Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Happy Birthday, Jean Harlow!

The original "Blonde Bombshell" was born Harlean Harlow Carpenter on March 3, 1911 in Kansas City, Missouri. Her parents were Mont Clair Carpenter, a successful dentist from a working-class background, and his wife Jean Poe (née Harlow), the daughter of a wealthy real estate broker with dreams of becoming a movie star.  Nicknamed "Baby," Harlean was afflicted by poor health throughout her childhood; she contracted meningitis at age five and suffered from scarlet fever when she was 15. In September 1922, Jean divorced her husband and moved with her 11-year-old daughter to Hollywood, with hopes of pursuing a career as an actress. While in Los Angeles, Harlean attended the Hollywood School for Girls and met Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Joel McCrea and Louis B. Mayer's daughter Irene, who later became Mrs. David O. Selznick. In 1925, unable to find a single acting job, Jean returned in defeat to Kansas City with her daughter.

Jean Harlow as a teenager
Jean next enrolled Harlean in the Ferry Hall School in Lake Forest, Illinois. Her mother had an ulterior motive for Harlean's attendance there, as it was close to the Chicago home her new boyfriend, Marino Bello, "a dashing Italian with the smooth charm of a gigolo and no visible means of support." In the fall of 1926, during her freshman year in Ferry Hall, Harlean met and fell in love with Charles Freemont McGrew II, a 20-year-old playboy who was about to inherit a large fortune. The two soon began dating and married the following year, when she turned 16. Jean also married Bello soon afterwards, but Harlean was not present at the wedding. Early in 1928, Harlean and her new husband moved back to California, where be bought a mansion in Beverly Hills. Her mother quickly followed with Bello.

The life of the idle rich desperately bored Harlean and she set out to look for something to do with her time. One day, she offered to drive her friend and aspiring actress Rosalie Roy to Fox Studios for an appointment. While waiting for Roy, Harlean was reportedly approached by Fox executives to do a screen test, but told them that she was not interested. After Roy bet her $250 that she did not have the nerve to go for an audition, Harlean went to Central Casting, a company that specialized in the casting of extras, body doubles and stand-ins, and registered under her mother's maiden name, Jean Harlow. Almost at once, she was offered extra work, but rejected every job. It was her mother, still dazzled by her own former dreams of stardom, that pushed her "Baby" into the movies.

With Laurel and Hardy in Double Whoopee
Harlow's first job in the film industry was as an unbilled extra in the silent drama Honor Bound (1928), which led to other small parts in feature films, such as the comedy This Thing Called Love (1929) and the musical The Love Parade (1929), one of the Best Picture nominees at the 3rd Academy Awards. In December 1928, Harlow signed a five-year contract with Hal Roach Studios, best known for producing Laurel and Hardy's film comedy series, and was given a co-starring role in the duo's silent short Double Whoopee (1929). Shortly after her divorce from McGrew, she landed her first speaking role in the romantic comedy The Saturday Night Kid (1929), starring Clara Bow and Jean Arthur.

While working at Hal Roach Studio, Harlow was spotted by theatrical agent Arthur Landau, who was hypnotized by her "high firm breasts" and her "astonishingly blonde hair, unnaturally lights and brushed back from her high forehead." Convinced that he had discovered "a product of simmering sexuality," Landau arranged for Harlow to have a screen test with Howard Hughes, an eccentric aviation and film tycoon. At the time, Hughes was looking for an actress to replace Greta Nissen as the leading lady in his World War I aviation epic Hell's Angels (1930). After Hughes decided to re-shoot the film as a sound picture, Nissen's thick Norwegian had been deemed undesirable for her character, a seductive English girl wooed by two brothers (Ben Lyon and James Hall).

