If Hollywood luminaries’ lives lasted a length commensurate with the brightness of their stars, Jean Harlow would have been blowing out her own candles for her 100th birthday yesterday. As it is, the opposite is often true, and Harlow died much before her time at the age of 26, leaving behind a timeless legacy in her brief nine years as a Hollywood actress, comedienne, and sex symbol. That legacy is being celebrated by a blogathon sponsored by The Kitty Packard Pictorial, named after Harlow’s memorable character from Dinner at Eight. The blogathan has already been going on all week, and I’ve been avidly reading the entries thus far, most of which are by people far more knowledgeable about Harlow and her films than I. So I recommend checking those out (all are linked from the Kitty Packard Pictorial), but I wanted to throw in my two cents as well for the original Blonde Bombshell, the prototype for Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, Brigitte Bardot, Madonna, and many others.
The first Harlow movie I remember seeing was Red Dust (1932), a pre-Code affair with Harlow’s frequent costar Clark Gable, so for a long while to me she symbolized pre-Code sensuality and naughtiness. Set in the jungles of Indochina, the film stars Gable as the boss of a rubber plantation and Harlow as the vaguely bad girl who turns up and stays a while. The ostensible main plot concerns Gable’s relationship with Mary Astor, the high-classed wife of one of his workers, but Harlow has pretty much all the really memorable moments. Set up in contrast to Astor’s refined character, Harlow is the kind of girl who travels from place to place because she keeps getting into “a spot of trouble” everywhere she goes. Gable treats her like a whore, carrying on a relationship with her in the early part of the film (before Astor’s arrival), then paying her off when she leaves, temporarily as it turns out. When she soon returns, the comparisons between her and the recently arrived Astor abound, none more obviously or humorously as when Astor insists on a curtain for the bathing area but Harlow shamelessly bathes with the curtains up, teasing Gable every inch of the way.
Yet though Harlow is set up as the “bad girl” in the film, she’s far nobler and more self-sacrificial in her love for Gable than Astor turns out to be, and her combination of frankness about her desires and self-deprecating willingness to let Astor have the upper hand (for a while at least) is quite refreshing. Plus she was already coming to her own as a wise-cracking comedienne. Only a year before this, in 1932’s Platinum Blonde, filmmakers weren’t quite sure what to do with her, even filmmakers as good as Frank Capra. In Platinum Blonde, Harlow is cast as the upper-class society girl that reporter Robert Williams falls for, though she’s ultimately less suited to him than his girl Friday Loretta Young. Though the film has its moments, Harlow seems imminently uncomfortable in the role of a refined society lady – though it was obvious that she had SOMETHING, an allure that led to the picture being renamed during production to highlight her character rather than Young’s, even though Williams and Young are the real leads. By Red Dust, it was becoming clear that her strength lay in playing brassy dames with smart mouths and more depth than you’d initially expect.
In Dinner at Eight, also 1933, Harlow turns the miscasting problem in Platinum Blonde on its ear, playing a former chorus girl who married a rather uncouth nouveau riche businessman – her desires for social standing are hilariously at odds with her lower-class manners and personality, but she knows what she wants and goes after it, even to the point of blackmailing her husband to keep him in line. Playing a wanna-be society lady allowed her the glamour and wardrobe of the Platinum Blonde role, but with a personality that worked much better for her talents. She’s also improved as an actress, having learned how to make her characters walk that fine line between being dumb and playing dumb. Basically, Kitty Packard is a gold-digger hungry not just for money, which she has already gotten, but status – a girl who knows how to use her considerable physical charms and ability to appear dumb to get achieve her goals. It’s great fun to watch her switch effortlessly between whiny baby talk, sullen discontent, and vociferous argumentation at the drop of a hat, and it was really wit this film that I understood what a great comic talent Harlow had – a talent that would become even more pronounced by 1936’s Libeled Lady. She’s only in a small percentage of Dinner at Eight, but it’s mostly just her (and Marie Dressler, granted) you’ll remember from the whole ensemble when it’s all over.
And that really describes Harlow in everything she’s in. Even in early roles like The Public Enemy, when she got generally poor reviews as an actress, she’s got that something, that star quality that shines through even when her line readings and overall acting are a bit amateurish. It’s no wonder studios kept trying to find her niche. With Red Dust and Dinner at Eight, they did, and she proved that with dedication and the right roles, she could step up and deliver scene-stealing performances time after time. We can only wonder what other great performances she would’ve had in store had her life not been cut so tragically short – but I’m certainly grateful for the ones we have.