Friday, March 4, 2011


The first thing you should know about Jean Harlow is that she was referred to among her family and friends as "Baby". She did not know her given name—Harlean—until she began school, at age 5.

The crews on the movies she worked on loved her, for her kindness and her lack of pretension. Between scenes, she'd be more likely discovered shooting craps with them than back in her dressing trailer. She had a soft heart, and was known for it; many was the time they'd come to her, with a problem, or for a loan, and she never turned em away.

She never wanted to be an actress. That ambition was all her mother's (as was the name—Jean Harlow). She was discovered by accident, at 17 years old. She drove an actress friend to the Fox Studios. While waiting in the car, studio execs noticed her, offered her work. After relating the incident to her mother, her resistence was worn down, and she was on contract later in 1928. The following year, she was noticed by Howard Hughes, who cast her in his megahit Hell's Angels. She was a sensation, though not because of her acting. In fact, the critics universally agreed that her performance not only in Hell's Angels, but in each of her early pictures, was pretty awful. Variety pointed out the obvious, though, in 1930. "It doesn't matter what degree of talent she possesses—nobody ever starved possessing what she's got."

It was often her mother's persona you'd see on screen. She was always quick to say that she was nothing like the women she portrayed, and her friends back her up. "Jean was always cheerful, full of fun," said Myrna Loy, who was one of her closest friends, "but she also happened to be a sensitive woman with a great deal of self-respect. All that other stuff --that was put on. She just happened to be a good actress who created a lively characterization that exuded sex appeal."

She never wore underwear. And though she slept in the raw, every morning she would crumple up a nightgown, and leave it on her bed. She was embarrassed for her maid to know.

Though she was popular, her pictures were pretty bad, and her acting did not elevate them. Audiences flocked to see them, though, by virtue of her...charisma. It wasn't until 1932, when she was noticed by Irving Thalberg, and her contract was purchased by MGM, that she was given the opportunity and the guidance she needed to become a legend. It was simply a matter of relaxing on-screen. Once she did, audiences could sense her earthiness and her sense of humor—she was goddamn funny, had a natural comic gift—which, if anything, only enhanced the sensuality she projected on-screen. Red Headed Woman and Red Dust were the first two films she made there, both opposite Clark Gable. If you haven't seen her shower scene (in a rain-barrel) in Red Dust, you are film-deprived. "She was 21 in Red Dust," observed contemporary producer David Stenn. "I audition hundreds of actresses every year and I have yet to see one with that kind of poise, that grace. The physicality of Jean Harlow's performances, the comfort she has with her body, you don't see that today because actresses don't learn it."

I love her in those pictures, as well as Dinner at Eight, China Seas, Libelled Lady, and a number of others—but it was Bombshell that really sold it, for me. My words could never do justice to her performance—just thinking of the scene on the staircase, where she tells em all off, I feel a little thrill, the memory of something absolutely unique and extraordinary—and how she was able to be so fucking funny, so fucking vulnerable, and so fucking sexy—simultaneously—I cannot tell you. It's a damn rare feat.

The original Rin Tin Tin and his trainer, Lee Duncan, lived across the street from Harlow. In 1932, he and the German Shepard were fooling around, when the dog—14 years old at the time—was stricken with some kind of illness. Harlow ran across the street to help, and while Duncan was fetching a vet, Rin Tin Tin died, in her arms.

She was quoted as saying: "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."

From childhood, Marilyn Monroe idolized her, patterning herself after her, and later becoming rather spooked at the similarities in their lives. "I kept thinking of her, rolling over the facts of her life in my mind," Marilyn is quoted, in 1957. "(It's) kind of spooky, and sometimes I (think), am I making this happen? But I don't think so. We just seem to have the same spirit or something, I don't know. I keep wondering if I will die young like her, too." It was her dream to portray Harlow, in a bio-pic, and she went so far as to meet with Harlow's mother, a month before she died. It was to be her next project. Interestingly, her last film was The Misfits, with Clark Gable. Harlow's, of course, was Saratoga—with Clark Gable.

"She didn't want to be famous," Gable has been quoted as saying, about Harlow. "She wanted to be happy."

There are many misperceptions about Harlow, but one of the most persistent is that she died because her religious beliefs precluded medical treatment. Another is that she was misdiagnosed by a quack, and died needlessly. In truth, she was receiving constant medical care, and while it's true that her doctor missed the diagnosis, it didn't matter. She died from advanced kidney disease, caused probably by a case of scarlet fever she suffered when she was a child, and there was no treatment in 1937 that could've saved her.

William Powell, her fiance, and Myrna Loy, maybe her closest friend, were filming Double Wedding when Harlow collapsed. Production was interrupted, of course, for many months. After lapsing into coma, Jean Harlow died, June 7, 1937. She was 26.

Her death affected many. MGM writer Harry Ruskin is quoted as saying,”The day Baby died there wasn’t one sound in the commissary for three hours...not one goddamn sound." At her funeral, though her pallbearers included directors (W.S. Van Dyke and Jack Conway), a film producer(Hunt Stromberg), a famous actor (Clark Gable), her business manager (Edward Mannix), the film crews were represented, too, by cameraman Ray June. It is said that William Powell, who paid for the $25,000 tomb (a lot of money, especially then—more that a quarter of a million, in today's dollars), slipped a single white gardenia into her casket, and a note in her hand. For the remainder of his life, he sent her fresh flowers.

The inscription on her grave is simple, and to the point. "Our Baby," it reads.

Jean Harlow, born Harlean Carpenter, was born this day, in 1911. Today is her centenniel. If you do not know her films, please, give them—give her—a chance. If you love movies, as I do, she is indispensible.

The first film clip is of the shower scene I referenced, in Red Dust. Next, a clip from Bombshell, beginning with Harlow's character entertaining women from the orphan home from which she's attempting to adopt a baby. She's trying to maintain a facade of a tranquil domestic life, which her family and her studio publicist take a wrecking ball to, with characteristic self-centered zeal. The scene I told you about, where she goes off on the lot of em, begins about 9 minutes in.


  1. It took me a while to get around to visiting and reading this but I finally did. It's a wonderful piece of writing and reminded me of so many things I had forgotten about Jean Harlow, including her name Baby and the relationship with William Powell. And I'm now determined to track down Bombshell. I've been meaning to get to Red Dust for years. (I've only seen Gable's remake of it, Mogambo.)

    Great post!

  2. Thanks very much, Bill, I appreciate your kind words.

    You can actually watch Bombshell on Youtube, in 10 minute clips. Do watch it, though—Red Dust, too, she steals the damn movie...