Jean as Helen in Hell's Angels
Harlow's screen test with Hughes was a disaster. "In my opinion, she's nix," he told Landau after seeing the footage. Never one to take no for an answer, Landau argued with Hughes, raving about her hair, her acting ability, her sensuality. He said that Jean was the perfect combination of "good kid and tramp" to make the role a success. Perhaps sensing the appeal of Landau's argument, Hughes cast Harlow in Hell's Angels and even signed her to a long-term contract with his production company, Caddo. To showcase his young starlet to full advantage, Hughes dressed Harlow in gowns with highly revealing necklines and shot the film's party scene using the two-strip Technicolor process, the only color footage of her career. After a spectacular premiere in May 1930 at Grauman's Chinese Theater, where a massive crowd of 50,000 people swarmed around Hollywood Boulevard to catch a glimpse of the stars, Hell's Angels became a unprecedented sensation and catapulted Jean Harlow to international stardom.

To cash in on her overnight success, Hughes proceeded to loan Harlow out to other studios for lead roles, notably to Warners Bros. for William A. Wellman's crime drama The Public Enemy (1931), starring James Cagney. She was also loaned to Columbia Pictures, where she appeared opposite Loretta Young and Robert Williams in Frank Capra's Platinum Blonde (1931), titled that way to capitalize on her peculiar hair color. Although both films were successful, reviews for her acting were uniformly negative. Luckily, the public embraced Harlow and many female fans began dyeing their hair to match hers. Apparently, to be a platinum blonde required several hours of work each week with washes consisting of peroxide, ammonia, chlorine bleach and commercial laundry soaps. This regimen damaged Harlow's naturally ash-blonde hair, leaving it brittle and difficult to shape. She had to apply oils and moisturizers and pin-curl or finger-wave her hair nearly every night, as well as take extra precautions to avoid sun exposure.

With Ford in The Beast of the City
Meanwhile, Paul Bern, one of the most respected producers at MGM, took an interest in Harlow. He had already helped to start the careers of Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford and persuaded studio chief Louis B. Mayer to give Harlow a part in the gangster film The Beast of the City (1932), co-starring Walter Huston and Wallace Ford. When filming ended, she went on a nationwide personal appearance tour that solidified her star status. By now romantically involved with Harlow, Bern spoke to Mayer about buying out her contract from Hughes and signing her to MGM, but the mogul declined, unimpressed with her "sultry seductress" screen persona. Bern then began urging Irving Thalberg, head of production at Metro, to sign Harlow, noting her popularity and established image. After initial reluctance, Thalberg agreed and, on March 2, 1932, her 21st birthday, Harlow received the news that MGM had purchased her contract from Hughes for $60,000. She officially joined the studio on April 10.

At MGM, Harlow was subject to a "star treatment" by the studio's wardrobe and make-up department, who helped create a more stylish image for her. Her first film assignment as an MGM contract player was Jack Conway's Red-Headed Woman (1932), one of few pictures in which she did not appear with her signature platinum blonde hair; she wore a red wig for the role. At first, Harlow hated the script and worried that people would confuse her with her character, a small-town secretary who uses sex to advance her social position. It was Bern who convinced her to take the part and give it a comedic touch, sensing that Harlow had a unique gift to make sex funny. Despite the controversies, the film was a success and Harlow conquered audiences and critics alike.

Jean Harlow and Paul Bern in 1932
During this period, Harlow and Bern grew closer and he often escorted her to parties and premieres, but no one suspected that they might be involved romantically. On July 2, 1932, a week after the premiere of Red-Headed Woman, they were married in a simple, intimate ceremony in Hollywood. Guests included Harlow's mother and stepfather, Thalberg and his wife Norma Shearer, Arthur Landau, and John Gilbert, Bern's best man. Twice her age, Bern seemed to be no more than a father figure in Harlow's life. Some questioned his sexual orientation and nearly everyone that attended the wedding would later agree that the marriage was never consumated.

