Category Archives: Jean Harlow

Bombshell (1933)

bombshellI’ve never seen a Jean Harlow film I didn’t enjoy, but I think Bombshell may very well be my favourite, and that surprises me a bit as I really enjoy the pairing of Harlow-Gable in some of her other major films. Perhaps the film’s success lies partly in the fact that it’s pre-code, and the perfectly timed performances mesh with a sparkling script that matches Harlow’s talents. Bombshell is a thinly disguised homage to Harlow and the cult of celebrity, yet at the same time, Harlow so seems to enjoy taking a sly dig at her own real-life career.

Bombshell begins with images of actress Lola Burns (Jean Harlow) and then clips of Harlow’s real-life films mingle with shots of adoring, fixated fans as they stare at the big screen. Quickly establishing the way in which Burns is seen on the big screen and how she is idolised by her fans, the film then cleverly leads into the way Lola Burns really lives.

The film opens with a very typical day-in-the-life of Lola Burns. It’s morning and she wakes up in her splendid mansion in a bedroom complete with frills, silk and feathers for that despotic harem-brothel look . Even though she’s a wealthy woman and surrounded by servants, Lola’s life is a mess. Both Lola’s drunken brother and her obnoxious gambler father sponge off her while trying to manage her career, and this translates to ensuring she stays in harness, earning the money they spend. To make matters worse, she’s surrounded by out-of-control servants who take advantage of her good natured generosity. Lola’s chaotic life even follows her to the studio, and the fact that everywhere she travels she’s accompanied by her three Old English Sheepdogs doesn’t exactly help matters. If she’s not tripping over dogs, she’s juggling interviews, fans and gossip-hungry reporters. And on top of all this, the studio’s publicist, E.J. “Space” Hanlon (Lee Tracy) exploits every angle of Lola’s personal life in order to keep her on the front page. There is literally nothing that Space wouldn’t sink to in order to get a headline. 

Merging real-life with fiction, Lola is filming Red Dust with Gable while she has a romance with slimy Hugo, the Marquis Di Pisa Di Pisa (Ivan Lebedeff). The Marquis, a notorious gigolo (also called a “fungi,” a “rummage sale Romeo,” and a “glorified barber“) sponges off of vulnerable female Hollywood stars who are impressed with his foreign accent and his title. Of course, to the Marquis, Lola is a perfect target.

The plot follows Lola’s romance with the Marquis, her various whims (such as adopting a baby) and her romance with snotty poet Gifford Middleton (Franchot Tone). Meanwhile Space subverts snd sabotages Lola’s decisions about her life turning everything into a smutty headline for the studio. While the film keeps an even beat and a steady stream of comedy, some of the film’s funniest scenes occur when Lola meets blue-blood Gifford and his family. Tone’s romantic lines are priceless: “Your hair is like a field of silver daisies. I’d like to run barefoot through your hair!” Tone, of course, gained a great deal of notoriety a few years later in 1951 when he was in a fight with actor Tom Neal over the beautiful, self-destructive actress Barbara Payton.

The very lovely, luminous Jean Harlow is marvelous as the blonde Bombshell. She was just 22 when the film was released and tragically died just four years later in 1937. She’s so young in Bombshell and yet she delivers the performance of a confident, seasoned performer, never missing a beat, full of life, and simply perfect for this role.

This precode film includes a few hints at sex. For example, early in the film, Lola wonders what happened to the negligee she just gave to her maid, and the following exchange takes place:

Lola: I didn’t give you that for a negligee. That’s an evening wrap.

Loretta: I know Miss Burns, but the negligee you gave me got all tore up the night before last.

Lola: Your day off is sure brutal on your lingerie.

And in another scene, Lola is planning to adopt a baby but Space jumps to the wrong conclusion and thinks that Lola is about to be an unwed mother. Then horror of horrors, the dialogue leads Space to think that Lola doesn’t know who the father of her baby is. It’s a funny scene and of course the audience is on the joke, but when the Hays Code came into power, this exchange simply wouldn’t have happened.

Anyway, if you want to watch a Harlow film and don’t know where to start, Bombshell is a marvellous film and showcases Harlow at her glittering best. Directed by Victor Fleming.


