Centennial Tributes: Jean Harlow
By Josh R
When one thinks of Jean Harlow — as anyone with a fondness for sex in cinema is bound to do at some point — the first thing that comes to mind is the hair. It was a phosphorescent blend of silver and ivory unlike any color found in nature, unthinkable as a genetic occurrence and impossible in the absence of strenuous chemical persuasion. Early in her career, it took the form of a soft, scalloped wave, framing her round, dimpled face and giving her an eerie kind of glow; whether photographed in sun or shadow, Harlow always seemed to radiate light. Within a few years, and without losing any of their volume, the waves contracted into a tight knit of flaxen coils and curls; the effect was as elaborate as any advanced feat of neoclassical architecture. Whenever Harlow was in motion — whether slinking, strutting or just plain being batted around by some over-stimulated alpha male — the platinum coif never moved a fraction of an inch, as if stunned into a frozen state of shock by its own radioactive incandescence. It was artificial in every respect, the whimsical figment of an art-deco imagination; on anyone else, the effect would have been entirely implausible. It didn’t look fake on Harlow, because the lady herself was the genuine article. The pre-fabricated image the studios came up with was something she not only used, but owned. Like a glass diamond that shone as brightly as the real thing, she took what seemed artificial — the hard, lacquered visage of a dime-store china doll with a peroxide halo of spun polyurethane — and created an onscreen persona that felt visceral and authentic, generating all kinds of white heat in the process.
Her cinematic alter ego was a hardened Depression-era dame from the wrong side of the tracks, educated in the school of hard knocks. In reality, Harlean Carpenter was born into an upper-middle-class family in Kansas City, and attended finishing school. She married young, but not to some ancient benefactor who could lift her out of poverty and obscurity — rather, to a dashing playboy who, while barely 20, was still heir to a vast fortune, and with whom she seemed genuinely smitten. The marriage failed shortly after the couple settled in fashionable Beverly Hills, but not before Harlean had established herself as a well-regarded socialite. The Jean Harlow of the movies would have set her sights on stardom, and slept her way to the top — Harlean Carpenter was generally well-behaved, preferred reading to bed-hopping, and had no intention of trying to make it in the movies.
The movies found her anyway, sitting in a car outside 20th Century Fox waiting for a girlfriend to emerge from a screen test — one look from a studio talent scout was all it took to get the ball rolling. She was initially hesitant at the prospect of tossing her hat into the celluloid ring, but persistent studio executives, curiosity, and the tug of immortality eventually won out. After a year’s worth of negligible walk-ons, Howard Hughes featured her prominently in Hell’s Angels. She became a star on the strength of that film, much to the chagrin of critics, who had nothing nice (or even civil) to say about her acting ability. Reviewers continued to dog her rather mercilessly through The Public Enemy and Platinum Blonde — never has an icon-to-be been so thoroughly roasted in her formative years. In truth, the critical scorn was not unwarranted. Her early performances were stiff, tentative, and lacking a sense of purpose. It’s possible that, having become a star as if almost by accident, and with so little design on her part, she didn’t quite trust her own luck. Lack of confidence was certainly a problem, but of even greater concern to Hughes and her handlers was the seeming lack of conviction — Harlean Carpenter hadn’t fully bought into the idea of ‘Jean Harlow’ yet.
Like so many stars who came before and after her, Jean Harlow — the real one, as opposed to the wan imitation staring listlessly past the camera in her early outings — was born at MGM. The studio gave her acting lessons, refined her look as well as sharpened it (she always seemed a bit fuzzy and out-of-focus while under contract to Hughes), and gave her the confidence to emerge from her shell. More importantly, they gave her Clark Gable to play opposite, and the chemistry between them was palpable and electric — his gruff machismo emboldened her, and she developed a real sexual swagger in his presence. Red Dust was a heady mixture of pre-Code suggestiveness and exotic hokum set in the wilds of Indonesia, and a rip-roaring success. Harlow’s hooker on the lam was introduced posing coyly in an outdoor bathing stall, with just enough of her assets on display to convince many filmgoers that she had actually been nude at the time of shooting. In clothes or out of them, this Jean Harlow was much more spirited than the one audiences had been conditioned to expect — a combustible cocktail of sass and brass, she rolled her hips and flaunted her chassis like a woman who knew what good sex was, flirted as though she meant it, and delivered wisecracks with enough snap to elicit genuine laughs.
The improvement in her delivery owed a lot to the eventual decision not to fight or conceal the nasality of her natural speaking voice; it was only after she’d abandoned the notion of trying to sound like a lady that she truly began to thrive. In Bombshell, she spoofed her own image, complete with a parody of the Red Dust bathing scene. She was brilliant as the truculent trophy wife in Dinner at Eight, swaddled in chiffon and munching bon-bons in bed when not worrying aloud about machines taking the place of every profession (to which Marie Dressler pointedly responded, “My dear, that’s something you need never worry about.”) By the mid-'30s, she’d come fully into her own in the realm of screwball comedy, standing toe-to-toe with MGM’s finest — Spencer Tracy, William Powell and Myrna Loy — and stealing Libeled Lady, an airy soufflé of mistaken identity and marital mix-ups, right out from under their noses.
