Her entire Hollywood career spanned less than a decade, from a memorable (and unbilled) walk-on in a 1928 Laurel and Hardy silent film to her death in 1937 when she was just 26, and yet Jean Harlow remains one of the movies' most recognizable icons.
Drive down the refurbished Hollywood Boulevard, and her visage gazes down on you from the side wall of the Chinese Theater. Search for her name on eBay, and you'll get about 200 hits - including still photos that sell for upward of $300. When the American Film Institute released its list of 25 screen goddesses, she came in at No. 22 - and many complained she had been severely shortchanged.
This month on cable's Turner Classic Movies, Tuesday evenings are being dedicated to Jean Harlow; 17 of her films are being shown, along with the 1993 documentary, "Harlow: The Blonde Bombshell," narrated by Sharon Stone (starting at 8 tonight).
The reasons behind her continued popularity shouldn't be hard to figure out. She was uniquely and undeniably beautiful, with a playfully brash sexiness unlike anything 1930s audiences had ever seen. She was a star when Hollywood's star-making machinery was running full-tilt, keeping her name constantly in lights, her reputation constantly on the up (even if a taint of scandal was allowed to peek through on occasion) and her face on magazine covers everywhere. And like so many other screen legends, she died far too young, of kidney failure at a time before transplants were possible.
She also was a surprisingly fine actress - surprising, that is, to those who could never get past that luminous face. Although her early work suggests more of a cardboard stand-up than flesh and blood, she worked hard to improve. Her success is a classic example of why the old studio system worked as well as it did; MGM, where she spent most of her career, afforded her plenty of room to grow, provided her with the finest teachers and put her in enough movies that, by the time of her death, she was both an accomplished light comedian and a smoldering screen presence whose heat didn't depend on looks alone. She had attitude, too.
To watch Harlow on screen is to be reminded not only of how talented she was and how much of a loss the movies suffered when she died, but also how much fun Hollywood was in the early '30s, when the major studios were still struggling to find their way, when the Production Code had not yet forced an arbitrary morality on cinema, and when a free-spirited girl from Missouri taught audiences that sass was where it's at. Harlean Carpenter was born March 3, 1911, in Kansas City, Mo., the only daughter of a dentist and his wife. The mother, in fact, was the real Jean Harlow, and it was largely because of her that young Harlean later carved out a career in Hollywood. Mama Jean (as she was called after Harlean decided to use her mother's maiden name professionally) was a classic stage mother.
She pushed her beautiful daughter hard, and when young Jean (whom mom always referred to as the Baby) ended up in Los Angeles after marrying at age 16, Mama Jean quickly moved west to be with - and continue living through - her daughter. By this time, the Carpenters had divorced, and Mama Jean had married Marino Bello, a shady character purported to be descended from royalty, who spent his time avoiding work and milking the Harlow name and fortune.
But that fortune was still years away. In 1927, Jean Harlow was just another pretty starlet looking for a job - albeit one whose strikingly platinum hair (augmented by various chemicals) assured she's get noticed. Besides "Double Whoopee," in which Jean unknowingly gets her skirt caught in a car door (with predictably racy results), she also filled in the backgrounds of such films as Charlie Chaplin's "City Lights"; "Close Harmony" with Charles "Buddy" Rogers and "Love Parade" with Maurice Chevalier. In 1929, her name appeared on-screen for the first time; she was 11th-billed in a Clara Bow film entitled "The Saturday Night Kid."
Little did Bow suspect she was sharing the bill with the woman who would succeed her as Hollywood's reigning sex goddess.
Harlow's big break came when Howard Hughes chose her for the female lead in his 1930 film, "Hell's Angels." The young actress looks lost in the film, but audiences didn't mind. A slinky, backless gown that clung to every curve made her a hit - as did one of her more memorable lines, "Would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?"
Other memorable parts followed opposite James Cagney in 1931's "The Public Enemy" and Loretta Young in 1931's "Platinum Blonde," but it wasn't until Hughes sold her contract to MGM for $30,000 in March 1932 that Harlow's career started deserving the attention it was receiving.
She flourished at MGM, where she built a reputation as the studio's bad girl - a designation that never sat well with the moralistic Louis B. Mayer, but hey, her films brought in money. Some of that reputation was honestly earned; she married three times by age 24, and her second husband, producer Paul Bern, committed suicide under mysterious circumstances.
But when it comes to celluloid, two films from 1932, "Red Dust" and "Red Headed Woman," both showcase that reputation and begin to signal her arrival as an actress of account.
In "Red Dust," she plays the archetypal prostitute with the heart of gold, and is the brassy, conniving third of a love triangle also involving Clark Gable and Mary Astor. In the delightful "Red Headed Woman," Harlow is Lil, an unrepentant gold-digger whose guiding principle is, "What's in it for me?" Sharply written and smartly paced by director Jack Conway, the film established Harlow's screen persona, not that she was always happy with it.
Harlow wasn't thrilled with her reputation as a sex bomb, and eventually was able to branch into less outwardly titillating roles. Those include 1933's "Bombshell," which parodied her own money-leeching family, and 1936's "Wife vs. Secretary," in which she portrays a faithful secretary who's only thought to be a home-wrecker.
By the time of her death on June 7, 1937, in the midst of filming the horse-racing film "Saratoga" (a double was used to finish the movie), Harlow had become a favorite of both her fans and co-stars. She made five films with Gable, who always said she was his favorite leading lady, and was famous for inviting fans to her house for a snack.
On the MGM lot, silence was observed during her funeral, as a tribute to an actress who died before audiences realized how much she had to give - a realization that would only come with time.
Some highlights of TCM's monthlong tribute to Jean Harlow:
"Dinner at Eight" (1933), 8 p.m. May 8: Proof that Harlow could be as funny as she was sexy. Her encounter with Marie Dressler, who's astounded that such a gorgeous creature would even think of reading a book, is a classic.
"Bombshell" (1933), 10 p.m. May 8: Harlow does self-parody, flawlessly.
"Red Dust"(1932), 8 p.m. May 15: The first of five pairings between Harlow and Clark Gable, and perhaps the steamiest. Great chemistry between the two leads.
"Red-Headed Woman" (1932), midnight May 29: The film that allowed Harlow to change her hair color but cement her brassy image. An example of pre-code Hollywood at its raciest, there's even a brief glimpse of a bare-breasted Harlow, but you've got to look quick.- Chris Kaltenbach