Filed under Comedy, Jean Harlow

Hold Your Man (1933)

“You know you wouldn’t be a bad-looking dame, if it wasn’t for your face.”

hold your manSet during the depression, the 1933 film Hold Your Man from director Sam Wood begins by focusing on the feet that pass by on a street corner. A wallet lands in the middle of the feet and two men begin to argue about who found it. This scene is the introduction to the film’s rogue with the “crooked smile,” Eddie Hall (Clark Gable).

On the lam from the police, ladies’ man and smooth-talking grifter, Eddie Hall meets wise-cracking, tough-as-nails, good-time-girl Ruby Adams (Jean Harlow). The sparks fly between these two major Hollywood stars as they verbally spar back-and-forth in Ruby’s apartment, and although they both try to come out on top from the exchange, it’s a draw. Eddie’s good looks and charm don’t get him far with this dame, and Ruby makes it clear that she’s not a sap to be taken advantage of. Inside Ruby’s apartment, Eddie catches sight of a photo from one of her male admirers, but then as he walks around, he sees a large collection of photos of men all signed with good wishes. The implication is clear: Ruby has been around. Eddie and Ruby meet once again at the Elite Club. Ruby is there on a date with the aim of getting some money for her pain and suffering. While she’s  obviously bored to tears by her date, Ruby comes to life when Eddie shows up masquerading as an old friend. The film’s best, witty scenes occur early in the film as the two main characters get to know each other.

The film sinks after the second half as the plot morphs into a maudlin tale of redemption. The script, written by Anita Loos, sparkles for the first half, but then the dialogue loses its pep and slides into the ordinary with the result that the film’s great first half was as funny as its second half was disappointing. Ruby’s image of the wise-cracking dame fades rapidly just as it seems she needed her claws the most, and the tale’s conclusion comes wrapped up tightly with a conventional, saccharine-sweet final scene.

Hold Your Man is one of six films made by Gable and Harlow, and it follows on the tail of Red Dust. While the first half of Hold Your Man matches Red Dust for entertainment value, the second half did not. This is not Harlow’s best by any means as she just doesn’t make a very good victim and she’s at her tenacious best when unleashed in a role that’s worthy of her.  Hold Your Man, by the way, is a pre-code film. The Hays code wasn’t enforced until 1934, but even so the redemptive ending and conversion by domesticity really smacks of someone trying to keep those censors happy.

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Girl From Missouri (1934)

 “You could make me cheap and common.”

In Girl From Missouri Jean Harlow plays Eadie Chapman–a lowly chorus girl who’s determined to marry a millionaire. She gets herself added to the bevy of dancers slated to entertain geriatric millionaires and soon latches onto the crusty T.R Paige (Lionel Barrymore). Paine is at first amused by Eadie’s brazen behaviour, but sensing she’s trouble (and calling her a “blonde chiseller”) he fobs her off with some money right before he leaves for his home in Palm Beach. Eadie follows in hot pursuit–dragging along her faithful friend Kitty (Patsy Kelly).

girl from missouriOnce in Palm Beach, Eadie elbows her way into Paige’s life and meets his playboy son, Tom (Franchot Tone). He severely underestimates Edie’s gold-digging tendencies, and interprets her morality to mean that she can be had for a few sparkly trinkets. He doesn’t realise that her insistence on marrying a rich man is based on her experiences with poverty. While he’s wildly attracted to her, marriage is the last thing on his mind, and it’s the only thing on hers.

Girl From Missouri is a wonderful, light film, and with a sparkling script written by Anita Loos, Harlow is at her comedic best. Some of the funniest scenes occur when she crashes into high society and tries her best to act like a lady. In one hilarious scene, Eadie wears an atrocious, impractical negligee that’s covered with ostentatious feathers. Friend Kitty helps with the comedy–while Edie hunts for millionaires, Kitty eyes any man in sight. The role of Eadie also allows Harlow to display the breadth of her acting skills in a scene when she tackles Tom and stands her ground fiercely. There’s nothing too serious here, but it’s all great fun. From director Jack Conway.

