Jean Harlow’s tragically short 26 years of life were marked with tragedy, disappointments, heartbreak and, of course, a tremendously successful screen career. Her intensely sensual on screen presence ignited American movies and gave the world something it had never before known: the blonde bombshell. She was beautiful, true, but hers was an attainable beauty that led even Harlow herself to admit that “men like me because I don’t wear a brassiere. Women like me because I don’t look like a girl who would steal a husband.” She was a natural comedienne with a gift for belting out the difficult, rapid-fire dialogue that made some of the best films of the mid 30s truly unforgettable. She was not, even by her own admission, a great actress and because of this awareness Harlow worked hard at her craft and eventually would successfully hone her screen personality into one of the most enduring in motion picture history: the sassy, saucy girl from the wrong side of the tracks.
But Jean Harlow’s on screen character belied the real girl underneath. She was not Dinner at Eight’s common-as-the cold Kitty Packard, nor Red Headed Woman’s amoral Lil Andrews. Harlean Carpenter was a shy dentist’s daughter with a heart of gold from a perfectly respectable middle class Kansas City family. She was an actress simply because it was her job and would have been quite happy darning socks for a household of little Harleans. Her mild nature and her mother’s constant presence led her to be known as ‘the baby’ around the MGM. Unlike her rivals like Joan Crafword, Harlow was known for knitting and hemstitching in between takes, was something of a bookworm and was generous to a fault.
The story of Jean Harlow’s movie stardom is a curious one indeed since it was never truly her career–it belonged to her mother, Jean Harlow. And by extension, one could argue that Jean Harlow didn’t really ever have a life of her own–it too belonged to her mother who had an extraordinarily firm grip on every aspect of her daughter’s life. Throughout Harlean’s childhood, her relationship with her mother was of uncommon closeness. Harlean had health issues as a child including a bout of scarlet fever, which only added to Mother Jean’s protectiveness.
After Mother Jean’s divorce in the early 1920s, she packed up and moved herself and her only daughter out to Hollywood where Harlean attended the Hollywood School for Girls and Mother Jean pursued her dream of acting. She was beautiful, but simply too old, and with her dreams thwarted, they were soon headed back for Missouri. There, Mother Jean married a man of questionable work ethics named Marino Bello. Not long after, a 16-year-old Harlean eloped with a young businessman who had a large inheritance. She left school forever and the headed for the West Coast with her new husband where they lived lavishly in the Los Angeles social circles. She was free of her Mother for the time being, but Mother Jean and her husband weren’t far behind. When Harlean’s marriage fell apart, she realized that there was only one way to support herself and her mother and father-in-law in their accustomed fashion. Having done movie work before, purely as a laugh (she’d been bet by a friend that she didn’t have the guts to audition), it was the only professional experience she actually had to her credit and, urged by a mother obsessed with living out her thwarted dreams through daughter, Harlean adopted her mother’s name and became a regular at Fox Studios’s central casting.
Her bit in the Laurel & Hardy silent laffer Double Whoppee was memorable for some very obvious reasons but the roles were largely very forgettable. And then came Howard Hughes. In 1929, Hughes was in the middle of re shooting his massively over budget wartime epic Hell’s Angels when Jean was brought to his attention. He hired her on the spot. Her role as the vamping girl toy Helen (which features the only color footage of Harlow in existence) floored audiences but was slammed by the critics who called her, among other things, just ‘awful.’ The movie was a box-office grand slam. She had something–even if it wasn’t a pair of acting chops. Her next roles were more of the same bad girl floozy type that Hells Angels had pigeonholed her as and, as a result, made Louis B Mayer quite indifferent to the urging of producer Paul Bern to try and acquire Harlow from Hughes. She just wasn’t, in Mayer’s opinion, a lady. But when Bern bended Irving Thalberg‘s ear, Thalberg listened and MGM bought Harlow from Hughes.
Jean’s rise to superstardom wasn’t overnight. Harlow was placed in the lead role for Red Headed Woman with Chester Morris and then opposite MGM’s top male star, Clark Gable, in Victor Fleming’s Red Dust. Both were tremendously popular with audiences and both were tremendously troubling to the censors, leading to increased efforts to enforce the unpopular Hays Production Code. These roles were manipulative women who lacked any type of moral instinct, slept their way around town, drank and spoke in thinly veiled innuendos. Because Harlow nailed the characters so well, it led many to believe that was who she was. It couldn’t have been further from the truth. In real life, the role was reversed: it was Harlow who allowed herself to be manipulated by those she loved most and she worked hard to keep her mother approving and to keep her father-in-law, whom she disliked intensely, quiet. Of course it needs to be said that she didn’t exactly make the best decisions. But since when do 21 year old’s make good decisions?
