Harlow, Jean

views updated May 23 2018


Nationality: American. Born: Harlean Carpenter in Kansas City, Missouri, 3 March 1911. Education: Attended Hollywood School for Girls. Family: Married 1) Charles Fremont McGrew 1927 (divorced 1929); 2) the producer Paul Bern 1932 (he committed suicide 1932); 3) Harold Rosson 1933 (divorced 1935). Career: Entered films as extra and bit player; 1930—contract with Howard Hughes, and played lead in Hell's Angels; 1932—contract with MGM; 1937—died during filming of Saratoga. Died: Of kidney failure, 7 June 1937.

Films as Actress:


Moran of the Marines (Strayer); Liberty (McCarey—short)


Fugitives (Beaudine); Close Harmony (Cromwell and Sutherland); Double Whoopee (Foster—short); The Unkissed Man (Roach—short); Bacon Grabbers (Foster—short); This Thing Called Love (Stein); New York Nights (Milestone); The Saturday Night Kid (Sutherland) (as Hazel)


Hell's Angels (Hughes) (as Helen); The Love Parade (Lubitsch)


City Lights (Chaplin) (as extra); The Public Enemy (Enemy of the People) (Wellman) (as Gwen Allen); The Iron Man (Browning) (as Rose); The Secret Six (Hill) (as Anne); Goldie (Stoloff) (title role); Platinum Blonde (Capra) (as Anne); Three Wise Girls (Beaudine) (as Cassie Barnes)


The Beast of the City (Brabin) (as Daisy); Red-Headed Woman (Conway) (as Lil Andrews); Red Dust (Fleming) (as Vantine)


Hold Your Man (Wood) (as Ruby Adams); Dinner at Eight (Cukor) (as Kitty); What the Scotch Started (short); Bombshell (Blonde Bombshell) (Fleming) (as Lola Burns)


The Girl from Missouri (100 Pure) (Conway) (as Eadie)


Reckless (Fleming) (as Mona Leslie); China Seas (Garnett) (as China Doll); Riffraff (Ruben) (as Hattie)


Wife vs. Secretary (Brown) (as Whitey Wilson); Suzy (Fitzmaurice) (title role); Libeled Lady (Conway) (as Gladys Benton)


Personal Property (Van Dyke)


On HARLOW: books—

Shulman, Irving, Harlow: An Intimate Biography, New York, 1964.

Conway, Michael, and Mark Ricci, The Films of Jean Harlow, New York, 1965.

Morella, Joe, and Edward Epstein, Gable & Lombard & Powell & Harlow, London, 1971.

Marx, Samuel, and Joyce Vanderveen, Deadly Illusions: Jean Harlow and the Murder of Paul Bern, New York, 1990.

Golden, Eve, Platinum Girl: The Life and Legends of Jean Harlow, New York, 1991.

Stenn, David, Bombshell: The Life and Death of Jean Harlow, New York, 1993.

On HARLOW: articles—

Almira, J., "Jean Harlow," in Lumière du Cinéma (Paris), March 1977.

Mank, G., "Jean Harlow 1911–1937," in Films in Review (New York), December 1978.

Schickel, Richard, "Jean Harlow" in The Movie Star, edited by Elisabeth Weis, New York, 1981.

Johnson, William, "Harlow's Time-Bomb," in Film Comment (New York), May/June 1992.

Hackett, Pat, "Jean Harlow, the Woman Who Made the World Believe Blonds Have More Fun," in Interview, September 1993.

James, Caryn, "A No-Apologies Woman for the 90's: Harlow," in New York Times, 1 October 1993.

Stenn, D., "Jean Harlow: The Star of Dinner at Eight and Bomshell in Beverly Hills," in Architectural Digest (Los Angeles), April 1994.

Harrow, A.S., "From the Mailbag: Harlow's Death: a Doctor's View," in Classic Images (Muscatine), February 1996.