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Deadly Illusions: Jean Harlow and the Murder of Paul Bern by Samuel Marx

“Things are seldom what they seem.”

On Labour Day, 1932, producer Paul Bern–husband of budding starlet Jean Harlow–was found dead from a single gunshot wound to the head. Bern’s death was ruled a suicide, and the case was considered closed. Co-author Samuel Marx was one of the first people on the scene at the Bern home on that fateful morning. Marx never swallowed the official suicide story, and he had nagging doubts about Bern’s death. Over the years the rumour circulated that Bern was impotent, and over time, this rumour was accepted as fact. Doubts that Marx had about the case grew–partially due to the horrendous stories that circulated about Bern’s brief marriage to Harlow. As a result, author Samuel Marx and his wife Joyce Vanderveen became so curious about Bern’s death that they dug back through the evidence from this decades-old case.

Samuel Marx knew and respected Bern. They worked together at MGM studios, and to him, so many things about the Bern case just didn’t add up. Why would Paul Bern–who’d only been married for 2 short months–shoot himself? Why were MGM studio executives at Bern’s house hours before the police were called? Who was the mysterious woman seen leaving Bern’s house on the morning he was found dead?

Deadly Illusions: Jean Harlow and the Murder of Paul Bern establishes the controlling atmosphere of studio life at MGM in the 30s. Studio executives opened and passed along telegrams, stars were subject to strict morality clauses, and the biggest stars were the studio’s most prized commodities. The studio’s goal was to “maximize” Jean Harlow’s “winning ways and minimize her liabilities.” Authors Marx and Vanderveen dig through long-forgotten documents, testimony and eyewitness accounts to present overwhelming evidence that Paul Bern was murdered. For those interested in Jean Harlow or old Hollywood, Deadly Illusions presents a cast of colourful characters and a fascinating, sad story.

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China Seas (1935)

 “When a woman can love a man right down to her fingertips, she can hate him the same way.”

Passion, jealousy, and revenge are at the heart of China Seas–one of six films Jean Harlow and Clark Gable made together. Harlow plays tough talking, entertainer Dolly ‘China Doll’ Portland. Clark Gable plays the roguish Captain Alan Gaskell. When the film begins, Captain Gaskell arrives on his ship unshaven and somewhat the worse for wear after several days R&R in Hong Kong. China Doll appears in Gaskell’s cabin, and even though they’ve had a relationship, Gaskell makes it clear that he wants her to leave. When China Doll begs to be allowed to remain on the ship–citing a job in Singapore–he reluctantly agrees to let her stay on board. China Doll obviously sees the voyage as chance to wear down Gaskell’s resistance, and to worm her way into a long-term relationship.

china-seasChina Doll’s plans to win over Gaskell are crushed with the arrival of Lady Sybil Barclay (Rosalind Russell). She’s a former love from Gaskell’s past–a woman whose marriage caused him to leave England. Lady Sybil is now widowed, and apparently her trip to the Orient is for the sole purpose of finding Gaskell again.

Positioning the well-mannered Lady Sybil against the rather “common” China Doll is a masterstroke. The two women are soon squabbling over Gaskell using their own unique tactics. In Lady Sybil’s case, this means dropping references to Gaskell’s former life in England. In China Doll’s case, she reacts with crass behaviour that amuses the audience but alienates fellow passengers and embarrasses Gaskell. Soon China Doll discovers that she is a social outcast at the Captain’s table, and she throws in her lot with Jamesy MacArdle (Wallace Beery).

The second half of the film shifts from its romantic overtones and delivers action. Gaskell struggles against a typhoon, and then his ship is overrun with Malay pirates who seek a secret gold shipment Gaskell has hidden on board. China Doll faces some tough choices–will she rise to the occasion and become a better human being, or will she sink and fulfill Gaskell’s expectations of her character? China Seas is a delightful Harlow vehicle, and she delivers a fierce, impressive performance when she finally takes her moral stand. Directed by Tay Garnett.

