Freewheelin' Pilgrim

The Ramblings and Misadventures of a Wayward Gentleman

Archive for the ‘Tributes’ Category

Jean Harlow, or The Boy Who Loved The Bombshell

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In celebration of Jean Harlow’s centenary in two days time, people are organizing a large-scale “blog-a-thon”. So your Freewheelin’ Pilgrim hereby offers his humble contribution to this auspicious occasion.

Jean Harlow is my celebrity crush. Sounds a bit strange doesn’t it? I mean, I’m 20 years old and she’s been dead for nearly 74 years. But it’s true. Whenever my friends sit around discussing who is “the hottest actress”, I always say “Jean Harlow”. This, naturally, gets a chorus of “huh?”s and “who’s she?”s. I simply tell them to look her up.

My love for “Baby Jean” (my nickname for her) began at the tender age of 16. I was in Big W (a department store like K-Mart) for their quarterly DVD sale. I had my eyes set on the “Warner Brothers Gangster” DVDs I’d seen in the catalogue and, thankfully, I managed to get all 6.
So I went home and put The Public Enemy on. As is my habit, I watched the documentary feature (and while I’m at it, can I just shout out a big thanks to Warner Brothers for their Golden Age film releases? The special features are FANTASTIC).
In the documentary, the various interviewees were raving about this little actress called “Jean Harlow”.


(“The Public Enemy” 1931)

“Jean Harlow?”, I thought, “I’ve never heard of her…”. But I didn’t give it much of a second thought, and then watched the film.

Harlow’s entrance made me realize what these people in the documentary were raving about.
Clad in an adorable little white outfit, this petite little platinum blonde swaggered onto the screen. Without sounding too pretentious, she looked just like an angel oughta look. She wasn’t “beautiful” in the classical sense, but she was glamorous, a real knock-out. Speaking from a male perspective,  if she walked by me today, I’d lower my sunglasses to get a better look. Then I’d probably follow her with my eyes for a piece.

Then she spoke. That voice. I dunno if that’s what angels oughta sound like, but there’s something special about that voice. So distinctly metropolitan, you really believe she is a “city dame”. In an era in which a lot of leading ladies were beginning to speak, Harlow’s voice was so distinct. Far from the sort of “standard” female accent of a Bette Davis, a Norma Shearer or a Katherine Hepburn.


(Here’s a not-so-good picture of her in her introduction in “The Public Enemy”. Still, you can see how she looks angelic. And get a look at those eyes!)

So “star-struck” was I, that I rewound the scene twice. I was encapsulated by this tiny little bombshell. In fact, I got jealous of James Cagney for having her on his arm.

Once the film was over, I grabbed my “Halliwell’s Who’s Who” from the shelf and frantically turned to “Harlow, Jean”. I was devastated to find out that she died at the age of 26, but also quite astounded that she had made so many pictures in 10 years)

The next day I took my trusty “Who’s Who” to my grandparents’ place. I was eager for more Jean, and my grandpa has an extensive collection of silents and early talkies on VHS. Maybe, just maybe, he would have one of her films. Imagine my joy, my sheer ecstasy, when I discovered he had four: Platinum Blonde (1931), The Beast of the City, Red-Headed Woman (both 1932) and Dinner at Eight (1933).

I don’t think I could have chosen four better films to introduce me to Baby Jean.

She was so sultry and alluring in Platinum Blonde, so brilliantly dramatic in The Beast of the City, so wicked in Red-Headed Woman, and hilarious in Dinner At Eight.Every film on the list strengthened my love for Baby Jean, but out of the four of them Red-Headed Woman had the most lasting impression.

A film about a woman who uses her sexual wiles to move up in the world wouldn’t raise eyebrows in today’s world. BUT IN 1932?! As I watched the film I was like “My God! So much for the ‘good old days of clean, wholesome fun’ my grandparents talk about!”. I could hardly believe that such a deliciously wicked and sexual film had been made in the early ’30s!  And Jean is just fantastic in it. She practically embodies the idea of male lust.


(Harlow in Red-Headed Woman. Say no, I DARE you.)

Unfortunately Baby Jean’s private life was fraught with despair. Her mother was what we would now today call a “Showbiz Parent” and dominated Jean’s life in a manner which caused her great distress, professionally and personally.
Her first marriage ended in divorce, her second (to MGM Executive Paul Bern) left her a widow after Bern’s suicide, and a third marriage also ended in divorce. At the time of her death, she was engaged to actor William Powell, whom had been courting Baby Jean for some time. Her marriages were fodder for the gossip tabloids, drawing arrows particularly after Bern’s death where all sorts of accusations were hurled at her in regards to the relationship she had with her late husband.

Add to this the professional indignity she often had thrust upon her by reviewers. Early in her career, critics were unduly fierce on Baby Jean, doubting her acting ability and suggesting that her career was due to her “friendship” with producer Howard Hughes. It wasn’t until Red Dust in 1932 that the critics were turned around and began to treat Jean in a fairer light.
In my opinion, Jean’s performance in 1935’s Reckless, particularly in the scene in which she responds to hecklers, is one of the great unsung performances in Golden Age era Hollywood.
Perhaps Clark Gable, a close friend and frequent co-star, said it best when he said of Jean: She didn’t want to be famous. She wanted to be happy.

I don’t know what sort of star Jean Harlow would’ve become if she had lived to a ripe old age, I don’t even presume to make any judgements on it. With such a unique personality and talent, it could have literally been ANYTHING.
What I do know is this: that for the world to be robbed of such a talent is nothing less than tragic.
Actresses today can work for thirty years and not achieve the sex appeal, the charm, the immortality that Baby Jean achieved in 9 years, only being a star for 5 or 6 of them.

Harlean Harlow Carpenter (Jean Harlow)

March 3rd 1911 – June 7th 1937

Rest in Peace Baby Jean.

“A thing of beauty is a joy forever: Its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness; but still will keep a bower quiet for us, and a sleep full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing”.
John Keats.

Written by Gypo Nolan

March 1, 2011 at 4:45 pm