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A photograph is a human construct, not a reality. Nothing lies like a camera, and a Hollywood camera lies like nothing else. I have chosen from a range of photos available those images that show Jean Harlow as closely aligned to contemporary taste in looks as possible. Before the studio manufactured the Platinum Blonde Bombshell with the tight dresses, see through materials, marcelled hair and thick makeup, there was a stunningly beautiful blonde teenager who didn’t need to look like Mae West to draw attention. In between the postured shots in tortured poses and dramatic lighting, and the photos of Jean looking ill at ease, tired or ill, there were many that have kept their appeal to this day. The work of Victor Mascaro in colourising many rare photographs (and videos) of Jean Harlow is important in emphasising her contemporary relevance http://bewitchvic.tripod.com/CelluloidLegends.html. This is the way I want her to look. This essay attempts to take the viewer away from her image though to consider the dramatic art of her films.
March 3 is the birthday of Harlean Carpenter, known as Jean Harlow, an actress whose stage name was that of her mother, and who was known all her life by those close to her as Baby.
Jean had a brief, unhappy life, but she had a positive and unpretentious personality that most people she met found appealing. Her troubles have long been over, and the scandals about her seen to be largely contrived. Her studios cast her early on in her career as a sex symbol, as what was known then as a ‘vamp’ like Theda Bara, a girl with a frank sexuality like Mae West. She lived that image down, much as Marilyn Monroe tried to do, and is now recognised as one of Hollywood’s greatest actresses, in my view probably the greatest produced by the studio system (though Barbara Stanwyck gives her a run for her money). Jean was given many stereotypical roles to play (as were Stanwyck, and Bette Davis) and she did marvellous things with them. It helped she played in some of the best productions of the 30s.
She began filming in 1928, at the age of 17, and had given 22 forgettable performances by 1932, when she finally learned what to do in front of the camera, and starred in Red-Headed Woman, her first major role, directed by Jack Conway and scripted by Anita Loos. She became a star virtually overnight, and made another 12 films, becoming in the process, according to her studio MGM, the world’s most popular film star. In 1937 she suddenly became ill, and collapsed and died from kidney failure, then incurable, at the age of 26. Her death caused a sensation, to those who had known her, throughout all the Hollywood studios, and around the world.
As a tribute to her enormous talent, to celebrate her birthday I’ve watched her films again. These are the six I think the best, certainly the ones I enjoyed the most. All are available on DVD as single editions, or in two collections, Greatest Classic Film Collection – Jean Harlow, and 100th Anniversary Collection.
DINNER AT EIGHT 1933
d: George Cukor, scr: Herman J Mankiewicz, stars: Marie Dressler, John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore
This was not a Harlow film but a multi star vehicle similar to the studio’s previous year’s Grand Hotel, which had been very popular. Adapted from a successful Broadway play, this slice of life melodrama looks at the invitees of a posh Manhattan cocktail party as they receive invitations, plot coups against other people and each other, get ready and finally attend. Each group of people has its own story, and as they intersect the results are sometimes funny, sometimes tragic. There are as many styles of acting as there are stories.
Here are the great actors of that era: Marie Dressler, a famous star of the stage; John Barrymore, one of Hollywood’s greatest actors; his brother Lionel, as great; Billie Burke, a wonderful comedienne sometimes now overlooked; and Lee Tracy, a superstar of the time about to fade to obscurity but here very effective. Almost as an afterthought, there is Wallace Beery, hugely popular at the box office, as a brash businessman, and his wife Kitty, a strident vulgarian, played by relative newcomer Jean Harlow.
The director was the great George Cukor. He brings each group’s story into focus in turn, but the real story is the time and place in America of the Great Depression as it affected affluent business people, film stars and celebrities. A serious topic indeed, but no dustbowl tragedies are allowed to intrude. It’s a drawing room comedy of manners, with the tragedy muted to pathos. An interesting parallel is the ensemble acting masterpieces of Robert Altman, Nashville and Cold Cuts, both of which reach levels of profound social commentary this film doesn’t even attempt. Dinner at Eight is instead a sophisticated satire on the foibles of human nature, as true now as when it was first made.
