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Jean Harlow is now a symbol, for some, of golden age Hollywood glamour; for others she has the uncanny fascination that those who die young exert on us. At the time of her death in 1937 she was probably the most popular film star in the world and her popularity and reputation as an actor were still growing.
Her studio, MGM, bought good films for her. In the period 1932 to 1937 Jean Harlow made 15 films: seven of them are among the greatest films of the thirties, one is included in the dubious AFI top 100 comedies (I’d put three of her movies in the top 100 best films myself but I have a weakness for the thirties). One of the chief drawcards of these movies is Harlow’s acting ability. The movies show us what she was like between the ages of 20 and 26. How she would have developed we’ll never know.
Harlow wasn’t an actor. She wasn’t even interested in film. But she was an extraordinarily beautiful teenager, was given a screen test, and ended up, as so many still do, playing bit parts in forgotten films. In 1930 she was in Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels: her main contribution was not wearing very much and delivering the line “Excuse me while I slip into something more comfortable”.
She first started to act in The Beast of the City, a 1932 crime melodrama and her 22nd film. Directed by Charles Brabin and starring Walter Huston, the film is a fast paced thriller and Harlow has an effective part. Her breakthrough came later that year when she was given the lead role in Red Headed Woman, directed by Jack Conway and scripted by Anita Loos, two people to be important in her career. It’s a scandalous and funny tale of a poor woman who sleeps her way to the top under the impression that that’s what sex is for. “Say” she asks a dress shop assistant, “can you see through this material?”. “I’m afraid so madam, when you stand against the light”. “I’ll take it!”.
One of the extraordinary things about Jean Harlow was her popularity with fellow actors. Virtually everyone who worked with her developed a deep affection for her. She was without temperament or affectation and was conscious she was learning her craft. In 1932 Harlow starred in a film with Clark Gable, Red Dust. This is a sexy version of a story similar to the Joan Crawford film Rain. Gable and Harlow worked well together, the film was popular and the two actors became lifelong close friends. (Several years later Gable was to become passionately involved with Joan Crawford).
Hold Your Man of 1933 was also scripted by Anita Loos but the big film of that year was Dinner At Eight, produced by David Selznick, directed by George Cukor, scripted by Herman Mankiewicz and Donald Ogden Stewart. Stars were Marie Dressler, John and Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery and Billie Burke. This was the cream of 30s filmmaking. Harlow stole the show.
Still in 1933 came Bombshell, a film about a star very similar to Harlow. The only thing against calling this her greatest performance is the suspicion she was merely expressing her own exasperation at the follies, backbiting, neuroses, sycophantic behaviour and shameless exploitation of the film world and its hangers on.
The Girl From Missouri of 1934 was directed by Jack Conway and scripted by Anita Loos and played Harlow against Lionel Barrymore and Franchot Tone. It’s a neglected masterpiece and deserves serious reviewing. Three minor films followed, Reckless with William Powell (Jean’s great love affair), China Seas, with Clark Gable, and Riffraff with Spencer Tracy.
In 1936 came another neglected masterpiece, Wife vs Secretary, with close friends Clark Gable and Myrna Loy, about a loyal secretary, a suspicious wife and a faithful husband (what’s the good of stereotypes if you can’t play against them). Also in 1936 was Suzy, with Franchot Tone and Cary Grant, an actor whose achievement is comparable to Harlow’s. Suzy shouldn’t have worked, but gets by on star power.
Harlow’s next film, one of her best, was Libeled Lady. This was directed by Jack Conway and also starred Myrna Loy, William Powell and Spencer Tracy. All four actors gave a great performance and thanks to a brilliant script and expert direction the film remains one of the very greatest of screwball comedies.
Sadly, Harlow’s performances were coming to an end. 1937’s Personal Property starred Robert Taylor; both stars gave a touching (and very glamorous) performance. Later that same year Saratoga had to be abandoned when Harlow fell ill with uremic poisoning. She died quite suddenly of the effect of kidney failure, a disease little understood at the time.
There were and are many Jean Harlows. The 500,000 young women who dyed their hair platinum and wanted Jean Harlow eyebrows were suddenly left without a role model. A scabrous biographer pedaled dirt about her sex life and the fact she didn’t like wearing underwear to cater to male fantasies. She’s an icon of a vanished and more innocent age. She learned to act and made some pretty good films that are still worth watching. That’s quite an achievement.