, July 29, 2010, at 6 a.m. EDT. You don't want to miss it.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Sex Symbols: Mae West

I've already written about most of the Hollywood sex symbols of the pre-Code era—Jean Harlow, Joan Blondell, Marlene Dietrich, or if you prefer, Norma Shearer, Greta Garbo and Clara Bow. But before I put the era in this blog's rearview mirror, I should stop briefly to mention perhaps the most famous sex symbol of the age, Mae West.

Now let's be honest: although I nominated her for a Katie Award for her work in I'm No Angel, Mae West really doesn't work for me, not as an actress, not as a comedienne and certainly not as an object of fantasy. She took the role of sex goddess and dialed it up to "11," beyond vamp, beyond burlesque — playing so broadly, with the leer and the voice and the double entendres, that ultimately she became completely sexless, a threat to no one.

But maybe that's how she got away with it.

Born on August 17, 1893, in Brooklyn, New York, Mary Jane West started performing at the age of five and was a regular on the vaudeville circuit by the age of fourteen. In 1926, she had her first starring role on Broadway in a show she wrote herself, the subtly named Sex. The show sold over three hundred thousand tickets during its run but also resulted in a morals charge that landed West in the workhouse for eight days (with two days off for good behavior). The resulting publicity—she told reporters she wore silk underwear in prison—made her nationally famous.

West wrote other plays, but it was 1928's Diamond Lil that proved to be the turning point in her career. Set in the Bowery during the Gay Nineties, Diamond Lil is the story of a barroom singer who battles white slavers on the one hand and the Salvation Army on the other. Broadway audiences loved it and although she was already pushing forty—ancient for a budding Hollywood actress—Paramount Pictures signed her to a movie contract.

Hollywood's censors prevented West from filming Diamond Lil as written, and instead, a watered-down version was released as She Done Him Wrong, co-starring Cary Grant and boasting the oft-misquoted line, "Why don't you come up some time and see me?"

She Done Him Wrong was nominated for an Academy Award as best picture of 1932-33 and in 1996, the Library of Congress included it in the National Film Registry.

If you're going to see only one Mae West movie, I would suggest I'm No Angel, the follow up to She Done Him Wrong. Again co-starring Cary Grant, here Mae West plays a circus performer who gyrates for the (as she puts it) "suckers," but as with all of her movies, the story is irrelevant. You're paying to see Mae West play Mae West and she does it better here than anywhere else, singing such numbers as "They Call Me Sister Honky-Tonk," spouting double entendres and, unusual for the times, hamming it up with a Greek chorus of African-American actresses who function as her only true friends and confidants.

West's films go rapidly downhill after Hollywood's studios began enforcing the Production Code in mid-1934—not much point to a Mae West movie without the innuendo. The best of the bunch is probably My Little Chickadee, a 1940 pairing with W.C. Fields. In 1978, she made her last movie, Sextette, a cinematic disaster that put the bomb in bombshell.

West was married twice, but had her longest relationship with Paul Novak, her live-in partner from 1954 until her death in 1980. He was thirty years her junior.

Among her better-known quips:

"It's not the men in your life that counts, it's the life in your men."

"When I'm good, I'm very good. But, when I'm bad, I'm better."

"A hard man is good to find."

"Too much of a good thing can be wonderful."

[To a policeman in 1936] "Is that a pistol in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?"

"Never let one man worry your mind. Find 'em, fool 'em and forget 'em!"

"When women go wrong, men go right after them."

"Marriage is a great institution, but I'm not ready for an institution."

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Apropos Of Nothing: Harold Lloyd

I found this video on Mark Bourne's blog "Open The Pod Bay Doors, Hal" and figured a Harold Lloyd man such as myself is practically obligated to pass it along. Featuring clips of some of Lloyd's best work, I highly recommend you invest the four minutes—the bit with the overcoats at 1:22 is by itself worth the price of admission.

The video was edited by MsBluecat and features Moby's version of the traditional folk song "Run On" (also known as "God's Gonna Cut You Down").

A Little More Harlow

"Men like me because I don't wear a brassiere. Women like me because I don't look like a girl who would steal a husband. At least not for long."—Jean Harlow

Best Actress Of 1932-33 (Comedy/Musical): Jean Harlow (Red Dust, Dinner At Eight and Bombshell), Part Four

[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.