The two main stories concern the characters played by the Barrymore brothers. John plays Larry Renault, a washed up movie star going through the same process as Norman Maine (Frederick March) did in the 1937 film A Star is Born, (a film Cukor was later to make a version of starring Judy Garland) confronting loss of fame and lack of talent after losing superstardom status. He has no future but debt, humiliation and the choice of ruining the life of a young woman who thinks she loves him. He chooses to die instead. Barrymore does a fine job of expressing the vanity, cynicism and self doubt felt by his character. It’s a trifle mannered, as acting was in that era, yet perfectly judged. At no moment does the acting appear sentimental or exaggerated, despite the melodrama of the plot. To talk just of this man’s fine profile, or his drinking problem, is to miss the most important aspect of him: his superb acting skill.
Lionel plays Oliver Jordan, a shipping magnate ruined by the Depression whose health gives way under the stress he experiences. Some fine comedy is made by contrasting his worries with those of his wife Millicent, played expertly by Billie Burke, the socialite hostess from hell in hysterics because the cook has dropped the aspic, and horrified because her dinner has been ruined as the guests of honour have cancelled at the last minute. Lionel is a more mannered actor than his brother, and so you understand his predicament rather than feel it, but he is effective. The support from Billie Burke is outstanding. These two supply the message of the film, and although you don’t feel engaged with the couple, they offer a wonderfully entertaining portrayal.
In contrast with the upper eschelon of the social scale is Dan Packard, a grifter from Montana who has hit it rich and is set on a political career in Washington. The part is played with considerable conviction by Wallace Beery, who had achieved fame as an actor opposite Marie Dressler earlier in the 30s. Dan is crass, violent and insensitive, and it’s his shrill, vulgar wife Kitty, a former dance floor floozie, played by Jean Harlow, who ends up neutralising his malice and saving the shipping line. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SeK0Ej14ATs Marie Dressler, a former Broadway star successful in the movies, has some great scenes, and shows her skill as Carlotta Vance, variously pompous, painfully wise, and in the last scene of the film, unforgettably witty.
The acting in virtually every part is superb and a delight to watch, and one can only wonder at how well Jean Harlow performs in the midst of these MGM superstars. Her first major part had been only the previous year in Red-Headed Woman, and she was by far the least experienced of the major cast members. The director and scriptwriters want Kitty to be a stereotype: the clinging negligee, the bad accent, the addiction to chocolates and cheap perfume, the petulance. Kitty is that stereotype, but a whole lot more. Harlow makes her the heart and soul of the film, tacky, vulgar, sentimental, tough, and honest through and through in ways the other characters could never be. In her first major performance Jean Harlow had the distinction of outshining some of Hollywood’s greatest actors, and she went on to do even better work.
Interesting to see that all the actors, though stars, don’t rely on star power. They act, and act expertly. Superb direction by Cukor ensures each scene is perfectly timed and the pace is masterly, cutting is done so that the stories resonate with each other, all without any exaggerated camera movements. Like many golden age Hollywood films, the actors are matched by accomplished direction and scripting and a crew who make the whole work without drawing attention to any part. As so often in the 30s, the film works so well you only belatedly look for the reasons why. Every viewing I discover something more to appreciate in this timeless masterpiece.
d: Victor Fleming, scr: Jules Furthman, star: Lee Tracy
Just one month after Dinner at Eight Jean Harlow was back in Bombshell, a film adapted from a Broadway play allegedly based on the life of Clara Bow, a former colleague of Jean’s in 1929’s The Saturday Night Kid. It was Jean’s third film that year (Hold Your Man, July; Dinner at Eight, August; Bombshell, October). The pace was amazing. In 1932 Jean had starred in four films: Three Wise Girls, January; The Beast of the City, February; Red-Headed Woman, June; and Red Dust, October. Successful film stars must have a lot of problems in common, as Bombshell also clearly mirrors Jean’s own predicaments. Caught in the middle between a studio that indulges her petulancies while making millions of dollars from her popularity, and a crowd of blood sucking hangers on who feel any money she has is rightfully their money, it’s no wonder that star Lola Burns loses her grip. She comes down to earth finally, in a searing, vitriolic castigation of the greed, exploitation, selfishness, vanity, dishonesty and stupidity the whole castle in the air of fame is built with.
