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Extremely Blonde: Jean Harlow
Long before I ever saw a Jean Harlow movie I was captivated by her image in a book on classic movie stars. If it isn’t entirely accurate to say that she invented platinum blonde hair, it is entirely accurate to say that she was the first truly white blonde in the movies, and countless others followed with varying degrees of success. Jean had endless copycats. And when you have copycats, you know you’re an authentic original.
She had a career that spanned less than a decade, entering movies in a Laurel & Hardy silent short feature in 1928 and dying while making the unfinished Saratoga in 1937. She was only 26 when she died, a victim of nephritis and kidney failure. Her blond bombshell image and a life marked with scandal, lead to some very nefarious rumors about her death. She died from a botched abortion, or alcoholism, or even Peroxide poisoning from years of bleaching her hair. The tragic truth was, she had become ill with Scarlet Fever at the age of fifteen, and from that moment on Jean was doomed to die prematurely. Scarlet Fever caused degeneration of the kidneys and decades before kidney dialysis or transplant was an option, Jean would inevitably die from kidney failure.
Jean managed to marry three times in her short life. She eloped with her first husband, Charles McGrew, at the age of sixteen and had a short marriage to cameraman Harold Rosson. Between those marriages, she married producer, Paul Bern, who was twenty years older than his bride. They’d only been married for two months when Bern was found dead in the bathroom of their home, an apparent suicide. Despite drastic efforts at damage control by her studio, MGM, rumors of Bern’s impotence and physical abuse of Jean ran rampant. Jean and her career survived this personal disaster and Jean continued to be popular to both her audiences and her fellow actors as well as crew members on her films. The truth is, no one who knew her ever had a bad word to say about Jean Harlow.
Her striking hair and figure would have run its course and she might only have been a footnote in pop culture if there was no more to her than blonde hair and perky breasts, but she is a true icon because she entered the movies as a lark and left the movies as a pro. Jean was a girl who never wanted to be a movie star. Her domineering mother wanted to be a star and failed, and consequently she pushed Jean towards a career. She even took her mother's name. Born Harlean Carpenter, her mother’s maiden name was none other than Jean Harlow.
Jean eventually embraced her career and worked hard to improve her acting. It showed. She is an absolute delight in all of her movies from 1932 onwards and usually, the best thing in them. Her comic timing is on display in movies such as Dinner at Eight and Libeled Lady .
In the former she plays something of an upwardly mobile guttersnipe, married to a brawny and loutish Wallace Beery – or at least to his money. She languishes in bed in feathered negligees eating candy from an enormous heart-shaped box. Made in 1934 within the limits of the Motion Picture Production Code, it is truly an artistic achievement. Without ever mentioning sex, for sale or otherwise, there is never any doubt that sex was Jean’s ticket to high society in this film. The various dinner guests have arrived for dinner, sipped their cocktails, and are being graciously herded toward the dining room, making innocuous small talk as they go. Jean blithely mentions to the wonderful Marie Dressler that she “was reading a book the other day.” Dressler’s beautifully modulated reaction is to spin around as if Jean had just told her she was preparing to take the veil. Clueless, Jean prattles on that this nutty book said that machinery would eventually take the place of every profession. Dressler looks her up and down in her skintight, bias-cut lame’ gown and says: “Oh, you don’t have to worry about that, my dear.” And the movie ends as they enter the dining hall arm in arm.
Libeled Lady stars Jean with William Powell, Spencer Tracy, and Myrna Loy, in a movie whose stellar cast absolutely delivers the goods. Jean just wants to marry Spencer Tracy, but Tracy must first save the newspaper he works for and therefore, his job, from a million dollar libel suit brought by Myrna Loy who plays a society maiden fed up with being hounded and misrepresented by Tracy’s paper. Powell is called upon to use his considerable charms to entrap Loy in a compromising position with him. In order to do that Harlow must marry him and pretend to be his wife.
William Powell and Jean Harlow were an off-screen couple at the time this film was made. It’s a testament to their talents that they seem to absolutely despise each other in their roles as unwilling husband and wife. The scene where Jean has to feign her newlywed passion and love for Powell is a classic by any standard.
As Jean continued making films at MGM, her image became less brassy and her hair color softened as well. She even donned red hair for one role. But during the making of Saratoga in 1937, Jean’s kidney disease began to take its physical toll. She continued to work on the film as long as she was able but stopped reporting for work near the end of production. She died on June 7, 1937. She was 26 years old.
2012 marks 75 years since Jean died. Let’s remember her. But then, how could we forget?