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Personal Property (1937)

 “I’m in ladies’ underwear.”

personalPersonal Property is a light, romantic comedy starring Jean Harlow and Robert Young. Robert Young is Raymond, the ne’er-do-well youngest son of the snotty Dabney family. He returns home after a prison sentence to find that his mother is the only one who’s happy to see him. His brother Claude (Reginald Owen) and father, Cosgrove (E.E. Clive) who own and operate a company that manufactures women’s underwear make it clear that they don’t want Raymond around, and they offer him some money to just disappear.

Raymond goes to London where he meets a lovely debt-ridden American widow Crystal Weatherby (Jean Harlow). Posing as a bailiff, he takes up residence in her home and ends up masquerading as her butler.

Personal Property satirizes snobbery, hypocrisy and the quest for materialism, and this is achieved on several levels. Crystal Weatherby poses as a wealthy widow in order to snare Claude Dabney, but in reality the Dabneys don’t have any money either. But the fact that everyone is penniless doesn’t stop them from maintaining lavish lifestyles or treating tradesman like something they’ve found on the bottom of their shoes. The Dabneys are seen as venal people who place money above all other moral considerations, and while they are troubled by a lack of money, and perfectly willing to do what it takes to get their hands on a fortune, they see the threat of a social scandal caused by Raymond as a worse sin than honest poverty. Raymond, the black sheep of the Dabneys is outside of his family’s quest for wealth and status. At one point, the Dabneys admonish Raymond for his crime–selling a car before he’d actually paid for it, and he compares this act to their own business behaviour, emphasizing that their conduct is considered legal while his is not.

Like many of the madcap comedies of the 30s Personal Property has a momentum that doesn’t stop. The best scenes occur during a dinner party at Crystal’s house as she attempts to impress her soon-to-be in laws. One of the guests is a man whose speech affectations render him incomprehensible–although other snobs at the party apparently have no difficulty understanding him. Crystal’s faux posh accent, mannerisms and snotty manner slip when she’s frustrated or caught off guard, and Raymond seems to delight in peeling away her false pretenses. Personal Property directed by W.S. Van Dyke, isn’t Jean Harlow’s best film, but it’s well worth catching.

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Red Dust (1932)

 “This woman is decent. Stop running around half naked.”

red1Red Dust is one of the six films that Clark Gable and Jean Harlow made together. It’s set in the jungles of Indochina, and Gable is Dennis Carson, a lonely and frequently grumpy bachelor who runs a rubber plantation. Carson returns home one day to find prostitute Vantine Jefferson (Jean Harlow) in one of his bedrooms. She’s traveled to the heart of the jungle along with one of Carson’s drunken employees, and she intends to hide out from the Saigon authorities until things ‘cool down’. Carson quickly discovers how impossible it is to ignore Vantine–even though he tries his best. Vantine spends her first evening at Carson’s squabbling with her reluctant host over the merits of Roquefort cheese, and with undeniable chemistry between them, they rapidly strike up a relationship.

Carson’s new employee Gary Willis (Gene Raymond) arrives with his ladylike bride Barbara (Mary Astor) on the same boat that is to take Vantine back to Saigon. Vantine seems to want to just carry away her good memories, but Carson crassly insists on paying her for her ‘friendliness’ towards him. With Vantine out of the picture, Carson rapidly becomes enamored with Barbara, and he invents excuses to get rid of her hubbie, so he can seduce her in private. Vantine’s unexpected arrival back at Carson’s jungle quarters spoils–but doesn’t halt–Carson’s calculated seduction of Barbara.

Red Dust is Harlow’s film. She’s just magnificent as the sarcastic, unsentimental wisecracking floozy, Vantine. World-weary and more than a little shopworn, she’s the complete opposite of delicate, pampered, insipid Barbara. And it’s more than a bit galling for Vantine to see Carson scrambling to cater to Barbara’s every whim. Clark Gable is splendid as the bounder who can’t keep his hands off of Barbara, and her unavailability and unsuitability just seem to egg him on. This pre-code film isn’t particularly shy about showing Carson as the colonial exploiter who whacks the natives around while calling them ‘slugs’. Within the first five minutes of the film, he beats the natives and slaps a drunk silly. Red Dust was remade as Mogambo years later with Clark Gable in the same role.

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