As fast paced as Howard Hawks’ Twentieth Century of 1934 or His Girl Friday of 1940, this is a film which does the opposite of so many: it assumes the audience is very, very intelligent, and it gives cogent, insightful commentary on our very human nature while coming up with an anarchic, constant stream of witty situations and one liners. You have to watch the film three times to get it all.
The film is dotted with references to Harlow and Bow. Lola is the ‘If’ Girl, and has to reshoot some scenes from Red Dust. ‘Pops’, Lola’s father, a brilliant performance from Frank Morgan, bears a gruesome resemblance to Marino Bello, Jean’s mother’s gigolo who conspired with her to strip Harlow of much of the money she’d earned from the movies. This constant blending of reality and fantasy is really what the film is about. No-one in the film is whom they seem to be. No-one, studio head, director, press agent, gigolo, star, family, servants, can clearly distinguish between what’s in reality and what’s in the script: and the film itself is an example of what it’s about. Merchant of dreams the studio head may be, but he, like everyone that works for him, has become a figure in the dream.
Bombshell is a satirical farce, a kind of Monty Python revue sketch years ahead of its time, performed with incredible gusto and energy. In a way it’s also the love story of Lola, the star, and EJ Hanlon, her press agent, played by Lee Tracy, as frenetic a performance as his similar role in Dinner at Eight earlier that year. Hanlon believes there is no such thing as bad publicity, but he’s really creating a fantasy figure he, like the public, can fall in love with. Lola, despite her indignation at the way she is represented by the press, and manipulated by her agent, needs to believe in the fantasy about herself just as much as everyone else.
The film is a farce, and so it has a limited range, but it’s a very good farce, and directed so well that the frantic pace never causes confusion or seems repetitious. It’s worth noting that no matter how much it reveals that film is an illusion, a total fabrication that shamelessly manipulates the viewer, we still look at it and prefer the fantasy, just as much as Hanlon and Lola did. We’d rather have fantasies about Jean Harlow than facts about Harlean Carpenter.
And yet the film is truthful as well. This did happen to Jean Harlow the actress. She did fail to find happiness and stability with any of the men in her life, constantly choosing the wrong one. She was exploited by everyone who knew her save a handful of close friends, stripped of most of what she earned. She did spend her life in an unsuccessful attempt to please everybody, and made nobody happy.
Harlow’s performance in the film is incredibly skillful. She is able to convey the fact that Lola is irritated with the masks that everyone around her wears, and delights to tear them off, often with brilliant if brittle humour, yet shows that Lola clings obsessively to her own mask, that of the film star, because she needs it more than anyone. It’s a more nuanced portrayal than Tracy, whose Space Hanlon is merely glib, and not quite convincing as someone in love, perhaps because he’s spent the film telling so many lies we think that love is just another one. There’s a lot going on in Harlow’s performance, as resonances from her own life inflected the script she was performing. The film though, was made – scripted, rehearsed, shot and edited – in little over a month. Much of what Harlow does is beyond the script. You have to stop laughing long enough to reflect that the most glamorous film star in the world really did want a family and a home life more than anything else in the world, and never got it, to see the depth of her performance. To be yourself while playing a part: only the greatest actors can do it.
The more often I see Bombshell the more I see in it. The beautiful girl with the figure hugging dresses, the funny one liners, Hollywood unmasking itself with wit and brio, an actor with an amazing natural ability, a woman in pain who gave what pleasure she could to millions, a business that exchanges illusions for cash, an audience who need such illusions. And a bombshell that reveals it all.
THE GIRL FROM MISSOURI 1934
d: Jack Conway, scr: Anita Loos, stars: Lionel Barrymore, Franchot Tone
Red-Headed Woman meets Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and if you know your movies this is the career choice of any reasonably attractive woman in the days when a career other than marriage was not an option: and if you’re going to marry – make sure he’s rich. One other choice was available if you’re Jean Harlow. If you’re attractive, and you can act, get a job with a rich studio like MGM and become a star. And that’s the real story here. This is Harlow at her most beautiful and seductive. Co-incidentally, this was the time Harlow met and fell in love with another great Hollywood actor, William Powell. Their engagement lasted for the next four years. She almost had what she wanted, but they never married.
