Thursday, March 26, 2009

Jean Harlow (1911-1937)

"Men like me because I don't wear a brassiere. Women like me because I don't look like a girl who would steal a husband. At least not for long."

- Jean Harlow

Jean Harlow was the great sex symbol of the 1930's Hollywood, known as "The Blonde Bombshell", "The Platinum Blonde", "Baby" and "The Laughing Vamp". She began her film career playing sex magnets, but later on got more demanding parts when signing contracts with MGM. She is ranked one of the greatest movie stars of all time by the American Film Institute.
She died of uremic poisoning (brought on by acute nephritis) at the age of 26 on June 7, 1937, while filming Saratoga with Clark Gable.

Harlean Carpenter at the age of three.

At the age of six.

Jean Harlow was born Harlean Harlow Carpenter in Kansas City, Missouri March 3, 1911. Her father Mont Clair Carpenter was from a working-class family, and her mother Jean Poe Harlow was the daughter of a wealthy real estate broker. Mother Jean was a strong willed woman that resented the arranged marriage, and would be very unhappy during it.

Harlean was an only child, and the only grandchild in the family, and was therefore called "Baby", a nickname that would stick for the rest of her life. She got full attention from her mother, who escaped her unhappiness by spending all her time and effort on Harlean, and they developed a very close relationship that also would hold throughout her life.
When Harlean started to go to school mother Jean became frustrated to the point that she files for divorce, which was a great deal at that time. The divorce went through 1922, and mother Jean was granted sole custody of her daughter. Harlean would see her father only one more time before her death.

Harlean at the age of 14.

In 1923 mother Jean moved to Hollywood with her daughter, hoping to become an actress. When Hollywood didn't want mother Jean they went back to Kansas City. In 1926 15-year old Harlean attended a school in Lake Forest, Illinois, where a friend introduced her to the 19-year old heir Charles "Chuck" McGrew. They fell in love and married at the end of 1927, much to the aggravation of mother Jean who now lost the control of her daughter.
When Chuck turned 21 and got access to a part of his family fortune, the couple moved to Los Angeled where Harlean could enjoy her days as a wealthy socialite, away from her mother.
It was in Los Angeles where Harlean befriended an aspiring actress named Rosalie Roy. Since Roy didn't have a car she asked Harlean to drive her to the Fox Studios the next day for an appointment she had there. They drove there the next day, and it was there - waiting for her friend in the car - that Harlean was oticed by Fox Executives. The executives approached her, giving her dictated letters to the Central Casting Bureau, even though she told them she wasn't interested. When Harlean told the story to Roy a few days later they made a wager that she was too nervous to go back there to audition. Since Harlean didn't want to loose a bet she went there and signed in - under her mother's name - Jean Harlow.

Jean Harlow in 1929.

Not very interested in films at first, Jean turned down a few job offers. She was then convinced by her mother to begin to accept these parts, and soon Jean was working as an un-billed extra for 7$ a week. This led to more small parts, including one for Laurel and Hardy and one more substantial part in Clara Bow's The Saturday Night Kid (1929).
The uprising of Jean's career ended her marriage in June 1929, and she moved back to her mother and her new husband Marino Bello.

Poster of Hell's Angels (1930), Jean Harlows big break.

Lobby card for Hell's Angels.

It was during the shooting of Weak But Willing (1929), were Jean once more had an uncredited part, where actor James Hall spotted her. He was working with the shooting of Hell's Angels (1930) with director Howard Hughes, who was re-shooting the film from a silent to a talkie. But they needed a new actress, since the Norweigan Greta Nissen who appeared in the silent version wasn't suitable in the talkie due to her accent. Hughes took a look at Jean and hired her for the part immediately.

Film clip: A lovely montage from Hell's Angels, with James Hall, a seductive Jean Harlow and music by Artie Shaw.

Jean Harlow on the premiere of Hell's Angels, at the Grauman's Chinese Theatre, 1930.

In 1931 Jean Harlow gained more success shen starring in the gangster film The Public Enemy opposite James Cagney, Goldie with Spencer Tracy, The Secret Six with Wallace Beery and the Frank Capra film Platinum Blonde with Loretta Young (which Hughes saw that the title was changed from "Gallagher" to "Platinum Blonde" to promote Harlow's image).
The audiences loved Harlow, but the reviews of her on-screen appearances told her that she was awful and ruined every scene she was in. But still the fact remained: Jean Harlow was America's new sex symbol.

Jean Harlow in Platinum Blonde, 1931.

James Cagney and Jean Harlow in The Public Enemy, 1931.

During this time Harlow had met and been romantically involved with the MGM executive, director and screenwriter Paul Bern. When the Jean Harlow-craze had begun around the country he tried to persuade Louis B. Mayer to buy off Harlow from Hughes, but he wouldn't know of it. He said that MGM's leading ladies were just that - ladies. Jean Harlow's silver screen appearance was that of a prostitute, that was nothing for MGM.
But producer legend and MGM production head Irving Thalberg thought otherwise, after having spoken to his friend Bern. On March 3, 1932, Bern could call up Harlow on her 21st birthday and tell her that MGM had bought her contract from Hughes for 30 000$ (IMDb says 60 000$). And it was at MGM that Harlow's career would reach the unforgettable heights.

