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.]


Valerie Troutman said...

Apparently Rin Tin Tin died in her arms. Lucky dog!

Mythical Monkey said...

"I held him in my arms and kissed him."

"Ah, so it was murder!"

I can think of worse ways to go.

Anonymous said...

I'm really enjoying reading all these essays on Harlow!
Bombshell is another film that is added to my must see list.
Thats a sad but funny story about Lee Tracy, crazy drunks, so he never got to finish shooting the film? Good on him for having a successful comeback though, that can happen when you have talent wish i could say the same for poor Lindsay! whose looking miserable in her mug shot on your blog list as i write this! lol

Mythical Monkey said...

Bombshell is a hard movie to see -- you either have to stumble across it on YouTube when somebody illegally posts it or you wait for it to show up on Turner Classic Movies. Rumor has it that there'll be a Jean Harlow box set next spring for her 100th birthday -- hopefully it will include Red-Headed Woman, Red Dust and Bombshell, along with all the other out-of-print Harlows.

As for Lindsay Lohan, I also feel sorry for her. I think The Parent Trap, Freaky Friday and Mean Girls proves she has talent. Maybe she can do a Robert Downey, Jr. style about-face, get her problems under control and work her way back into the industry.

I, for one, would like to see it. But you never know. Movie stars and athletes seem to think their moment will last forever when in fact the window of opportunity is quite brief. To quote the man from It's A Wonderful Life: "Youth is wasted on the wrong people!"

Except you, of course. You seem to be doing quite well!

mister muleboy said...

Tracy got drunk, stepped out onto his hotel balcony and urinated on a passing military parade.

So who exactly hasn't done that?

Lindsey Lohan -- protests that she's done nothing wrong, engages in lengthy, well-publicized crazy-ass-fuckhead parents, tweets her indiscretions, cries publicly, lies to judge, lies to self, lies to world.

Charlie Sheen -- quietly goes in to court saying "whoa, I fucked up." The goes away for two years, only to return saying "whoa, I fucked up." Doesn't deny wrongdoing, just releases a quip and acknowledges wrongdoing [regarding Heidi Fleiss, the Hollywood Madam: I never paid women for sex. I paid them to go away.]. Relies on quiet father and brother who only say "I support and love him" [while acknowledging their own early fuckups]. Fights ruthlessly with ex-wife/mother o' his kids Denise RIchards, then (when it goe tabloid) says "wait a minute; this is outta control" and quietly works things out with her].

Lindsey Lohan is not ruining her career by being an addict of booze and dopes; she's ruining her career by being an asshole.

Which is, in my book, the nearly-inevitable result of being 24 years and 19 days old.

I am almost forty-tw . . . forty-fiv. . . fifty-four and I'm an asshole.

I love Jean Harlow, and have since 1974. I feel sorry for the broad.

And I think that it would have been just dynomight to ball her. . . .

Mythical Monkey said...

Perhaps what I meant to say about Lindsay Lohan is that I feel sorry for myself because of all the movies I haven't gotten to watch that she might have been in. Which is not the same as saying she's not her own worst enemy.

But I still say that it helps that Charlie Sheen's onscreen characters are so close in spirit to his off-screen reality -- say, the hard-drinking, whore-mongering, good-for-nothing who nevertheless gets rich and avoids all of life's consequences on Two And A Half Men and the hard-drinking, whore-mongering, good-for-nothing-not-acting-related who nevertheless gets rich and avoids some of life's consequences in real life. The public can shrug and say, "Well, that's just Charlie being Charlie."

Whereas if the conservative, family values governor of South Carolina turns out to be a whore-mongering good-for-nothing, people's heads explode.

As if every politician doesn't have a mistress in Argentina. Sheesh!

I do hope Lindsay Lohan gets herself straightened out though ...

Thomas Paine said...

I like me Lindsey Lohan.

I think she has talent.

I feel sorry for her.

Nice set 'a lamps; nothin' to be ashamed of. . . .

Mythical Monkey said...

Nice set 'a lamps; nothin' to be ashamed of. . . .

Yeah, aren't you the guy who said "Give me liberty or give me a nice set 'a lamps?"

No, wait, that was Patrick Henry. I can never keep my Revolutionary War era perverts straight ...

Thomas Paine said...

Here's some o' MY best work:

Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one; for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries BY A GOVERNMENT, which we might expect in a country WITHOUT GOVERNMENT, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer.

Shakespeare weeps. . . .

THESE are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.

"Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered."

Gahd I was great.

Oh, by the way, you write:

I can never keep my Revolutionary War era perverts straight ..

Well, we never had that trouble. Except with George.

Big lumbering poof. . . .

Father of his country my ass. "Mother," more like it.

Lafayette was more like the father; George always thought he was dreamy. . . .

Anonymous said...

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!

I'm glad that Gable was not in this movie. He would have proved to be a less interesting leading man than Lee Tracy's Space Hanlon. "BOMBSHELL" is not a fantasy. And both Harlow and Tracy proved that.

How did this get to be about Lindsay Lohan?

Anonymous said...

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."

Most of the female staff writers at MGM disliked Bern. Why, I don't know.

Bern faced a scandal involving his common-law wife, Dorothy Millette, who had decided to re-inter his life. Both his and Harlow's career could have been destroyed if she had revealed herself to the press. For years, the public and the studio's employees believed that Bern suffered from impotence and could not deal with being the husband of a sex symbol. As it turned out, he couldn't deal with facing a possible scandal involving his wife, his common-law wife and himself.

Mythical Monkey said...

How did this get to be about Lindsay Lohan?

We do tend to meander in the comments section sometimes, I'll admit ...

Mythical Monkey said...

As it turned out, he couldn't deal with facing a possible scandal involving his wife, his common-law wife and himself.

I did not know that. That's very interesting, and makes more sense than anything else I've heard about Paul Bern. Thanks!