Nine weeks after the wedding, while Harlow was in the midst of shooting Red Dust (1932), her second of five pairings with Clark Gable, Bern was found dead in their home, fatally wounded by a gunshot to the head. The sad affair was quickly transformed into a scandal that "dwarfed even Hollywood's standards." A contemporary coroner's inquest produced wild and lurid suggestions that Bern was homosexual; that he was obsessed with obscure sexual practices; that he was impotent; and even that Harlow had killed or arranged his murder. In spite of the intensive study at the time and extensive especulation over the succeeding decades, there seems to be no reliable answers regarding Bern's death. However, his biographer, E. J. Fleming, claims that Bern was in fact murdered by his former common-law wife, Dorothy Millette, and the crime scene rearranged by MGM executives to make it appear as though he had killed himself.

As Lola Burns in Bombshell
Despite her grief, Harlow returned to the set of Red Dust a few days after Bern's funeral and managed to finish the film. Because she had stayed quiet and dignified throughout the ordeal, she earned the respect of the audiences and became an even bigger star after the scandal. Red Dust was a smash hit and Harlow finally proved that she could act.

By 1933, Jean Harlow was at the height of her career. A successful third collaboration with Gable, the romantic drama Hold Your Man (1933), was followed by the even more successful Dinner at Eight (1933), wherein she played the adulterous wife Wallace Beery. But her biggest hit that year was Victor Fleming's Bombshell (1933), one of Hollywood's first screwball comedies, which would forever imortalize her as "The Blonde Bombshell." Though the story is said to satirize Clara Bow's stardom years, Bombshell also slightly mirrors Harlow's own hassles as a star, right to the annoyance of having her family live off her fame.

After Bern's death, Harlow had several affairs, including an especially notable one with prizefighter Max Baer. Although separated from his wife, actress and socialite Dorothy Dunbar, Baer was threatened with divorce proceedings naming Harlow as co-respondent for "alienation of affection," a legal term for adultery. Wanting to avoid another scandal, MGM defused the situation by arranging a marriage between Harlow and cinematographer Harold "Hal" Rosson, who had photographed her in Red-Headed Woman, Red Dust, Hold Your Man and Bombshell. In eerie similarities with Bern, Rosson was an old MGM hand and nearly twice the age of his young bride. The two had always seem to have a good rapport and Harlow even told reporters that "ours is one Hollywood marriage that will last." Less than eight months later, however, they were divorced. Rosson blamed the "greedy, voracious prison keepers," Mother Jean and Marino Bello.

With Powell on the set of Reckless
As studio films were brought under heavy scrutinity following the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code in June 1934, Harlow was forced to change  or at least soften her "floozy" screen image. Her first project under the Code was The Girl From Missouri (1934), the story of a young woman who runs away from home in hopes of finding a millionaire husband, with Franchot Tone and Lionel Barrymore. The film was another success for Harlow, with critics highlighting her vibrant beauty and blossoming natural talent as an actress.

The Girl From Missouri was followed by Reckless (1935), her third collaboration with director Victor Fleming. Co-starring Tone and William Powell, this was a "musical-comedy-melodrama" about an Broadway actress named Mona Leslie, whose husband commits suicide. Harlow initially refused the part, convinced that MGM was trying to capitalize on her own personal tragedy. Determined to proved her skills as a dramatic actress, she eventually yielded to the studio's demands and agreed to do the film. Tasteless as it was, Reckless was a massive success and became Harlow's biggest hit to that date.

Harlow and Powell had been seen publicly together in Hollywood and elsewhere since mid-1934. Powell, 18 years Harlow's senior, was tall and handsome, in contrast to her last two husbands. Some thought he resembled the father from whom she had been separated at a young age. The relationship was probably the most normal of Harlow's amorous affairs and the pair undoubtedly love each other. But there was a hitch. For Harlow, showbusiness was a pastime, not a passion; she longed to quit the film industry, marry and have children. Powell, on the other hand, was reluctant to move forward, arguing that they both had had unpleasant experiences with marriage. Harlow hung on to the relationship, apparently hoping that something would change, but Powell remained adamant.