Friday, July 23, 2010

On Second Thought ...

Apparently blogger has been having a recurring problem with its "poll" gadgets—people vote only to see their vote disappear. We have enough of that sort of thing in the real world, so I'm going to remove the poll for the time being.

Sorry about that.

This Week's Monkey Poll: Jean Harlow Movies

Of these Pre-Code Jean Harlow movies, which have you seen? (You may vote for more than one.)

Hell's Angels
The Public Enemy
Platinum Blonde
Three Wise Girls
Red-Headed Woman
Red Dust
Hold Your Man
Dinner At Eight
None, oh woe is me

As always, use the gadget at the top right-hand side of the page to cast your vote. The poll is open for a week.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

A Clip From Dinner At Eight For Erik Beck (Of The Boston Becks)

Something I stumbled across on YouTube—it includes the famous last exchange between Jean Harlow and Marie Dressler. A minute and a half appetizer. The main course can be purchased here.

The final part of my essay on Jean Harlow should be up by tomorrow at the latest.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Best Actress Of 1932-33 (Comedy/Musical): Jean Harlow (Red Dust, Dinner At Eight and Bombshell), Part Three

[To read Part One of this essay, click here, for Part Two, click here.]

Bombshell: Spoofing The Image
After the triumph of Dinner At Eight, Jean Harlow reunited with the team that gave us Red Dust and produced the most madcap comedy of her career, a satire of Hollywood and celebrity that hit very close to home as it turned out.

Based on an unproduced stageplay, Bombshell was initially conceived as a tragedy based on the wild up-and-down career of "It Girl" Clara Bow, but when screenwriter John Lee Mahin (Scarface, Red Dust) suggested the story would work better as a comedy, director Victor Fleming immediately seized on the idea.

"She used to be my girl," Fleming explained. "You'd go to her house, and there'd be a beautiful Oriental rug with coffee stains and dog shit all over the floor and her father would come in drunk, and her secretary was stealing from her."

Instead, Fleming and Mahin set out to do for Hollywood what The Front Page did for newspapers—turn a secret society inside out and show it, in the words of associate producer Hunt Stromberg, as "a crazy house, a burning Rome, a very miserable place."

"Gee, what a business," Harlow exclaims, "you might as well run a milk route!"

As produced, Bombshell (also known in some parts of the world as Blonde Bombshell) is the story of "If Girl" Lola Burns, a voluptuous, platinum-haired beauty with a film career virtually identical to Harlow's own, with a montage of clips from her movies and personal appearances substituting for Lola's—there's even an explicit reference to the rain barrel scene from Red Dust. Worked like a plow horse and played for a sucker, Lola wants love and respect but has no idea how to get either, and she bounces from one empty source of affection to the next, be it a phony aristocrat, an adopted child or an East coast blueblood (Franchot Tone) who woos her with lines such as "Your hair is like a field of silver daisies. I'd like to run barefoot through your hair!"

The one guy who really does love and respect her is, of course, the one guy who won't tell her and the two spar and bicker and feud their way through the whole movie, which is the rom-com code for sexual attraction. (In this case, Lee Tracy plays the love interest, "Space" Hanlon, as more of a manipulative jerk than a tough-talking Romeo and proves to be the movie's weak link. Oh, what Clark Gable could have done with this role!)

The movie skewers every Hollywood type—the hangers-on, the rapacious press, the stalkers, the slicky boys, the fraudsters, the petty tyrants—and does so with a manic quality that would characterize the screwball comedies allegedly invented by Howard Hawks and Frank Capra in 1934, but which, as I mentioned in my review of Design For Living, seems to have developed full-blown sometime earlier. Fleming spared no one, including himself—he's caricatured as director Jim Brogan (Pat O'Brien), alternately described in the movie as a "piano mover" and "a smooth-tongued bluebeard."

If the movie as a whole is not on the same level as Red Dust, Dinner At Eight or Libeled Lady (which came later), don't blame Harlow. She's confident and self-assured at the center of this maelstrom and her comedic sensibilities are, as Fleming biographer Michael Sragow put it, "as jiggly as her braless, corset-free look." Contemporary critics such as Richard Watts, Jr. of the New York Herald Tribune hailed Bombshell as "the first full-length portrait of this amazing young woman's increasingly impressive acting talent."