The plot is emasculated to please the newly created Hays Office: according to the Production Code, marriage has nothing whatsoever to do with sex. As far as Hollywood was now concerned, sex had ceased to exist (such an overreaction to the move from melodrama to realism in the early 30s, but obviously puritans didn’t think so, nor newspaper moralists, for almost 30 years). So the plot of this movie is pretty sanctimonious. Thank god for Harlow’s star quality and acting ability, which make it a thoroughly enjoyable experience. I can think of no one but Jean Harlow who could so effortlessly negate the Hays Office. Anita Loos is usually not as dreadful as this, so perhaps the movie originally ran longer than its present 70 minutes, and made a bit more sense.
Edith Chapman, Eadie, played by Jean Harlow, escapes a nightclub where her stepfather is putting the pressure on to be more than friendly to the customers. Determined to preserve her chastity, Eadie and her friend Kitty flee to New York and become chorus girls, meet a lot of amorous millionaires who make the girls all kinds of offers, but not that of marriage, but Eadie perseveres until she finds someone who is willing to marry her. Unfortunately the man then commits suicide, leaving her with some ruby cufflinks which arouse the suspicions of financier TR Paige, Lionel Barrymore, who assumes that as she’s a chorus girl she must have been paid with the cufflinks for sexual favours. Poor Eadie goes to great lengths to prove she is pure and virginal. The plot thickens when Paige’s son Tom falls in love with Eadie, but he too assumes she’s an easily had floozie. All the men in this movie have been mixing with the wrong kind of woman, as they all think Eadie is a woman of easy virtue. There’s a ridiculous sub plot in which Paige frames Eadie by having her photographed with another man so as to separate her from Tom, and she retaliates by being photographed in his arms in her underwear. Then Paige and Tom realise she really is pure and respectable, and Eadie and Tom get married and the film comes to an end. All very edifying, and the Hays Office was undoubtedly pleased with the message that sex before marriage was wrong (and sex after marriage was difficult, because of the separate beds).
What Harlow does with this claptrap is pretty good. She makes Eadie a real woman, without the brashness of her delivery seen in Red-Headed Woman. Eadie feels humiliated by the pressure she’s under from her stepfather and fearful of the consequences that might await her should she succumb, as her mother has. In the days when the Double Standard was much more extreme than it is today, this must have been a real danger to women. Harlow switches adroitly from the comedy of a chorus girl on the make who keeps on choosing the wrong millionaires to the romance of being in love to outrage at being misjudged.
The plot as it now stands is not worth much of your attention, and it is interesting to see how muted the other performances are in dealing with it, from highly expert actors. This is a film in which you can just sit back and watch Harlow, see how beautifully she moves, look as the cameraman and lighting technician create an image of her of beguiling beauty, watch the play of expression on her face, succumb to her enormous charm. What we see is as much a work of art as the Venus de Milo, and it somehow doesn’t matter that the Hays Office has made a mess of the rest of the film, just as the Venus has survived the loss of her arms. Perhaps Eadie had some of the problems of Harlow herself. It is unmistakable though that she wants to be wanted for the right reasons, and won’t give up till you do.
WIFE VS SECRETARY 1936
d: Clarence Brown, stars: Clark Gable, Myrna Loy
This is a post Production Code movie, and so very moral. It plays with stereotypes, and the joke is it reverses the usual roles of its stars, well known to movie goers of that era: Gable here the faithful husband; Loy the sexually besotted and jealous wife; Harlow the dedicated and loyal secretary.
Publisher Van Stanhope, Clark Gable, has both a devoted wife, Linda, Myrna Loy, and a dedicated secretary, Whitey, Jean Harlow, and you can see why: he’s smart, energetic, affectionate and always in a good mood. But all of a sudden all their friends start noticing how good looking Van’s secretary is, and wondering if the amount of time they spend together is really all about business. Linda has the kind of girlfriends who make bitchy remarks like “I’m sure you’ve nothing to worry about, Linda dear”. It’s a bit contrived, but after all it’s a comedy of manners in which a couple break up their relationship by allowing other people’s suspicions to undermine the trust they have in each other. Each star plays it straight: Myrna is lovey dovey; Clark is affectionate and good humoured; Jean is an efficient business woman. Bit by bit other people’s ugly suspicions affect Linda more and more, and she becomes jealous. Mind you, Van is pretty outrageous, breaking a honeymoon date with his wife in Havana so he can fly down with his secretary on business, then forgetting to phone Linda for two days. He’s too busy, and can’t understand why she’s so upset.
