What strikes me most about Jean Harlow is NOT that she was Beautiful. Of course she was, she was born beautiful, but she also did a lot with what God gave her, too. NOT that she wasn’t successful, she was without question. But her success was a product of her intelligence and her own hard work at something she was told she couldn’t do: act. She knew it was true and she persevered and learned the craft. She was no overnight success story, not by a longshot. She was Harlean Carpenter, a child of the Roaring Twenties from Kansas City. She became a symbol of the gleaming chrome Thirties (What Depression?),. She was young and beaufiful, the epitome of everything good about that valuable American commodity, the”movie star.”
Jean Harlow was indeed all of that, and then some. But to me she was a silver-white canvas, blank except for a rough, incomplete sketch, barely an outline of a person. Who was she? And how can she be remembered without being known, without any information to give me a recognizable human image. She was indeed a form with no substance.
This thought, or something like it, entered my teenage brain after I first became entranced by 1930s movies on the late late shows. In the time before VCRs, DVRs and 300 movie channels, on-demand, PPV, DVD, HD and Blu-ray, you had a choice of whatever was playing between the end of the baseball or hockey game or the late news telecast and, say, 3:00 AM. That’s when I became mesmerized by those black and white images, something we never thought about much then, black and white that is, because nearly all of the movies on the late show were B&W, and so were half the TV’s in America and in our house.
I had read only enough to know that Jean Harlow was some vaguely important, sort of tragic, proto-Marilyn blonde sex symbol. I didn’t know why she was tragic or what made her a sex symbol. I was a huge Marilyn worshipper in my teens. If Marilyn Monroe was a religion, the least I could do was serve as altar boy. OK, so Jean Harlow sounds like a variation on the blonde tragic sex symbol theme too, AND she also belonged to the 30’s and its movies. Where could I find out more about her? That would be a strange question to ask of a modern celebrity. But pop culture in the early 1970’s was almost never on the front page of any newspaper unless a major star died, and even then only a couple paragraphs from a wire service story, and a brief mention at the end of the evening news, and that was it. Buried, then forgotten. The only regular pop culture coverage was in fanzines aimed at teenage and pre-teen girls. It would be hard for someone who is 16 now (as I was then) to comprehend that there weren’t any obvious resources to learn about what was going on in contemporary pop culture, let alone the ancient, dust-covered remains of 1930’s pop culture.
There was the PBS documentary series, hosted and written by Richard Schickel, “The Men who Made the Movies,” in which for the first time ever, I actually saw clips from movies that are ubiquitous now, “classics.” “The Roaring Twenties,” “The They Drive by Night,” and “The Public Enemy,” which is where I first saw Jean Harlow’s Gwen. But everything I learned early on about her was, for quite a while, bits and pieces at libraries and from those old tv broadcasts of her films. Unfortunately for a budding Harlow fan, our local stations only ran old films from Warner Brothers, RKO, and occasionally Columbia. Not MGM where Jean Harlow made her mark. and the bulk of her films. Not until I went to college and was able to see a New York station, which seemed to have the entire MGM catalog (this was way before TCM, AMC, TNT, etc). If I stayed up late, I could catch “Girl From Missouri” or “Dinner at Eight.”.
But after digging up as much as I could find about her, which wasn’t all that much, I could not understand it: how someone as seemingly consequential as she could die in a strange and seemingly unnecessary manner at such an early age. And then be forgotten, or so it seemed to me. Her mother was a Christian Scientist? And they don’t believe in man’s intervention in human affairs like illness and death, matters best left to the Almighty? And people allowed that to happen to their colleague, their friend, their lover?
She was an adult. She was a huge star. At MGM — a dream machine with more stars than there are in heaven. And at the helm, were Mayer and Thalberg. Men who laid out the roadmap for you. All you had to do was follow it — very closely — but if you did, no one could stop you. Even if you drove drunk and killed someone, married a suicide in-the-making, or were in your own private hell of addiction or sexual mis-identity. It could be “taken care of.” Someone within that kind of structured life, with that level of protection? It was incomprehensible to me. Someone like THAT isn’t supposed to die because their mother wouldn’t let them get medical treatment. And that Clark Gable and William Powell, concerned and upset, came to see her and her mother wouldn’t let them in? So they barged in anyway and found her nearly dead, too late for treatment? It couldn’t have happened. Not like that.
