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Sunday, October 22, 2006

Monday Glamour Starter --- Jean Harlow --- Part One

Jean Harlow scares me when she shouts, and she shouts a lot. People have said Red-Headed Woman is a funny movie. I'm not one of them. To my mind, it is the Fatal Attraction of the thirties. Harlow yells in Wallace Beery’s face throughout Dinner At Eight, and cheats on him besides with Edmund Lowe, whom she also berates. She’s up more decibels in Bombshell, and later stalks Gable in China Seas. When she crashes Spencer Tracy’s Libeled Lady office in her wedding gown, he and we reach for earmuffs. None of this enhances her sex goddess standing to my mind, and though tastes vary, I wouldn’t recommend her to those with low threshold for assertive women. The fact she was anything but this sort offscreen adds to her legacy’s paradox, but how many actresses can boast of a husband allegedly committing suicide because he couldn’t satisfy her? The platinum hook cleared peroxide bottles off many a pharmacy counter, but when did a star hopeful last employ this gimmick? Mamie Van Doren, perhaps? If anything, it distances us from Harlow today. There’s something ghostly about her chalk white hair, a pallor suggesting imminent collapse. Is it our knowing how tragically things would turn out? Harlow came up during final plague years before modern medicine developed treatments that could easily have been applied to her maladies. But for absence of antibiotics, dialysis, and transplants, she might have made it to our 21st century, a venerable icon of Hollywood’s Golden Age. I’m outside a mainstream for thinking Harlow’s early work her best. Andrew Sarris talks about inept line readings and an unconvincing British accent in Hell’s Angels. To my reckoning, however, this is where she justifies the sex label. Harlow's delivery is certainly no worse, maybe a little better, than many celebrated names from early talkers, but who at Metro encouraged Harlow to crank up volume once she got there? Her neophyte performances are more relaxed and appealing to these tired old eyes.

You’d not suspect she came from money, but Jean rode many a pony cart in youth, being apple of a privileged family’s eye. She contracted scarlet fever at summer camp (age fifteen), fate thereby sealed for kidney disease initiating a ten-year plan that would go un-diagnosed until progress was beyond reversal. Career start during silents to sound transition found her among extra ranks, with occasional rewarding bits. One look at Double Whoopee in 1929 and you knew she'd go places. Clara Bow recognized Harlow's new line of "It" even as her own approached decline. Mere background in The Saturday Night Kid, JH yet commands attention on primitive sound stages, even as movies weren’t yet equipped to best exploit her. The Hell’s Angels momentum seemed likely to stall for uncertain years Howard Hughes had her contract. Imagine a sensational debut followed by months of forced idleness. Hughes had neither time to develop her, nor inclination to let others do so. Profitable (for H.H.) loan-outs put Harlow in two MGM law/order pics, The Secret Six and Beast Of The City, both red meat thrillers, particularly Beast, and Jean's hair photographed strikingly. Too bad in a long run, as rituals necessary to maintain such an unnatural look poisoned her scalp via horrific combination of peroxide, ammonia, Clorox, and Lux flakes, these applied during weekly torture sessions with  inaptly named "beauticians." Again I’m at odds with Sarris about another of her loaners, Columbia’s Platinum Blonde. If this is a stiff and stilted performance, then he and I again differ. Frank Capra understood well Harlow's sex lure --- who'd not succumb as does lead man Robert Williams here? Hughes finally sold Harlow to MGM, studied merchandising at last applied, late, but not too late. If you watch their first starring vehicle, Red-Headed Woman, from her character’s point-of-view, it is a pre-code sex romp worthy of outlaw reputation, but through Chester Morris’ beleaguered eyes, the thing plays like horror visited upon any married man who strays
. Writer Anita Loos must have felt they had it coming, as hapless males sure bear brunt of Harlow’s malevolent gold-digging here.