Unexpectedly, the film lurches into melodrama. Linda decides to divorce Van, and in the central section of the film she spends a lot of time crying brokenheartedly while Van fails to make her change her mind. Meanwhile Whitey, who has similar problems to Linda with her boyfriend Dave, reveals that she does love Van after all, and if Linda doesn’t want him, she’ll take him.
The trouble with the plot is not that it’s unlikely: people do behave like this. But the scenes are full of contrived action and dialogue that lacks conviction. And the actors lack the range to convey the mixture of feelings the characters are supposedly experiencing. Clark is convincing as an affectionate husband, but not as a businessman, let alone a misjudged husband. Myrna is a loving wife, it’s after all her signature part, and does a good weep scene, but it’s hard to imagine both are coming from the same character. Only Jean Harlow, of the lead actors, has the ability to portray the mix of feelings her character is experiencing. Admiration and loyalty for her boss, gratitude for the friendship he shows her, devotion slowly turning to love as he relies more and more on her when separated from his wife, compassion and understanding of both Van and Linda, willingness to take second place in Van’s life if that’s what he wants. It’s all there, not in the action and dialogue, but in her acting. If Clark and Myrna have the film to themselves in the first half of light comedy, the second, melodramatic, half is held together and made interesting by Harlow’s magnificent acting ability. By this stage of her career she could add depth to any lightweight part her studio gave her. The scene in the ship’s stateroom near the end of the movie when Whitey confronts Linda and convinces her to go back to her husband transcends the melodrama of the plot, and of my description of it, and gains real emotional depth. And Jean does it all with a look, and a gesture.
It’s funny to think that the girl who didn’t want to act, and at first did so badly when she tried, should develop into an artist who could hold together a poor production, and shine so luminously in a good one. Jean Harlow was so popular, not because of her beauty, or revealing clothes, but because she made the parts she played come to life, in ways audiences around the world could understand and relate to.
LIBELED LADY 1936
d: Jack Conway, stars: William Powell, Myrna Loy, SpencerTracy
This is one of my favourite films. I’ve been watching it for years, and laughing at the absurdly complicated machinations the characters get themselves entangled in. The film ends with Walter Connolly as Mr Allenbury, a rich businessman whose daughter Connie, Myrna Loy, has become romantically involved, and then married to, Bill Chandler, William Powell, a newspaperman hired to make her drop a libel suit against a newspaper run by Warren Haggerty, Spencer Tracy, asking his daughter “You mean you’ve married him! Then who’s this woman?”. He points at Gladys, Jean Harlow. “That’s Bill’s wife” explains Myrna. It’s all too much for Connolly. “Quiet!”, he yells, but the four leads go on explaining, all talking at once, as the end title appears. The best way to understand how it happened is just to watch the film.
This meticulously plotted movie is full of things you don’t often see, such as comic irony, as in the scene when Haggerty surprises Chandler very much at home with Connie: Haggerty is delighted, as he can now blackmail Connie into dropping the libel suit, while Chandler feels he has almost persuaded her to drop it for other reasons. The two men have a conversation about the suit while appearing to be exchanging pleasantries, and while Connie, oblivious to the real meaning of the exchange, joins in the small talk. Or sophisticated cross talk, as in a scene on a boat where Chandler attempts to manipulate Connie, and she consistently responds to his manipulations, not his conversation, with remarks that show she has seen through him. And the film also contains a famous slapstick routine featuring William Powell as a spectacularly inept fly fisherman that has to be seen to be believed
Most importantly, and this is something that takes the film away from the screwball category where it is often filed, the four leads give their characters depth, so that the relationship between them becomes interesting, not mere occasions for pratfalls and one liners. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QowUfPaUO4I Tracy plays the kind of guy who loves his girl: of course he loves her, why the hell does he have to keep telling her he does? He’s an operator, but Powell plays a smarter one, the kind who’s stratagems are so complex he’s at a loss when they don’t work. Loy, with her beautifully modulated voice, plays a sceptic who after all is a romantic (they often are). And Harlow simmers as the frustrated girl who gets the affection she wants and needs from someone other than the man she loves. The other three give great comic performances, but Harlow is a dramatic actress who can do comedy. Even though she plays a reprise of the role of Kitty from Dinner at Eight, shrill and vulgar and frustrated at every turn by male stupidity, it’s not at any time a stereotype. Jean makes you see how Gladys could respond so warmly to a little kindness from others, and it’s because her anger and frustration are so understandable that the other three actors can be so funny as they follow their perverted logic into one mess after the other.
