Jean Harlow: The Platinum Wonder

harlow_14Jean Harlow was the face and personality of a generation. On-screen, she usually portrayed the kind of woman who could make a man fall to his knees. She had a devil may care attitude like the rebellious flappers who kicked a hole in the 1920s. Her platinum blond hair, infectious laugh, and blatant sex appeal made her a triple threat – a triple threat that left an irrefutable mark on Hollywood in the wake of her sudden death at the young age of 26. Born Harlean Harlow Carpenter in Kansas City, Missouri, she spent a happy childhood with her parents in her grandfather’s house. She was the only grandchild, and inherited the nickname “The Baby”, which she kept throughout her life. Harlean’s mother, Jean Poe Harlow Carpenter, was unhappy in her marriage to Mont Clair Carpenter. Rather than dwell on the pitfalls of her arranged union, Jean focused all her attention on her daughter, which Harlean reciprocated as the only child. The “Baby” nickname was so prominent in the house, that Harlean did not learn her real name until she was a five-year-old student at Miss Barstow’s Finishing School for Girls.

Jean eventually filed for divorce with her daughter in school. She was granted full custody and moved to Hollywood, where she dreamed of becoming an actress herself. However, her film aspirations could not slow the family finances from thinning out; and two years later, they moved back to Kansas City no better off than when they left. Now 1925, Harlean’s grandfather sent her to a summer camp, where she caught scarlet fever before attending the Ferry Hall School in Illinois. At Ferry Hall, Harlean was introduced to Charles McGrew by a fellow classmate. McGrew and Harlean fell in love in 1926 and were married by 1927. McGrew turned 21 and inherited part of a fortune he was heir to, and moved he and Harlean to Los Angeles. In LA, Harlean became friends with an aspiring actress named Rosalie Roy. Roy had no car and needed a ride to Fox Studios. Harlean agreed to drive her, and once there, was noticed by Fox executives. It was Roy who challenged her to go back to Fox unannounced and audition. Harlean went back to Fox and signed in as “Jean Harlow”, her mother’s name. She hardly got any job offers, but took the smallest imaginable roles after her mother continued to pressure her into accepting “something”. Her first appearance, in 1928’s Honor Bound, earned her only $7 a day as an unbilled extra. The film did pave a wider road for her, however, and more roles, though still minor, became available. She continued to keep her head down while pounding out silent film appearances through the end of the 20s. Her most notable films were the Laurel and Hardy short Double Whoopee and a part in Clara Bow’s film The Saturday Night Kid, both in 1929. With her career on the upswing, all seemed to be right in Jean Harlow’s world. But all was not right. McGrew was feeling the weight of Jean’s momentum and the two separated in the summer of 1929.

Jean was filming a movie when James Hall, a fellow actor, noticed her. Hall was a cast member in Howard Hughes’ silent epic Hell’s Angels. The tedious film was being re-shot with sound, as talkies had exploded in Hollywood and Hughes wanted to take full advantage of the new technology. The original actress, Greta Nissen, who played the part of “Helen”, had an accent much too thick for the talkie version, so Hughes needed to replace her and did so with Jean at Hall’s suggestion. Hughes signed Jean to a five-year contract. During the filming, Jean met Paul Bern, an MGM executive who became her second husband in 1932. Reactions to Jean’s acting were mixed. The general public seemed to love her, but the critics had a much different opinion. Though vague, many reviews noted her sex appeal above her actual performance. The success of Hell’s Angels propelled Jean into a string of highly acclaimed roles, notably 1931’s The Public Enemy with James Cagney and Platinum Blonde with Loretta Young. Despite the success of the films, Jean’s acting was still harshly criticized. Howard Hughes attempted to counter this negative publicity by playing on the positive attention paid to Harlow by her many fans. Girls around the country dyed their hair and Hughes established small “Platinum Blonde” clubs as a result. Nevertheless, Paul Bern urged Louis B. Mayer to buy Harlow’s contract from Hughes, but Mayer refused emphatically because he didn’t approve of the cheap on-screen image she often portrayed. Bern then urged Irving Thalberg to sign Harlow and he agreed. She officially became part of the MGM family in the Spring of 1932. Right away, she took the lead role in 1932’s Red Headed Woman, opposite Chester Morris and Leila Hyams. Harlow played “Lil”, a vampish woman who carries on an affair with a married man (Morris).

Harlow followed the success of Red Headed Woman with another highly successful film, Red Dust, opposite Clark Gable. However, though her role was substantial, it was another incident that gained more notoriety. Harlow’s husband Paul Bern was found dead in their home during the filming of Red Dust. Bern’s death ignited a low-hush and whispering scandal around Hollywood, with conspiracy theorists trying to prove their own personal “explanations”. Harlow’s career didn’t seem to buckle under the weight, and by the mid-1930s, she was one of the biggest stars in the business. She married Harold Rosson, a cinematographer who would later be known for his work on 1939’s The Wizard of Oz. It was her third and final marriage.

“Good Night, My Dearest Darling”
In 1937, Harlow began filming Saratoga with Clark Gable. They had been frequent co-stars, and this would be their sixth collaboration. Sometime during the filming, Harlow’s health deteriorated. Many opinions suggest that the scarlet fever she caught as a child weakened her kidneys. After collapsing on the set, she was rushed to the hospital and diagnosed with uremic poisoning, a condition usually associated with kidney failure. She was administered top medical care at her home, but was later rushed to the hospital again after her condition declined. Jean Harlow passed away on June 7, 1937. She was 26 years old. In the many years since her death, Harlow has become a Hollywood legend. Though her career was short, she managed to connect with audiences on a deep level. Harlow actually penned a novel in the mid-1930s titled Today is Tonight. The story focuses on a couple, Peter and Judy Lansdowne, and their experiences amongst Hollywood’s in-crowd of the 1920s. The manuscript sat dormant for years, but was finally published in 1965.