Thursday, March 03, 2011

In Memoriam: Jean Harlow

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Although the period 1929-1959 has often been called the Golden Age of Hollywood, I prefer to think of the 1930s themselves as the Platinum Age, not least of all because it was a time populated by the likes of the legendary Jean Harlow, who was known as 'the platinum blonde' for her then-unique hair - so blonde it was white - and which looked almost silver onscreen.

Born on this day in 1911 into middle-class affluence in Kansas City, Harlow had the great misfortune to have a mother who was both ambitious and unhappily married; sent to Barstow's Finishing School for Girls at the age of five (where she first learned her name was not Baby, a lifelong nickname), Jean's parents divorced in 1922 and the scandal of it sent her and her mother West, after which Jean only saw her father once more.

Settled in Hollywood, Mother Jean (as she was known) more or less threw Baby into the whirl of the movies, and aside from the summer of 1925 (when she contracted scarlet fever) it seemed that Harlow's future had been decided for her. An early, ill-considered marriage seemed to offer Jean an escape from both the grind of making movies and an even greater ordeal, that of being under Mother Jean's thumb; despite it, Jean continued to act in bit parts.

She'd already appeared in dozens of films, but when she was cast in the 1930 film Hell's Angels by Howard Hughes her career really took flight; although her performance was (rightly, I think) savaged by the critics, she was a huge hit with audiences. In those days the stiff, mannered acting style of silent films was gradually giving way to a more natural - albeit highly stylized - way. Forced into the former, Jean was horrendous; once she was allowed the latter the much beloved verve and personality of Jean Harlow could shine through, and did.

Over the next six years Jean became more than a star; she was nothing short of a supernova. Minor but pivotal roles in The Public Enemy, The Secret Six, and Platinum Blonde (all 1931) offered her the chance to grow as an actress, and she leapt at it; producer Paul Bern (who was to become her second husband) procured her contract for MGM on this day in 1932 - her 21st birthday - and there she set about becoming a star with characteristic zeal.

Her schedule at MGM, though - then the most prestigious studio in town - was no less punishing; she completed Red-Headed Woman and Red Dust (plus two others) in 1932, despite the scandalous suicide of Paul Bern, which her bosses Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg covered up so thoroughly that the truth of what actually happened might never be known. A subsequent relationship with the married boxer Max Baer didn't hurt her popularity one bit - nor did a hasty marriage to cinematographer Harold Rosson. By the mid-30s, having made such films as Dinner at Eight and Bombshell (both 1933) and Wife vs. Secretary (1936), it seemed as though Jean Harlow was scandal-proof.

Which made her sudden illness and death from uremic poisoning at the age of 26 in June 1937 all the more poignant... Harlow fell ill on the set of Saratoga (1937), and within days was gone; as the studio moved to contain any incipient scandal their tactics also bred many rumours. It wasn't until sixty years later that many of the myths surrounding the death of Jean Harlow were put to rest along with her; it turns out she simply got sick and died, an all-too-ordinary bout of misfortune which happens all the time, even to the most extraordinary people.
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1 comment:

Wynn Kozak said...

Another of your very interesting posts.