Although Clara Bow may have inspired Bomb- shell, there was no doubt in the public's mind that the story was a thinly-disguised portrait of Harlow herself—and not just because Lola wore tight fitting gowns and lived in an all-white art Deco mansion modeled on Harlow's own—for though she was now in full command of her onscreen persona, Harlow's off-screen life was a well-publicized mess.

As they often do, Harlow's problems began at home with an overbearing, controlling mother, Jean Poe Carpenter, nee Harlow, who felt she'd been sold into a loveless marriage by her overbearing, controlling father. After years of resentment and thwarted dreams of movie stardom, Carpenter—"Mother Jean" as she came to be known—finally escaped Kansas City, divorcing her husband and moving to Hollywood with her daughter in 1922.

Mother and daughter lived in California for two years, but Mother Jean's dreams of movie stardom didn't pan out and the pair moved to Chicago; when her mother remarried, Harlow eloped with the brother of a school friend and returned to Los Angeles. She was just sixteen years old.

Harlow divorced her childhood husband three years later and married Paul Bern, a small-time movie director whom writer Anita Loos later characterized as a "German psycho." While Harlow was filming Red Dust, Bern was found dead in the couple's Hollywood home and foul play was suspected until an MGM publicist turned up with a timely suicide note and stories of Bern's emotional problems, summed up by Groucho Marx with the quip, "The fellow who married her was impotent and he killed himself. I would have done the same thing."

The public rallied around Harlow and the box office success of Red Dust guaranteed continued studio support.

That a scandal of such proportions could be so easily smoothed over may be hard to believe for those who have grown up with cellphone cameras, twitter and the 24/7 gossip machine, but in those days, Hollywood could cover up practically anything—murder, rape, pedophilia—and did when the star in question was bankable enough.

Too, because Harlow came across on the screen as a sympathetic underdog who succeeded despite the scandalous behavior of her characters, audiences were willing to give the real-life Harlow the benefit of the doubt—something to think about as you wonder why Lindsay Lohan's antics have ended her career while Charlie Sheen's have only enhanced his.

Even so, Harlow had to dodge one more scandal around the time of Bombshell's release, this one concerning her affair with married boxer Max Baer. When Baer's wife threatened to name Harlow in the subsequent divorce proceedings, the studio quickly married their star off to cinematographer Harold Rosson (best known for photographing The Wizard Of Oz). The marriage was quietly dissolved seven months later but by then the potential scandal had been headed off. Jean Harlow's career, and MGM's cash cow, was safe once again.

Trivia: MGM may have worked overtime to cover up Harlow's indiscretions, but co-star Lee Tracy was not so lucky. While filming Viva Villa in Mexico in 1934 with Wallace Beery, Tracy got drunk, stepped out onto his hotel balcony and urinated on a passing military parade. He was arrested on the spot and immediately deported, and a furious Louis B. Mayer fired him shortly thereafter. Tracy's career hit the skids after that, with a lot of small roles in B-pictures, followed by television in the 1950s. He achieved a level of redemption, however, in 1964 when his portrayal of a dying U.S. president in the Henry Fonda movie The Best Man earned him an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor—which is one more Oscar nomination than Jean Harlow ever got. Tracy died of cancer four years later at the age of 70.

[To Read Part Four of this essay, click here.]

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Best Actress Of 1932-33 (Comedy/Musical): Jean Harlow (Red Dust, Dinner At Eight and Bombshell), Part Two

[To read Part One of this essay, click here.]

Dinner At Eight: Harlow Arrives At Last
"I was reading a book the other day."

"Reading a book?!?"

"Yes. It's all about civilization or something. A
nutty kind of a book. Do you know that the guy says that machinery is going to take the place of every profession?"

"Oh, my dear, that's something you need never worry about."

After a second movie with Gable, Hold Your Man (actually their third—Gable and Harlow had small roles in the 1931 gangster movie The Secret Six, but weren't paired together), 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 Manhattan social climbers preparing for a dinner party as their respective worlds fall down around their ears. Seeing Dinner At Eight as a potential follow-up to 1932's Grand Hotel, a star-studded extravaganza that had won the Academy Award for best picture, MGM producer Irving Thalberg bought the film rights to the play, but fell ill soon after and took a leave of absence from the studio. Louis B. Mayer, long jealous of Thalberg, sensed an opportunity to increase his control of MGM and brought in his son-in-law, David O. Selznick, who reluctantly left his post as head of RKO Studios to head up the production (prompting wags to quip "the son-in-law also rises").