With Spencer Tracy in a publicity still for Riffraff
Ever since her arrival at MGM in 1932, Harlow had been fighting for the chance to adopt a more natural hair color. "I've gotten over acting with my hair," she announced. In late 1935, with her star power at its height, the studio finally agreed to let her return to her natural ash blonde color. Howard Strickling, head of publicity at MGM, even invented a new word to describe it: "brownette." The first film in which Harlow donned her new look was Riffraff (1936), co-starring Spencer Tracy, Una Merkel and a young Mickey Rooney. Although critics welcomed the picture and Harlow's "natural" look, audiences were somewhat confused by her new hair color and demanded the old Harlow back.

It was during the making of her next two films that Jean Harlow really came into her own. While her role as an innocent secretary wrongly accused of having an affair with her boss in Wife vs. Secretary (1936) allowed her to make a complete transition from bad girl to good girl, Libely Lady (1936) gave her the best of both worlds. Sharing the screen with former co-stars William Powell, Myrna Loy and Spencer Tracy, Harlow returned to the kind of brassy comic roles that had made her a star, but still retained some traits of her new good-girl image, including her "brownette" hair. Libeled Lady was a  financial and critical hit, receiving an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, and made Jean Harlow a bigger star than ever.

With Gable in Saratoga
In the spring of 1937, after starring opposite Robert Taylor in W. S. Van Dyke's comedy Personal Property (1937), Harlow began filming Saratoga (1937), her last of six pairings with Clark Gable. Production on Saratoga was delayed, however, when Harlow began complaining of severe toothache. Her dentist recommended she have all four of her wisdom teeth removed, but the procedure was complicated and she had to be hospitalized for 18 days. When she returned to the set, several of the crew noticed her grey complexion, fatigue and weight gain. Near the end of filming, Harlow collapsed on the set and was escorted home, where Dr. Ernest Fishbaugh diagnosed her with a "several cold" and a "stomach ailment." A few days later, she complained of abdominal pain, vomitted and seemed to become delirious, which led her doctor to believe she was suffering from cholecystitis (inflammation of the gall bladder). Gable went to visit her the next day and found her "bloated to twice her normal size and when he bent forward to kiss her he smelled urine on her breath."

Over the next several days, as it became clear that Jean was not improving, a new doctor was called in to examine her. Reviewed her records, especially the blood chemistry tests done by Fishbaugh, Dr. Leland Chapman discovered that what Jean had was not gall bladder inflammation, but actually chronic progressive disease of the kidneys that had reached the point where her kidney function was "insufficient to maintain life." Chapman immediately administered new medicine, but it was already too late. By this time, Jean's blood was "loaded with accumulating waste products of protein metabolism, mainly urea, and she had a condition known as uremia or uremic poisoning." In the evening of June 6, 1937, Jean was rushed to the hospital, placed in an oxygen tent and given blood transfusions. The next morning, her major organs, the heart and respiratory systems all failed. At 11:37 a.m., following unsuccessful attempts to ventilate her artificially, Jean died at the age of 26.

Initially, Louis B. Mayer suggested discarding all the footage that had been shot with Harlow and remake Saratoga with a different actress. This notion was short-lived, however, when the studio was overwhelmed with fan mail demanding the release of Harlow's final film. In the end, MGM devised a way to finish the film as a tribute to Harlow by using long shots and employing a body and voice double. Released just two months after Harlow's premature death, Saratoga was MGM's second highest grossing picture of 1937 and the biggest moneymaker of Harlow's career. They say that when stars die they burn so bright that they outshine their entire home galaxy. In the case of Jean Harlow, that was most definitely true.


Watch Laura's beautiful Jean Harlow tribute:



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SOURCES:
Howard Hughes: His Life and Madness by Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele (2004) | Paul Bern: The Life and Famous Death of the MGM Director and Husband of Harlow by E. J. Fleming (2009) | Whom the Gods Love Die Young: A Modern Medical Perspective on Illnesses that Caused the Early Death of Famous People by Roy Pitkin (2008) | William Powell: His Life and Films by Roger Bryant () | Harlow: The Blonde Bomshell (1993)

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