At the 3rd Academy Awards, MGM's tremendously successful prison drama The Big House (1930) earned writer Frances Marion an Academy Award for Best Writing. Hoping she would be inspired to repeat that accomplishment, Irving Thalberg, head of production at Metro, sent Marion to Chicago, Illinois to research story ideas. She found one while flicking through the pages of The Saturday Evening Post, where she read an article revealing that, in a city where people distrusted the police, a small group of leading citizens met in secret to arrange their own justice for criminals. Thalberg was pleased with the leading roles Marion wrote for Wallace Beery and Lewis Stone, but he asked if she could also fill out one of the minor leads for Clark Gable, a tall, dark and handsome 30-year-old actor whom MGM had recently signed. At the same time, producer Paul Bern convinced Thalberg to give the female lead to Jean Harlow, a 20-year-old "platinum blonde" who had just created a worldwide sensation with her appearance in Howard Hughes's World War I blockbuster Hell's Angels (1930). The Secret Six (1931), as the project was entitled, was the first of six successful films to pair Clark Gable and Jean Harlow.
|As Anne and Carl in The Secret Six|
By all accounts, Harlow was "sweet, passive, and totally uninhibited, seemingly unconscious of the effect her stunning looks had on all around her." The cast and crew working on The Secret Six adored Harlow, but Beery took an instant dislike to her, as he did to almost anyone with the potential to steal a scene from him. He criticized her constantly in front of everyone on the set, treating her like the amateur she in truth still was. Jean turned to Gable for reassurance, but he was also a newcomer and could not provide much consolation. "Neither of us knew much about the business," Gable later recalled. "At the end of every scene she would ask me, 'How'm I doing?' And I would ask her the same." Although initially they were both shy, Jean and Clark eventually became close friends during filming, a bond that lasted for the rest of her life.
The following year, after MGM purchased Harlow's contract from Hughes's Caddo Company, they were cast in Victor Fleming's risqué romantic drama Red Dust (1932). In this adaptation of Wilson Collison's 1928 play of the same name, Harlow played Vantine, a wise-cracking prostitute on the run from the Saigon police, while Gable appeared as Dennis Carson, a rugged rubber plantation manager in French Indochina, who offers Vantine shelter until the next boat to civilization. Although he is initially indifferent to her charms, a mutual attraction eventually develops between them, but their romance is complicated with the arrival of Barbara Willis (Mary Astor), the classy, ladylike wife of the plantation's new surveyor, Gary Willis (Gene Raymond).
|As Dennis and Vantine in Red Dust|
While Jean and Clark had not struck any sparks in The Secret Six, they "burned up celluloid" in Red Dust. Like Norma Shearer, his co-star in A Free Soul (1931), Harlow preferred the "non-bra look" under her slinky gowns, but she went one step farther by rubbing ice over her nipples before stepping in front of the cameras. Although he had contested Shearer's warbrobe, Gable voiced no objections regarding Harlow's fashion decisions. Their sexual chemistry on-screen was so intense that everyone assumed they were involved in real life. Astor later recalled that their behavior together was very physical, that they "seemed to be wresting all the time. He was holding on to her or Jean or hanging on to Clark, pulling, tugging or romping, always touching each other." However, Clarence Sinclair Bull, MGM's renowned still photographer, observed that "They'd kid around and wrestle until I'd say 'lets heat up the negative.' And they burned it clear through. I've never seen two actors make love so convincingly without being in love."
The relationship between Jean and Clark was never anything other than platonic. Both the only children in the Midwest families, each was the sibling the other never had; he always referred to her as his "kid sister" and nicknamed her "sis." With neither of them very convinced of their acting skills at this stage in their careers, they figured that kidding around and playing pranks on each other could help them forget their insecurities and boost their confidence. Although Harlow gained recognition as a woman of "blazing sexuality," she, like Gable, had become tired of being treated as a sexual object. He treated her like a human being and his attitude towards her was always protective.
|On the set of Hold Your Man|
After Red Dust exploded at the box-office, MGM immediately conceived a follow-up vehicle to build up on Gable and Harlow's electrifying chemistry. Directed by Sam Wood from a script by Anita Loos, Hold Your Man (1933) featured Gable as Eddie Hall, a small-time con man who barges into the apartment belonging to Ruby Adams (Harlow), a seasoned manipulator of men, while running away from the police. They are immeditaly attracted to each other and soon become lovers, but when Eddie accidentally kills a drunk who was grabbing Ruby, he runs away and she ends up in reform school.
Both Gable and Harlow had a happy time shooting Hold Your Man, creating a playroom-like atmosphere on the set. Harlow would bring her Victrola out of her dressing room, as she usually did on a set, and played jazz records. In addition, she bought a giant jigsaw puzzle, which she set up in a corner, and she and Gable worked on it between takes, much to the enjoyment of the crew, who either helped or kept stealing pieces. They also amused themselves by making fun of each and playing pranks on whoever would happen to be passing by. In her article for a 1933 issue of Photoplay magazine, Loos described a typical exchange of "hot shot" between the two.