Some interesting things are going on in this movie. For a start, Powell’s character is a conman who cheats Tracy’s character out of a sizable fee by lying to him, tries to get Loy’s character to do what he wants by making her fall in love, and pretending to love her, misrepresents himself to Connelly’s character, and cheats Harlow’s character by marrying her under false pretenses. Tracy’s character likewise tries to deceive Powell’s character, and treats Harlow’s character with contempt and cruelty. Both women get their feelings used and abused and are treated as fools by their menfolk. We are invited to like these people and laugh at all this immoral behaviour. And what’s more, we do. Anarchy is just around the corner, and the Marx Brothers had just arrived at MGM.
As in so many films Harlow made, her real life seemed to intrude on the script. After three marriages that were travesties, and with Harlow desperately wanting the stability of a home and family she had never had in her life, she met and fell in love with William Powell, who cared for her, but not enough to marry her. The couple were engaged for four years, and observers say he treated her with considerable reserve, even contempt at times. Harlow was desperately unhappy about the situation, which must have been very frustrating for her. She drank to excess at this period, a factor in the kidney collapse that killed her. And in this film she plays a bride perennially left at the altar by a groom with more important things to do than get married, then duped by another man who thinks he’s only pretending to marry her. No wonder her playing is so poignant.
There’s actually no other film that Libeled Lady can be compared to. It’s a relationship drama, and a farce, with William Powell doing the best pratfalls and physical comedy he ever did. It’s witty and sophisticated and fast moving, though the characters are relatively normal compared to those in a screwball comedy. Each of the four leads could carry the film on their own, but their interactions with one another produce work unique in each actor’s output.
In my view it’s one of the best comedies ever made, and its success, despite the genius of the other leads, is based on Harlow’s acting ability, here at its peak. Eight months later Jean would be dead.
PERSONAL PROPERTY 1937
d: WS Van Dyke, star: Robert Taylor
This is a rather lovely romantic comedy in which Crystal Wetherby, Jean Harlow, wants to marry Claude Dabney, Reginald Owen in a superb performance, and he her, both for the same reason. Not true love, but true poverty. Both have a mistaken idea the other party is rich. But Claude’s brother Raymond, Robert Taylor, has other ideas, and courts Crystal, in a somewhat persistent manner, until she eventually sees sense and marries him. There’s not much more to it than that, and the script appears to have run out a little after half time, after which the film meanders a bit. It’s very romantic, and Taylor doesn’t have to try too hard to be convincing at that, while Harlow is her usual feisty self. She would die three months after the film was released, yet there is no noticeable decline in her acting, and she looks as lovely as ever.
All the parts are expertly played, especially Henrietta Crosman and EE Clive as Raymond’s parents and Barnett Parker as Trevy Trevelyan, with an upper crust accent that’s become somewhat congealed. Taylor and Harlow work well together, and it’s a pity they didn’t have other films as co-stars. Overall I think the film lacks directorial control, ‘One Take’ Woody Van Dyke not pausing enough to get it right. Harlow can go with the part under minimal supervision but Taylor (Spangler Arlington Brugh from Nebraska) needs more care, it was only his sixth film performance, and some scenes are very unconvincing, something a few extra takes might have improved. In particular the editing seems to be almost non existent. There are some awkward transitions, and several slow patches during which the cast seem to be trying to think of something to do. With these stars, and such a premise, the film should have had a lot more to offer. As it is you can enjoy the interaction of the two stars, and their considerable charm, and admire the acting of the support players, but that’s all that’s on offer here.
For admirers of Jean Harlow it’s notable as being her last completed film. Seeing the six films in order I have mentioned here you can see how far she’d come in just four years. Poor productions were watchable with her acting in them, and good ones became classics.