For as much as she excelled at carnal humor, she could switch gears with surprising dexterity when called upon to do so. She was frequently cast as a prostitute — or at least as the type of shady lady who traded on sex in order to get along in life — but she played these roles without condescension, and without letting the tawdriness of surface appearances obscure her humanity. Mae West was more risqué, and probably a lot ballsier than Harlow in terms of what she got away with, but her winking, leering bawds has less dimension than Harlow’s good-natured vixens; it’s much easier to make a case for West as a film personality than as an actress. Harlow could deliver off-color zingers just as well as Mae, but she wasn’t just vamping for the camera and exulting in the glories of forbidden sex — her women were essentially romantics at heart, no matter how tough they talked, with temperatures which ran both hot and cold. Thus, in China Seas — essentially Red Dust on a ship, again with Gable — there’s a sense of shame and longing behind the strident posturing and snazzy retorts, the bruised feelings of a hooker with a heart of gold who’s been made to feel cheap. Harlow had her limitations — she generally faltered when cast against type, and like most untrained actors, leaned too heavily on favored mannerisms — but she understood the rocky emotional terrain these scarlet women traveled, and how much it cost them to keep up at a pace with the men they’d pinned their hopes on.
Red Dust and China Seas were top-of-the-line vehicles, but not all of her dramatic assignments were in the best of taste, and Harlow took part in more than her fair share of lurid enterprises. Her most controversial film was Red-Headed Woman, a departure from blondness and any pretense of scruple. The tale of a ruthless social climber who’d screw anyone and everyone in order to get ahead, the film gave fits to censors, and was instrumental in establishing the prohibitive codes that would govern standards and practices in Hollywood for the better part of three decades (the film was racy enough that it couldn’t even be shown in the UK for nearly 30 years after Harlow’s death.) There was something slightly exploitative in MGM’s handling of her — she was displayed in ways that were vaguely pornographic. Before the Production Code put the kibosh on such antics, it may have been part of her contract to be attired flimsily enough so that the outlines of her nipples could be clearly visible at all times.
Harlow was not entirely the victim in this scenario; once she’d learned the ropes, she may have become a willing party to her own exploitation. After her second husband committed suicide under rather mysterious circumstances — something to do with having been a bigamist — the studio publicity department attempted a cover-up; uncharacteristically, they botched the thing rather badly, and the story became a tabloid sensation. The scandal threatened to capsize Harlow’s career, until MGM made the decision to capitalize rather crudely on her private sorrows and public disgrace with Reckless, a film which played out almost like an act of penance. Her popularity didn’t suffer one iota; the incident somehow seemed in keeping with the onscreen bad-girl shenanigans that had endeared her to audiences in the first place.
Beyond the scandal, her offscreen life was not always a particularly happy one. She had a string of passionate affairs, but very little success in finding lasting love, and a controlling mother who created all sorts of problems for her, both personally and professionally. She barely made it through the filming of Saratoga, her face and body already visibly ravaged by the renal failure that would claim her life at the age of 26. Her death was greeted with shock in some quarters, and a grim sense of inevitability in others. It was assumed that she had lived hard and fast — it was conveniently forgotten that ‘Jean Harlow’ had been largely an act. Two rather salacious biopics — both released in 1965 and both entitled Harlow — offered scant insight into her life and work, little indication of the qualities that made her star, and still less in the way of actual entertainment value.
Her death served as a reminder that the most intense blazes of light can be very short-lived, if not impossible to sustain; I learned as much during my eighth grade science fair, trying to coax my carbon arc lamp to ignite for more than a few seconds at a time. Harlow never lived to see her 30s, and her period of genuine superstardom lasted just more than five years. The briefest impressions can sometimes be the most enduring, and the one she made has been more or less impossible to shake — 80 years later, her influence can still be seen everywhere. The careers of Marilyn Monroe, Madonna and a host of others would have been impossible without her — she was the original Blonde Bombshell, the one for whom the phrase had been coined, and the one against whom all others have been measured. The legend took shape in no small part as a result of marketing and the manipulation of image, but also as a consequence of her own singularity — which was not something that had been manufactured or imposed upon her by Hollywood, but a quality that came from within. There was always something deliciously paradoxical about the contrast between her look and her voice; pull the string of the china dolly with the soft, curvy figure, and what came out was the harsh, nasal honk of a waitress from The Bronx. She looked as though she were meant to be photographed and strike the poses of a goddess — but she had real energy, both physical and emotional, and brought a crackling intensity to the type of flatly written scenes that needed her wounded, bristling toughness and kittenish sense of mischief in order to work. It is tempting — and intriguing — to consider how her particular charms and attributes, so specific to the pre-Code moviemaking of the 1930s, would have translated to the cinema of the 1940s and beyond. Contemplating her Belle Watling, Phyllis Dietrichson, Barbara Graham, even — dare I think it — her Ma Barker for Roger Corman, confirms the impression of a genuine trailblazer who left the party too early, and might have enlivened future eras of cheap thrills for decades to come.