Jean Harlow and Paul Bern on the day of the announcement of their engagement, 1932.

It was at MGM that Jean Harlow became a great superstar. Not only did she get to show off her great beauty, but also what turned out to be a great talent for comedy. With her appearance in Red-Headed Woman (1932), a typical pre-code film, she made huge success. That same year she was paired up with Clark Gable (one of six times) in John Ford's romantic drama Red Dust (1932). The Harlow-Gable couple was a huge money-maker for MGM. It was during the filming of Red Dust that her husband Paul Bern was found dead at his home. At first Hollywood gossip said that Harlow herself had killed him, but in the end his death was noted as a suicide. Harlow didn't talk much about the tragedy, held her head high and got more popular than ever.
She was later paired up several times with Spencer Tracy and William Powell, and her name was soon used to help the up-coming of new film stars such as Robert Taylor and Franchot Tone.

Scene: Jean Harlow as Lillian "Lil" or "Red" Andrews Legendre in Red-Headed Woman.

Scene: And the short "slap sequence" from the same film. (Pre-code, huh?)

Jean Harlow and Clark Gable.

Jean Harlow and Franchot Tone in The Girl from Missouri (1934).
Spencer Tracy and Jean Harlow in Riffraff (1936).

William Powell and Jean Harlow.

After Bern's death Harlow began an affair with boxer Max Baer, which almost became a scandal. Even though Baer at the time was separated from his wife, actress and socialite Dorothy Dunbar, she threatened with divorce proceedings, naming Harlow as a co-defendant for "alienation of affection" (adultery). Afraid of another scandal after Bern's mysterious death MGM quickly arranged a marriage between Harlow and cinematographer Harold Rosson. Rosson and Harlow were friends and agreed to the plan, quietly divorcing each other seven months later.
At this time, while working together, Harlow and co-actor William Powell fell madly in love with each other. The couple were engaged for two years, but they ended their relationship when they realized that she wanted to have children, and he would not.

Jean Harlow and her third husband Harold Rosson, 1933.

Two more gold-mine films with teaming Gable and Harlow were made, China Seas (1935) with Wallace Beery and Rosalind Russell and Wife vs. Secretary (1936) with Myrna Loy and James Stewart.

Scene: Jean Harlow annoys Clark Gable in Red Dust (1932).

Scene: Jean Harlow's drinking game in China Seas (1935).

Harlow was now one of the greatest female stars in America, and only became greater while other MGM stars' careers started to fade. Many also say that it was thanks to Jean Harlow that MGM didn't fall into bankruptcy during the Depression.

In the spring of 1937 Harlow began the shooting of Saratoga, another film with Clark Gable. That would be her last film. When they had shot ca 90 % of the picture, Harlow collapsed at the set. She was brought to a hospital and was diagnosed with uraemic poisoning. The theory is that her kidneys slowly has started to collapse after the scarlet fever she got ten years earlier at the summer camp. A week later Jean Harlow died, at the age of 26.
The engraving on her crypt says simply "Our Baby". William Powell paid for her final resting place at Forest Lawn Cemetary.

Clark Gable and his future wife Carole Lombard attended Jean Harlow's funeral.

Saratoga was finished with an extra, shooting the rest of the scenes with the back to the camera. Because of Harlow's death the film was a box-office hit.

I will end this post of the first, and only real, platinum blonde bombshell Jean Harlow with a few colorized pictures I've found. May you rest in peace, Baby.


Elizabeth said...

I think my favorite Jean Harlow movie is "Dinner at Eight". She plays her character very well!

Millie said...

Awww, now, I really sad!

But, Jean was great! One could never realize 'till they see her! There is something about her!

Lolita said...

I must confess that I haven't seen that film yet! But I've seen a scene from it, and I agree - she's adorable.

There are quite a few sad life stories in Hollywood... You're right, there is something special about Jean Harlow that is hard to define. She's so natural, and yet so unbelievable!

Christopher said...

lil' Harleaaan! :o))
She was unreal...the way she "shifted" when she walked! like a big ol' cuddly Polar Bear!:o)..I liked her unusual short haircut she had in her Laurel and Hardey appearence ,"Double Whoopee",similar to that pic of her at 14 years old...

VP81955 said...

Just a clarification...Lombard and Gable were not married at the time of Harlow's funeral. They wouldn't wed until 1939.

Carole and Jean were good friends (both were popular with film crews for their down-to-earth nature), and Lombard was unnerved at how MGM inflated Harlow's funeral into an event. She told Gable that she wanted a simple, unadorned funeral -- not knowing it would come less than half a decade later.

Lolita said...

You're so right, pardon the mistake! It's corrected.
Thanks for the trivia! It's so sad, can't imagine how it must have felt for Gable to have both a dear friend and then the love of his life die within just a few years from each other.