Drohojowska-Philp, Hunter, "Historic Neighborhoods: Whitley Heights," in Architectural Digest (Los Angeles), April 1996.

Reed, George, "Fan Mail," in Movie Advertising Collector, August 1996.

Viviani, Christian & others: "Hollywood années 30," in Positif (Paris), April 1997.

Stars (Mariembourg), no. 29, 1997.

On HARLOW: film—

Hollywood Remembers: Harlow: The Blonde Bombshell, television documentary, 1993.

* * *

Jean Harlow remains one of the more tragic instances of a talented star whose career was cut short by intense personal problems and ill health. Like Marilyn Monroe (in many respects both her psychological and artistic successor), Harlow died prematurely, in her case from kidney failure at the age of 26, after three failed marriages and a bittersweet affair with co-star William Powell.

The scandalous rumors surrounding both Harlow's death (could her Christian Scientist mother have intervened sooner to save her life?) and her second husband Paul Bern's suicide (did he kill himself to be free of his unhinged common-law wife Dorothy Milette?) resurface periodically in well-researched books such as Platinum Girl (1991). Although these regurgitated tragedies keep Harlow's name alive, they do little to shed light on her contradictory screen image of joyous sexuality.

Her entrance into films was an uncertain one, as an extra in such movies as Love Parade and Chaplin's City Lights, and in supporting roles in shorts appearing, for example, with Laurel and Hardy in Double Whoopee. After she secured a part in the 1929 feature film, The Saturday Night Kid, the maverick producer-director Howard Hughes put a nineteen-year-old Harlow under contract when he was converting his silent World War I aviation movie, Hell's Angels, into sound. Hughes, in effect, exploited her and her initial, more notorious image of the sluttish peroxided siren in loan-outs such as Public Enemy.

The next stage in Harlow's career came in 1932 when, parallel with her brief marriage to Paul Bern, MGM took over her contract, and permitted her to extend her image in the direction of satirical comedy. Harlow at last revealed herself to be a good actress with a subtle sense of humor, giving her public at once the glamorous image to which they were accustomed while developing a burlesque "send-up" of platinum blondes and their ways.

In Jack Conway's Red-Headed Woman, Harlow put her own irrepressible spin on the good-time girl image popularized by Clara Bow, the "It" Girl of the 1920s. This film, as well as Victor Fleming's Red Dust, with Harlow seductive and funny opposite Gable, and his saucy screwball farce Blonde Bombshell were made before the censorship code of the Hays office came into force. In the highly entertaining all-star comedy Dinner at Eight, Harlow outshone the veteran players.

In congenial vehicles (Libeled Lady, Girl from Missouri), lovable Harlow registers as a tomboy sidetracked by her own curves. Despite the persona of a boudoir goddess, Harlow seemed ill at ease as a maraboued mantrap in her early talkies. Allowed to reveal a bubbly sense of humor about her own voluptuousness, she hit her stride as a star. And even then, it is not oomph that lands her a dreamboat such as Clark Gable (China Seas) or Robert Taylor (Personal Property) or Spencer Tracy (Riff-Raff), but tenacity. Surprisingly touching in dramatic fare (ripping off Libby Holman's life in Reckless and playing seriocomic con games in Hold Your Man), Harlow displays a defensive vulnerability that illuminates all her memorable performances. The platinum hair, penciled eyebrows, and slinky wardrobe are just female drag Harlow donned as bait; what her co-stars and adoring fans discover is that she is sexiest when she reveals the soft allure under the Max Factor war paint. What gives the Harlow oeuvre a contemporary kick is her self-awareness, the sense that playing this role of shimmering vamp is a hoot for her and that she is forever trick-or-treating us in the costume of a seductress. Harlow was proud of her evident sex appeal, boasting that she never wore a bra even under her most revealing costumes. Her virtue as an actress lay in her innate sense of comedy, seeing through the artificial glamour by means of which she had originally gained her stardom, while at the same time fully appreciating its value.

—Roger Manvell, updated by Robert Pardi