One morning, when Jean was late in coming to set, Clark genuinely worried that she might be sick. He said to Loos how much he admired his co-star. When he glimpsed Jean "tiptoeing towards us [...] forefinger to her lips," Clark showed no indication that he was aware of her presence and continued the conversation in a "louder tone," slandering her name. At that point, Jean confronted her "traducer" and said, "My pal!" Feigning suprise, Clark jumped to his feet: "Well, well, how's my little chromium blonde this morning? I was worried about you being late." "You big Ohio hillbilly!" Jean responded. "I heard what you said being my back!" "Well, did you ever hear that old crack about eavesdroppers never hearing any good of themselves?" Clark asked. According to Loos, "The he-man of the films dodged just in time to miss Jean's beach slipper as he fled."
|In a publicity still for China Seas|
Two years after the release of Hold Your Man, they were paired in Tay Garnett's China Seas (1935), based on Crosbie Garstin's 1930 novel of the same name. In this blend of romantic melodrama and sea-faring adventure, which saw them reunited with Wallace Beery, Harlow once again played a lady of dubious reputation, Dolly Portland, nicknamed "China Doll", who is madly in love with a hard-bitten ship captain named Alan Gaskell (Gable). When Dolly founds out that Gaskell has rejected her in favor of a sophisticated socialite, Sybil Barclay (Rosalind Russell), she helps the villainous Jamesy McArdle (Beery) in his plot to seize the ship.
As usual, Jean and Clark managed to turn work into play while filming China Seas. Once again, he was her accomplice in one of her favorite pastimes: "puncturing stuffiness." The target this time was the abrasive Wallace Beery, whom they both loathed ever since working together in The Secret Six. During Beery's on-the-set birthday party, Harlow and Gable were the leaders in a prank that saw him presented with a fully decorated wooden cake, which was appreciated not one bit. To apologize, they asked the prop department to make a cotton-wool cake. Needless to say, Beery was not amused.
Their fifth screen pairing was Wife vs. Secretary (1936), based on novel by Faith Baldwin called Office Wife. Directed by Clarence Brown, the film concerns the life of magazine publisher Van Stanhope (Gable), whose jealous wife, Linda (Myrna Loy), is led to believe by her mother-in-law (May Robson) that he is having an affair with his beautiful personal assistant, Helen "Whitey" Wilson (Harlow). Van is not having any affair, but her suspicious nearly destroy their marriage until Whitey confronts Linda personally and makes her realize how close she is to losing everything.
|With Loy in a publicity still for Wife vs. Secretary|
The Wife vs. Secretary set was a happy one. Clark was in the unique position of working with two women who were his close friends, but with whom he had no romantic ties. Harlow and Loy were quite good friends as well, despite having met only a short time before when Jean had accompanied her lover William Powell while he and Myrna appeared on the Louella Parsons radio show. Both Midwesterners, the two women discovered they had much in common, including their sense of humor, and Harlow was thrilled to be working with Loy at last. With Powell and Carole Lombard, Gable's future wife, dropping by to visit between scenes, the production of Wife vs. Secretary was probably the best time Gable and Harlow ever had on any set.
Gable and Harlow were scheduled to start shooting their sixth picture together, Jack Conway's Saratoga (1937), in March 1937. Written by Anita Loos, this horse-racing drama told the story of Carol Clayton (Harlow), the daughter of an incorrigible gambler (Jonathan Hale) who loses the family's lucrative horse farm to his good friend and bookie, Duke Bradley (Gable). When Carol tries to win money on the racetrack to buy the house back, she meets Duke and the sexual tension between the two quickly develops into a mutual attraction.
|As Carol and Duke in Saratoga|
Production on Saratoga was delayed, however, when Jean 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). Clark 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.
Gable was shaken by Harlow's sudden death and was outraged, as were her fans, to learn that MGM wanted to reshoot Saratoga with a different actress. Harlow's unfinished scenes were then filmed using body and voice doubles and fans, eager for a last glimpse of the fallen young star, flocked to see Saratoga, when it was quickly completed and rushed into release. Premiering not quite seven weeks after her death, the film the second highest grossing picture of 1937 and the biggest moneymaker of Harlow's career. Only a few minutes before Jean collapsed while doing a scene in which her character had a fever, the script required Clark to bend over and say, "Hey, you've got a fever. You all right? You had me scared there for a minute." If only he knew.
Watch Darla's beautiful tribute to Clark Gable & Jean Harlow:
Clark Gable: Biography, Filmography, Bibliography by Chrystopher J. Spicer (2002) | Myrna Loy: The Only Good Girl in Hollywood by Emily W. Leider (2011) | Paul Bern: The Life and Famous Death of the MGM Director and Husband of Harlow by E. J. Fleming (2009) | Platinum Girl: The Life and Legends of Jean Harlow by Eve Golden (1991) | Whom the Gods Love Die Young: A Modern Medical Perspective on Illnesses that Caused the Early Death of Famous People by Roy Pitkin (2008) | Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood by Cari Beauchamp (1998) | "Behind the Scenes with Jean and Clark" by Anita Loos (1933) | The Secret Six at TCMDb