Also worth seeing are three films of 1932: Beast of the City, directed by Charles Brabin and starring Walter Huston; Red-Headed Woman, Jean’s first starring role, directed by Jack Conway, scripted by Anita Loos and starring Chester Morris; and Red Dust, directed by Victor Fleming and starring Clark Gable. All three show how much individuality Jean could give a stereotype, and foreshadow the greatness to come. There’s another six films, but so poorly written that even Harlow can do nothing with them. It’s certainly not the case she was invariably good in her roles, and she was as likely as any other actor to put in a poor performance given poor conditions. In evaluating her skill, we should concentrate, as we should do with anyone, on her best.
Appreciating the achievement of Jean Harlow involves taking into consideration three factors, and unless all three are considered she won’t be given her due.
The first is that she was a very attractive woman, and was presented by her studios as a sex symbol, in revealing clothes, in her underwear and on one occasion bare breasted. Jean had no problem with that, she wasn’t in the least self conscious about her body, and the image was an important part of the liberation of 30s women from prevalent male domination. Men were aroused by the tits and arse presentation, but women were encouraged by the assertion of female sexuality Jean embodied. All that ended in 1934, with the introduction of the Production Code. But it is an image that has endured: we need sex symbols, and Jean handed on the torch to Marilyn Monroe, as she did to others. For Jean itself it was an image that lasted from 1928 to 1932, five years.
The second factor is stardom. For the next five years of her life, 1933 to 1937, Jean was MGMs biggest star, the most popular in the world, and examination of the light entertainment of the films her studio provided shows her to have developed into a major acting talent. These films, and there were only 12 of them, varied considerably in quality. The thing that is constant is the quality of her acting, often far transcending what the role required, and making tenable some quite poor melodramas while creating masterpieces out of greater material. As far as the cameras were concerned, the emphasis had moved from Jean’s body to her face, and the images the studio technicians created are great works of art in their own right. This aspect of Harlow’s achievement is underappreciated, as audiences rarely watch films of the 30s, no matter how many times critics explain they are Hollywood’s greatest achievement. People want entertainment at the movies, not aesthetics. Perhaps the critics better add that Jean offers superb entertainment.
The third factor is Jean’s early death. Just as Jane Austen died at 42 after writing six novels of enormous influence and popularity, but left unwritten books which would have undoubtedly changed the course of English literature; or Francis Scott Fitzgerald died at age 44 just as he had learned his craft and was poised to become one of the world’s greatest novelists; or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart died at age 35 as he was about to create the Romantic movement in music; so Jean died at the moment she was able to become one of the world’s leading actresses. What is certain about all these people is that had they lived, their later work would have totally obscured the work we actually have of theirs. Had Jean retired in 1970, after starring in a hundred films from co-productions around the world; what she would have looked like in colour; had she moved to television as Barbara Stanwyck and Groucho Marx did, and made The Jean Harlow Show a centre of dramatic excellence where writers like Clifford Odets and directors like Elia Kazan could have used her remarkable abilities; questions like these should be considered in evaluating her, no matter they are mere fantasies. The point is her achievement was unfinished. And at the time of her death she was increasing her dramatic range in leaps and bounds with every completed film. She was also increasingly popular, and would have undoubtedly been the most popular actor of the 40s and 50s. As it is, we have only fragments of her art, like some beautiful vase excavated from ancient ruins and assembled by experts in awe of such excellence. It’s unlikely anyone will give Jean Harlow her due now. Unless they actually see her films, in which case she can very ably speak for herself.
This article has been about some of Jean Harlow’s films. For those who would like to know more of her life story there are two biographies I liked. Platinum Girl by Eve Golden (Abbeville Press New York 1991) and Bombshell by David Stenn (Doubleday New York 1993). Avoid Irving Schulman’s book of 1964, Harlow, as it has nothing to do with Jean Harlow other than the title. It’s a mean spirited account of Schulman’s masturbatory fantasies, with no relationship to any facts about Harlow closer than third hand gossip, and of interest mainly to Schulman’s psychologist. Jean had it all: a tyrannical grandfather; a possessive mother; a stepfather who stole her money; bad marriages and relationships; exploitation and malicious gossip; disease and an early death. But also a strong, positive personality; boundless good nature and generosity; lack of pretension; intelligence; good humour; many friends; stardom; and enormous talent. Nobody can right her wrongs, but we can still enjoy her skill as an actor.
Of not many actors can we say, that in an effective career of a little more than five years duration, their contribution was vital to the success of three of the best films ever made in Hollywood. Or that there were such clear indications that this was only the beginning.
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