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Monday, April 21, 2014

Precode Comes On Loud

Jean Harlow Besieged in Bombshell (1933)

Adjust your ears first to the sound level, as it's a din throughout. Was director Victor Fleming deaf to such overreaching noise? Bombshell was to Hollywood what The Front Page was for newspapers, opportunity for insiders to turn laser on industry they toiled in but knew too well truth of. Talent sure had love-hate relationship with this biz judging by acerbic treatment given it here, the picture racket being just that and nothing more. Anybody buying into glamour of movies would henceforth need their head examined. Metro was surprisingly permissive for letting their setup be so lacerated. Were fan mag readers put wise by Bombshell, or were they already hep to corrosive phoniness of H'wood? For old pic buffs, Bombshell is like being let in the gate, its "Monarch" studio being Metro in all but name. "Lola Burns" as played by Jean Harlow does retakes on Red Dust and MGM stars are referenced throughout. There is everything here but cameos. Bombshell and Buster Keaton's Free and Easy would make ideal tandem touring of the Culver lot as it stood in the early thirties.

Harlow is much, as in too much, a case as well with Red-Headed Woman she'd (over)done before. Calming influence was needed that wasn't applied, but she wasn't alone of players turned loose at Metro to raise volume rather than laughs. I actually dreaded watching Bombshell again for disappointment I'd had with it before, HD at Warner Instant being the clincher, plus prior adjustment to now known quantity. What registers over the noise is touring Leo-land and going up stairs to dressing dorm of talent, a closest peek at such environs a public had been afforded so far in talkies. We could imagine such digs to be like Harlow's Dinner At Eight boudoir, but reality was rooms simpler and certainly smaller. I'd venture "star" accommodations got little past decent space at a Holiday Inn. Studios, including MGM, kept luxuries before the camera where they'd pay best.

Part of reason I laugh less at Bombshell is my wanting "Lola Burns" shed of parasites taking such gross advantage, a comic situation too close to Harlow's own circumstance for viewing comfort (project begun as take-off on the Clara Bow madhouse). It was noted by Metro staff at the time that Bombshell was miseries of "Baby" writ broad, the actress worse off than put-upon star she played. Read any Harlow bio (David Stenn and Mark Vieira's the outstanding two) and you'll say throughout, Throw The Bums Out!, including worst-of-all Mama Jean, whom many could wish not to have survived childbirth. Part of what commends Harlow's story is the tragic offscreen life, really good films of hers coming down to half-or-so-dozen. Best of Bombshell is Lee Tracy's demon press agent, and watch for Ted Healy as indolent brother to Harlow. Wish Tracy and Ted could have done more as a team in Bombshell, but that might have been like pairing method actors in the 50's, though I would like once to hear Healy say, What are you, a wise guy?, his signature line, to Tracy.


Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson addresses a memorable line in "Bombshell":

Think this is the one with "Your hair. . . I want to run barefoot through it!" I saw in it college; it played pretty well and the "barefoot" line killed on its first deadpan appearance (later, other characters made jokes about it -- not as fun).

Somehow I remember the "barefoot' line popping up elsewhere as a Pepe le Pew type gag. Did it start with this movie or was "Bombshell" parodying somebody else's serious woo-pitching?

6:59 AM  
Blogger Brother Herbert said...

Benny Hill did a TV sketch where he played Nana Mouskouri introducing a song (the joke being that the intro was far longer than the song). The song was about a girl being pursued by different boys and one of them says "Your hair is like corn waving in the breeze -- I want to run barefoot through it!" A reference to BOMBSHELL, perhaps?

12:08 PM  
Blogger michel said...

Hi John
I love adore Bombshell 1933 that Fantastic HQ images of Jean Harlow also I love read and you are super excellent. Thank a millions Truly your Sincerely****

12:49 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Craig Reardon checks in with some thoughts on "Bombshell" (Part One):

I believe "Bombshell" was the earliest...or, one of the earliest...Hollywood glossies I ever saw projected from a near-perfect 35mm film print at one of the burgeoning 'revival / repertory cinemas' (AKA old, worn-out little 'indie' theaters hither and thither in greater L.A.!---with the exception of some, like the elegant in-house theater at the Los Angeles Museum of Art.) MAN, was I impressed. I think I went with the biggest oldies film fan I knew at the time, my dear Mom, Barbara Reardon. I think I said to her, "This looks like 'dailies'!"---something I'd only recently experienced myself in working on my earliest film jobs. But, ha, the dailies I was accustomed to seeing looked pretty ragged, as skills in the areas of cinematography as well as those at the labs (not the high-end labs, I assure you) often made most of us want to cut our throats. The inference was that "Bombshell" was in such glistening good shape that I was constantly hit with the sense that it might've been made yesterday. And, if you pile up a sufficient number of yesterdays, it was! If this was in, what, around 1972 or so that I saw "Bombshell" revived at the Encore (aptly named!) in Hollywood, across from Western Costume (but, no more, as that venerable building that's ever just out of frame in those old pictures which accurately portray the strange convergence of little streets just outside Paramount's main gate on Maraton was torn down in the '80s and replaced by an elegant theater on Paramount's extreme southeast corner), and the movie came out in 1933, that's a gap of 39 years. That's a lot of years, admittedly. BUT, I can now look back and realize that my first film job was in 1976! So, THAT'S 38 years. See what I mean?

9:08 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Part Two of Craig Reardon on "Bombshell":

It becomes a question of whose "yesterdays" we're talkin' about! I really loved it's pell-mell pace and the way everybody yelled their lines, basically because it was an artifice you instantly grasped was a one-time equivalent of 'funny'. This is what's fun about all older movies. You learn a lot about what pop culture of the given day found funny, dramatic, sentimental, thrilling, etc. These emotions and dramatic or entertainment goals are not fixed by any means, but gradually mutate and evolve. Yet we wouldn't be talking about so many older films the way we all do if we could not find anything of value in the earlier notions of entertainment. And what I always enjoyed was that delightful shock of recognition when an older movie would suddenly reveal a spoken phrase or attitude or reference that was startlingly topical or at least current and still fresh. As I remember---and not too well, these years later, as I've seldom seen "Bombshell" since---is that it was a pretty hip piece, in a lot of ways. As a makeup artist myself, I was also amused to see that for whatever reason, and I really do wonder what was the reason, Frank Morgan has a false NOSE in this! This actually could prompt another big sidebar on the wonderful days when a given division or department in a major studio was by inference of these decisions (a rubber nose on Morgan) given sovereignty in their own areas of expertise, even to "dictating" or at least determining what a given character should look like (or, how they should be dressed.) And one simply takes it for granted that the actors, many if not most under contract, HAD to sit down, shut up, and get the makeup the makeup department head(s) had decided was appropriate for the part he or she was playing applied to their puss, with no fuss and no back talk! Ha! LOVE it! Wish I'D lived with those circumstances, versus having good ideas vetoed by know-nothing directors and producers (and not merely in the area of makeup, I might add nastily), or by petulant, vain actors. I'm not talking about all the producers, directors, and actors I ever encountered, far from it. But, you get a sense in the old studio-made films that every element was simply accustomed to deferring to and working with the other elements. I like that, somehow.

9:09 AM  

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