For Dinner At Eight, 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 finally Harlow as the spoiled young trophy wife of Wallace Beery's crooked businessman. (Joan Crawford turned down the part of a woman cheating on her fiance, the most thankless role in the movie; it went to Madge Evans instead.)

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.

Outside of Karl Marx, Dinner At Eight is as scathing an indictment of the monied classes as you're likely to find, and no character is more indolent than Harlow's Kitty. She manipulates her men, bullies her maid, and otherwise lies around in a torpor, eating bonbons and complaining of boredom. "She holds court from her bed," Matthew Kennedy wrote for Bright Lights Film Journal, "like a spoiled Persian cat, a disagreeable chocolate substituting for a furball."

And 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 rooting for Kitty. "I'm going to be a lady if it kills me," she vows.

Ironically, the woman Kitty most aspires to be—Billie Burke's Millicent Jordan—is even more empty-headed than she is, and without a backless evening gown to take your mind off the fact.

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 dialogue (tough wisecracks, for example) while conveying a deeper truth (hurt, vulnerability) with her eyes.

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.

"Harlow played comedy," said Cukor, "as naturally as a hen lays an egg."

The most famous scene in Dinner At Eight is the last one between Harlow and Marie Dressler—and justly so, with Dressler's famous doubletake and last line—but it's not really Harlow's scene, except to serve up a couple of terrific straight-lines. Instead check out her scenes with Wallace Beery, who plays her boorish husband. The two bicker and battle, the collision of small minds and titanic wills, and despite Beery's expertise at hammy scene stealing, it's Harlow the viewer remembers.

Their verbal sparring ("Remember what I told you last week?" "I don't remember what you told me a minute ago.") escalates to point of physical violence, with Harlow delivering a pivotal ultimatum in one breathless rant:

"Who do you think you're talking to, that first wife of yours out in Montana? That poor mealy-faced thing with a flat chest that didn't have nerve enough to talk up to you, washing out your greasy overalls and cooking and slaving in some lousy mining shack—no wonder she died. Well, you can't get me that way, you're not going to step on my face to get where you want to go, you big windbag! ... Politics? Ha! You couldn't get into politics. You couldn't get in anywhere. You couldn't even get in the men's room at the Astor!"

It's a tour de force moment both for Harlow and for the film, and it contrasts nicely with Kitty's previous lethargy and coy manipulations. The antipathy between Beery and Harlow was genuine, but they were a great screen couple and they made one more movie together, China Seas in 1935.

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."

According to KC at Classic Movies, Dressler was so impressed with Harlow that she hoped she and Harlow could work together again, starting "an entirely new kind of comedy team—the glamour girl and the matron." Dressler, however, died of cancer just a year later and the two never made another movie together.

As it was, when Harlow finished her last scene for the movie, she went to her dressing room and cried, perhaps knowing nothing she ever did afterwards would top this performance.

As a postscript, I should mention that Harlow's real-life dinner at eight didn't go nearly so well as the onscreen one. At a party for the British prime minister, Harlow found herself seated next to the PM's wife, Margot Asquith, Countess of Oxford and Asquith. Throughout the dinner, Harlow addressed her as "Margot," pronouncing the "t," until finally the Countess said, "No, no, the 't' is silent, as in 'Harlow.'"

Apocryphal, perhaps, but a good punchline.

Note: To read my essay on John Barrymore's performance in Dinner At Eight, click here.

[To read Part Three of this essay, click here.]

Monday, July 19, 2010

Harlow In Color

While I'm working on Part Two of my essay about Jean Harlow, here's a clip of the only color footage ever shot of her, from 1930's Hell's Angels.

(And before you say, hey, wait, wasn't that a black-and-white movie, I'll tell you that Hollywood had an odd habit back in the day of inserting color scenes -- usually of a lavish party, as here -- into otherwise black-and-white movies. See, for example, The Wedding March and The Women.)

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Best Actress Of 1932-33 (Comedy/Musical): Jean Harlow (Red Dust, Dinner At Eight and Bombshell), Part One

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.]