The suicide of second husband Paul Bern was either the worst calamity, or best break, Harlow ever got, depending on personal/professional viewpoint. Marrying this guy, even for career boosting promised, was adjudged lunacy by those who knew both parties, Bern a still water running uneasily deep, which got murky when a till-then hidden common-law wife emerged. The husband's seemingly non-existent libido made mystifying the fact he had married reigning sex goddess that was Harlow. Clear enough what she expected of him, but what in deuce did he want with her? The ultimate trophy bride, perhaps, but Bern made no move to consummate the union, and insider talk got rampant. David Stenn’s definitive biography says the former "wife" crashed gates one night and confronted the couple. Scandal to result left Bern no alternative but to press gun to temple and fire, Harlow said by some to have been downstairs. A note left behind fit nicely with the Byzantine cover story Metro publicists cooked during hours ruminating over the bloody corpse prior to alerting police. Jean was packaged as unknowing siren for whom this impotent parody of manhood crashed upon rocks over a terrible wrong he had done her (the cryptic note ignited public imagination by referring to a previous night's events as only a comedy). Anxious days followed, but Harlow’s public stood fast, her standing actually enhanced in the aftermath. A precode peak was achieved with soon completed Red Dust, one of a handful of titles best able to convey to modern audiences what fuss among Forbidden Hollywood devotees is all about.

Harlow’s ascendancy to stardom was firmly acknowledged by the Bombshell title casting and her character's identification as biggest name on the fictional Monarch lot. It took a player with real stature to be assigned a plum like this --- Harlow had indeed arrived. A leaning over the top began to reveal itself here. Bombshell is less funny than frantic, and though Harlow’s effective at the lower registers, she is too often drawn into rat-a-tat competition with seasoned co-stars Lee Tracy and Pat O’ Brien. When it comes to accelerated dialogue, she is not in their league. I hadn't mentioned the dominating hell-spawn of a mother that bled Jean white as her fabled hair. Mama Jean was universally despised among Harlow husbands, both actual and intended. Several marriages went on the shoals as a direct result of Mom's meddling. Maniacally possessive, she was herself possessed by a gigolo scoundrel who curried favor with gangland overlords and introduced Jean into bad company. In this, the daughter’s judgment was no less impaired than the mother’s, as witness a Harlow romance of some duration with one Abner Zwillman, a mob confederate of notorious "Bugsy" Siegel. Prizefighter Max Baer was another conquest. His wife was all set to name Jean as co-respondent in her divorce action, until Metro got busy and arranged for Jean to propose marriage to a shocked and delighted Harold Rosson, her favorite studio cameraman. Hal must have thought he’d fallen into a field of four-leaf clovers, but their marriage lasted not even a year. Pretty cynical arrangement, and it would appear she was, at least on this occasion, less a passive victim than a willing participant in studio machinations. Drat such nuance when we’re casting our rose-tinted romances of celluloid, but Harlow, like anyone in the business, did what it took to remain on top. She’d not be half so interesting otherwise. Whatever the compromises, Harlow did not have coming what fate dealt within a few short years. Of exits any star took, hers had to be one of the roughest.

Photo Captions

Jean Harlow with Laurel and Hardy in Double Whoopee
With Clara Bow and Jean Arthur in The Saturday Night Kid
In the Two-Color Technicolor sequence from Hell's Angels
With Edward Woods and James Cagney in The Public Enemy
With Warren Hymer and Spencer Tracy in Goldie
Color-Tinted Portrait Courtesy Tom Maroudas of Dream Pin-Ups
With Anita Loos on the set of Red-Headed Woman
With husband Paul Bern
Lobby Card from Platinum Blonde
MGM Publicity Photo
With Lee Tracy in Bombshell


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the Harlow glamour can ' t wait for part two.

7:35 AM  
Blogger J.C. Loophole said...

Wonderful as usual. I enjoy Glamour starters with my monday breakfast. Gee- and my dad used to read the paper during cold cereal. The laptops a little unwieldy....
I think Harlow might have found long sought after happiness with William Powell. Although in love, things got in the way (Powell's reluctance to marriage after his divorce from Carole Lombard, Louis Mayer and perhaps her mother) Her death, at a time of hope and happiness for them, really took a toll on Powell.
You know, I just thought this might be covered in a part II. I hope there is a part II tomorrow and I didn't jump the gun. Sorry if I did!

10:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Count me in as an admirer of Harlow in Capra's PLATINUM BLONDE. Much in this bright comedy remains fresh today; the quirky performances by the three principals are awfully appealing.

10:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks a lot!!! That's all I cna say.

4:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If I'm not mistaken, I think the gal getting ready to hit Jean in the head with the bottle is Red-Headed Woman author, Anita Loos.

6:32 PM  

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