So then I read biographies and memoirs of everyone who knew her, hoping they would shed light on her life, who she was, but they only knew her as co-star, contemporary, as a friend from her Hollywood years. And they told the same stories. They seemed as baffled as I was. Hours spent squinting at microfilmed newspaper articles of the time said nothing more than the story I already knew, which to me sounded like a coverup for something sinister — it was, after all, the era of Watergate and Congressional Investigations into assassination conspiracies.
I gradually, grudgingly accepted the fact that the rest of the world wasn’t as interested in a long-dead 1930s movie star as I was, especially one with as short a life and career as Jean Harlow, and so I let her go.
There were a couple of hopeful developments in the next 10 years. One was the restoration and broadcast in the mid-80’s of the Howard Hughes epic, “Hell’s Angels,” which included the 2-strip Technicolor sequence with Harlow. Before then, I had read that there were no known color footage or stills of her in existence. When I watched “Hell’s Angels” and I saw Jean Harlow in color, even the old two-strip color, I nearly passed out delirious and amazed. I don’t think I even noticed her performance, whether it was as bad as some said. I was mesmerized. It was as if I had stumbled upon a color photo of Queen Cleopatra. And then Ted Turner bought MGM or a portion of it, including the complete MGM film library. Harlow, still mysterious as a human being, was at least back in her movies, her black and white glory, on Turner’s new TNT channel (which preceded TCM by 7 or 8 years). Yes, they interrupted the movies with four-minute commercial breaks every 10 minutes, but I wasn’t going to complain at this point; the movies were there, and with my brand new Hi-Fi Stereo VCR that in 1986 cost more than a well-equipped home theater system today, I recorded every one that was broadcast, commercials and all.
Then in the fall of 1993, in a Borders Book store, I saw a display rack of books with Jean Harlow’s face and “BOMBSHELL” on the cover. I was supposed to be at work, but I made sure I didn’t leave that store until I got a copy. And the long wait for Harlow was over. Finally. Someone had written a real biography about her. Someone actually interviewed not just other stars or film industry people, but medical professionals (and had access to her medical records), as well as people who knew her in childhood. The middle part of her life, her film career, I had come to know fairly well. It was the beginning and the ending that I finally learned from David Stenn’s Bombshell.
I paid for my book, thanked God for creating David Stenn, then got my ass to work. I read the book in maybe three sittings, at most. Thank you again, David, and Jackie O up there for editing. She saved Grand Central and Jean Harlow — not too shabby — if those were the only things she accomplished in life, it would have been enough to merit entrance to heaven.
OK, now I’ll shut up and just post a few of my sparse collection of Jean Harlow photos, and some screen cap sequences from Red Headed Woman. I know it might be cooler to post video, but number one, I don’t know how yet, and number two, there is something almost primal about excerpting individual frames in sequence and just letting them hit you in the face without motion, in complete stillness, where silent image trumps sound:
Some observers credit Red-Headed Woman with being the tipping point at which the Hollywood film factories would be pulled back from producing such indecent and amoral product. Louis B.Mayer and Irving Thalberg, embarrassed at the reactions to this film, decided MGM would play a leading role among studios to show their and the film industry’s willingness to work within a new production code. It came in 1934.
Harlow likely owed the survival and remainder of her career to them after this film (and the Paul Bern marriage/suicide). Actresses who played similar roles at other studios, Dorothy Mackaill being the obvious example, saw their film careers wither and die with the new Code. Harlow still had a good but tragically short career playing good girls who only pretended they were bad. Harlow’s Red is in a sense, a milestone in Hollywood industrial film making, and remains somewhat shocking even today, though primarily because we don’t expect characters and stories like this from our “classic” movies of the era.