Spotlight: Sexy Pre-Code Harlow (Post Three)

Welcome to another Film Friday! Today we’re continuing our look at the Pre-Code work of Jean Harlow!

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Jean Harlow was born Harlean Harlow Carpenter in Kansas City, Missouri on March 3rd, 1911. The daughter of a dentist and an over-coddling mother named Jean, Harlean was nicknamed “The Baby” by family and friends. After divorcing her husband, Jean moved Harlean to LA, but the move lasted less than two years when Jean’s wealthy father threatened to disinherit her if she didn’t return. The pair soon moved to Chicago, to be close to Jean’s new boyfriend. Jean married Monta Bell in 1926, and Harlean followed suit by eloping with Charles McGrew, a wealthy heir, who took his new bride back to Los Angeles in 1928. On a dare, she strolled into Central Casting, and registered under the name Jean Harlow. Mother Jean and husband followed “The Baby” to LA and pressured her into accepting small extra and bit roles. She signed with Hal Roach studios, but tore up the contract due to the strain it was putting on her marriage. She and McGrew split anyway, and Howard Hughes cast the still unknown Harlow in Hell’s Angels (1930). An audience favorite (but not a critical one), Jean Harlow worked regularly for the next two years in films like The Public Enemy (1931) and Platinum Blonde (1931).

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By 1932, Harlow became romantically involved with MGM producer Paul Bern, who convinced the studio to buy out her contract with Hughes. Her career exploded at MGM and she married Bern, but the marriage ended with his scandalous suicide later that year. Harlow soon began an affair with Max Baer, but the studio, afraid of more negative publicity, paired “The Baby” up with cameraman Howard Rosson instead. Their marriage also lasted under a year. During this time, Harlow’s career continued to boom with films like Bombshell (1933) and Dinner At Eight (1933). Like Joan Crawford, Harlow also found success being paired opposite Clark Gable. Unlike Crawford, however, Harlow’s popularity continued to rise after the Code. Following her divorce, Harlow became romantically involved (and perhaps engaged) to actor William Powell. But at the height of her career, Harlow suddenly died of complications from kidney failure in 1937. She was only 26-years-old.

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So far we’ve featured the starry Dinner At Eight (1933) and the steamy Red Dust (1932). Today we’re looking at the riotous Bombshell (1933).

 

Bombshell (1933)

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Lola Burns is at the top of the pile in Hollywood. But life ain’t easy, what with her father and brother always hanging around for handouts, and devious studio publicity honcho Space Hanlon cooking up endless lurid newspaper stories.

Starring Jean Harlow, Lee Tracy, Frank Morgan, Franchot Tone, Pat O’Brien, and Una Merkel. Based on the play by Caroline Francke and Mack Crane. Screenplay by John Lee Mahin and Jules Furthman. Directed by Victor Fleming.

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There’s a delightful element of screwball comedy in this Pre-Code (and pre-screwball) film, which sends up not only Hollywood, but its blonde bombshell star as well. In fact, it’s hard to tell where Jean Harlow ends and Lola Burns begins. Well, that’s not entirely true. The story is entirely fictitious — that’s where Lola lies — but many the details are incredibly Harlean in their presentation. This actually makes the film twice as entertaining and reinforces the love for Harlow, an incredible good sport.

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The film begins on the morning that Lola is due to report for retakes on her latest film, Red Dust. (Yes — they use the title of an actual Harlow film!) In her dressing room, Lola confronts E.J. “Space” Hanlon, her incorrigible publicist, who will do anything to keep her name in the papers. He informs her that scandal is exactly what the public wants. Fortunately, there’s some brewing, as Jim Brogan, a film director and one of Lola’s former lovers, makes his entrance, hoping to resume his fling with the blonde bombshell. During production on the retakes, Lola flirts with the Marquis Hugo, whom Space had jealousy tried to bar from the set. Hugo and Brogan begin to fight, but Space manages to smooth things over by playing both sides of the fence.

