Spotlight: Sexy Pre-Code Harlow (Post Six)

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), the steamy Red Dust (1932), the riotous Bombshell (1933), the infamous The Public Enemy (1931), and the raunchy Red-Headed Woman (1932). Today we’re looking at the epic Hell’s Angels (1930).

 

Hell’s Angels (1930)

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Two brothers take on World War I flying aces and a seductive blonde.

Starring Ben Lyon, James Hall, Jean Harlow, and John Darrow. Story by Marshall Neilan and Joseph Moncure March. Adaptation and Continuity by Howard Estabrook and Harry Behn. Dialogue written by Joseph Moncure March. Directed by Howard Hughes.

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Look above at the name of the director: Howard Hughes (or better known to some of my fellow youngins as DiCaprio’s role in 2004’s The Aviator). That should tell you what kind of film you’re getting with Hell’s Angels, which, almost incidentally, happens to be Jean Harlow’s speaking film debut. It’s heavy on aerial fight sequences, but light on story and substance, becoming legendary for its notoriously belabored production, an incredible budget, and some of the most thrilling war scenes ever on film. Oh, and Harlow too.

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In Munich, Roy Rutledge, a young Oxford student, is visiting his classmate and friend, Karl Arnstedt, along with his pleasure-loving brother, Monte. When Monte is challenged to a duel by the Baron von Kranz, who catches him with his wife, Monte absconds, leaving Roy to take his place. Later, the boys join their Oxford friends at home, where Roy continues his blind infatuation with Helen, a glittering social butterfly. With the outbreak of war with Germany, Roy enlists in the Royal Fighting Corps, while the cowardly Monte is accidentally recruited through a kiss. At a charity ball given by Lady Randolph, Helen snares Monte with her charms, and they begin a clandestine affair. On a mission to bring down a German zeppelin, the brothers barely escape death, unlike their friends Elliott and Karl.

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They meet Helen again in France, in Lady Randolph’s Canteen, and she is exposed as a coldhearted flirt. Monte is openly accused of cowardice by fellow officers, and as a result both brothers volunteer for a mission behind enemy lines. When the brothers are captured by the Germans, Monte frantically agrees to reveal the English position to save his life. Roy tries to effect a desperate plan to save him but at length is obliged to shoot him. When he himself refuses to give information to the enemy, he is ordered before a firing squad. The brothers’ sacrifice is not in vain, however, for their brigade’s attack on the Germans is a complete success. (This summary brought to you courtesy of TCM.)

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As my readers should know, I’m not above enjoying a good action sequence, and I carry little prejudice with regards to the sometimes creaky feeling of early talkies. So Hell’s Angels could very well have been a film that I would rave about to you. Unfortunately, that isn’t going to be the case. Why? Because I want good storytelling and quality performances.

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Simply put, the aerial fight scenes are fascinating and well done, but just like the complaints attached to the action-heavy special-effects-laden films of today, they can’t compensate for a story that never quite reaches its dramatic and human potential. The story — essentially about a noble brother and a cowardly brother fighting alongside one another in The Great War — has ingredients that are usually indicative of excellent conflict. Siblings, especially when they are stark opposites, are an excellent source of drama. It’s the juxtaposition of love that comes from a common bond and the inevitable clashes that arise from human beings who see and live in the world in opposing ways. The problem with Hell’s Angels is that the brothers have little chemistry with each other and with their parts. Succinctly — they’re dull. Lyon’s eventual shooting of Hall, seems, on paper, gut-wrenching, but it is neither properly motivated nor appropriately built toward by the actors. It’s empty — and not in an effective “The Hollow Men” way.

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The script adds another (unoriginal, but usually effective) conflict by throwing in a sexy bombshell to both come between and then unite the brothers. Yes, this is the Harlow role. This being her first speaking part, it’s astounding what screen presence she already has. But it’s the wrong kind of presence for this role. Harlow is too funny, too likable, and too smart (in an honest way) to play the one-dimensional trollop that Hughes presents. It’s reported that audiences of 1930 laughed at Harlow during her scenes in Hell’s Angels. It has often been attributed to her poor acting skills. I’m here to tell you that it’s not true — she was just miscast.

The nature of the story, however, does provide for one unfailing source of angst — The Great War. And this is the only front on which we can argue that the film’s storytelling actually succeeds. The action sequences are more realistic than had ever been seen before 1930, and, even today, they are truly outstanding. In fact, the image that closes the first half of the film (right before the intermission) is breathtaking. These images excellent and worthy of their due recognition, because when it comes to war films, authenticity and attention to detail are important. Even though these sequences run too long, they are the only true moments of excitement.

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So, unless you’re specifically coming to this film as a connoisseur of cinematic air battles, you should regard the film for what it is — an artifact of paramount importance for its brilliantly rendered flight scenes and its introduction of Harlow. But given how little genuine humanity is packed into the 131-minute film in favor of airplane spectacles, this isn’t a film I’d recommend for entertainment of the same quality as Red Dust (1933) or Dinner At Eight (1933). Hell’s Angels is a historical document, and if we think of it in those terms, there can exist some appreciation.

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Come back next Friday for our seventh and final post on the Pre-Code work of Jean Harlow! And tune back in on Monday for a whole new week of fun on That’s Entertainment! 

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