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That evening, Lola and Hugo go to the Cocoanut Grove, and Space arranges for the Marquis to be arrested for immigrations violations. Lola believes Space when he denies his involvement, but when she reads about it in the papers, she realizes Space’s subterfuge and denounces him. To pay the bail for Hugo, Lola asks Brogan for a loan, without telling him what it’s for. She then tries to get Space fired, but he gets back into her good graces by arranging her an interview for Ladies Home Companion. When the matronly interviewer plants seeds in Lola’s head about becoming a mother, the blonde bombshell tells Brogan, who has stopped payment on the loan when he learned its purpose, that she wants to marry and have children. Turned off, Brogan sarcastically suggests that Lola adopt a child from an orphanage on a 30-day trial program. She visits the orphanage and picks out a baby boy. Space, meanwhile, rushes over to her house to get the scoop. When he learns of the adoption and Lola’s plans to meet with the orphanage interviewers, Space arranges for Brogan, Hugo and his lawyer, and a gaggle of reporters to converge at the starlet’s house. Lola’s interview is ruined not only by the fight that erupts between Hugo and Brogan, but by the arrival of Lola’s drunken brother and father. After everything dies down, a heartbroken Lola hears Space discussing things with the press. She angrily condemns him, and her mooching family and entourage as well. She renounces acting and disappears.

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Space soon locates her at a desert resort. As the publicity man tries to lure her back with talks of studio casting buzz, Lola is romanced by “blue blood” Gifford Middleton, who has no idea of her status as a starlet. She accepts his whirlwind proposal and agrees to meet his parents the next day. But Space arranges for Lola’s father and brother to join Lola during her meeting with the upperclass Middletons. The snobs learn that Lola is in fact the infamous Lola Burns, and Gifford ends things. An angry and hurt Lola decides to return to Hollywood and resume her career, unaware that the entire Middleton clan were stage actors hired by Space. Back at the studio, Lola is about to declare her love for Space when she hears the “Middletons” discussing their new contract. Space endures the starlet’s wrath as the two ride off into the sunset (rather, the next soundstage).

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The parallels between Lola’s life and Harlow’s life are brilliant. Not only is the character doing retakes on the notoriously code-violating Red Dust (1932), but there’s mention of real stars like Gable and Gaynor. The part that really hits close to home, however, is the presentation of Harlow’s mooching and boozing family. Mother Jean Harlow and husband were notoriously smothering. (One wonders what Mama thought of this picture. Did she recognize the parallels? Did the Baby? She must have!) The family — and the cheap dame they bring home during Lola’s interview with the orphanage ladies — is very funny.

Harlow is truly excellent as Lola. At this point in her career, she is one of MGM’s finest comediennes, able to simultaneously layer and strip lines of hidden meanings. In addition to combining hilarity with honesty, Harlow gives Lola Burns incredible pathos. We want her to find happiness with Franchot Tone, so it’s comedically rich, but very devastating when we learn that the whole Middleton bit is an act. Similarly, we’re rooting for Lola to get her baby, not simply because of Harlow’s likability, but because of how much her character wants it. This actually makes the sequence, the funniest of the film, the most complex, because we know that Lola’s life is unfit for a child. So, as a viewer, I was torn between heartbreak for Lola, and an understanding that this wasn’t an entirely devastating development. Especially since the brawl is incredibly funny. In fact, this is the best part of the film, and even though the last part with Tone is funny and necessary to bring Lola back to Hollywood, the picture never quite reaches the height of the adoption interview sequence. But that’s a minor complaint, as the film is uniformly entertaining from start to finish.

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The ever-energetic Lee Tracy has always fascinated me as a performer. His character is so despicable in the things he does to poor Lola, yet her simultaneous rage and affection makes his presence both funny and acceptable. Their relationship is totally unique — budding on romantic and ending on a lighthearted note. Truthfully, it’s a little disarming to see them “end up” together, even though Space’s affection for Lola was more than subtext throughout the film. Still, there’s this impression that they ARE cut from the same cloth — Hollywood folk who don’t take things too seriously. So it’s no surprise that their relationship works best in the moments in which they have a playful rapport. However, when Harlow is angry at Tracy, it’s much more difficult for us to be on board with him and their relationship.

Tracy gets a heck of a lot to do, but this is a Harlow picture. She radiates warmth with wicked humor and incredibly feeling. I recommend this film without hesitation; it’s beyond entertaining and certain to have you laughing-out-loud more than once.

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Come back next Friday when we discuss another Pre-Code Harlow film! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week on That’s Entertainment! 

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