Paul Bern, the producer that had brought Harlow to MGM proposed to her in 1932. She was 21. He was 43. The marriage was a mistake from the beginning and lasted all of two months, ending when Bern was found dead in their home from a shot to the head. MGM were masters of staving off scandal and they put round the story that Bern had shot himself in the head because he was impotent and incapable of consummating his marriage with Harlow, getting the idea from a note supposedly ‘left’ by Bern’s body. The note read simply: “you understand that last night was only a comedy.” (The Paul Bern death could fill the pages of a novel, so for more information on the mystery pick up a copy of David Stenn’s most excellent Harlow biography Bombshell.) Bern was Irving Thalberg’s best friend and at first he and wife Norma Shearer, along with a number of Bern’s other friends, shunned Harlow. But even after Harlow was cleared of any involvement with Bern’s death and the Hollywood community began to rally around her in support, Harlow blamed herself entirely and felt unworthy of the sympathy of any of her colleagues. It worsened Harlow’s already considerable inferiority complex she suffered from under her mother’s autocratic rule and she developed two excesses: an overdeveloped guilt complex and a growing dependency upon alcohol.
Recovery from scandal is hard enough today even in our ultra-permissive society, but in those days scandal could literally mean the end of your career. But after Paul Bern’s death, Harlow’s career skyrocketed into superstardom. Bombshell, Dinner at Eight Hold Your Man, China Sea– the hits came coming one right after the other. She had found her knack for comedy. The critics suddenly found themselves praising her street-smart approach. Dinner at Eight was a George Cukor’s masterpiece. Bombshell was Jean Harlow as Jean Harlow–it was practically an autobiography and she was positively infectious. China Sea was yet another Harlow-Gable smash.
Then came Reckless. Harlow could neither sing nor dance, and here she was expected to star in a film about a famous singer. Her mother’s constant presence on the set added to the pressure. A fellow dancer in the cast recounted stories of Harlow getting hungry and her mother allowing her daughter a scant ration of cottage cheese and shredded carrots each day. The film was a flop.
Harlow was fed up with people thinking she was ‘that kind of a girl,’ and MGM went about the business of remaking her image with one smart move: her platinum locks were darkened to ‘brownette.’ Harlow was thrilled. “No woman will ever be afraid of me again,” she said with relief at finally not having to live up to the platinum image that was so very much unlike herself. Her roles in Riffraff and Wife vs. Secretary were a complete 180 from the Lil Andrews and Kitty Packards of the past.
Reckless had brought her into the life of the older and urbane William Powell. Jean truly believed that she had finally met the love of her life. It is no secret that Harlow loved Powell considerably more than he did her, but they became serious lovers nonetheless. The did get along well together and Powell was very good for her in that he taught her a lot about taking control of her finances as well as trying to get her to take steps to try and pry her from her mother and father-in-laws dominance. But the problem was that Powell didn’t understand that Harlow was completely unlike the other girls he normally went with. Whereas the likes of Carol Lombard were street tough and brilliantly witty, Harlow was shy, sensitive and overly eager to please. Powell was a great put-down artist—he knew Harlow had a brain and was nothing like her on screen characters, but he liked to make digs at her about it nonetheless.
Although it may have very well been all in fun, his digs inwardly devastated the insecure Harlow. He thought that Harlow could just take it, the way everyone else could. He thought wrong. Harlow was heartsick over Powell’s unwillingness to marry her and her drinking worsened. The perpetually guilt-stricken Harlow could never hope to understand that it was not her fault: Powell was simply afraid to marry her.
Myrna Loy, Powell’s famous co-star, became a close confident of Jean’s during her roller coaster relationship with Powell and called her friendship with Harlow one of her ‘most treasured.’Loy is also one of the many people who noticed a marked change in Harlow’s appearance and urged her to consider seeing a doctor. Harlow had started to put on weight and was frequently tired and irritable. But in spite of her personal uncertainty, her pictures continued to be solid blockbusters. Libeled Lady was one of the best comedies of the 30s and her next film Saratoga re-teamed her with Gable.
But the people around Harlow knew she wasn’t well. George Hurrell had to retouch her photographs and her extreme unhappiness had begun to changer her very personality. Close friend Rosalind Russell had to make repeated trips to local bars to take Harlow home. Russell would later say that Harlow became “a sad girl, driven by her mother, madly in love with a man who wouldn’t marry her and drinking too much.” Russell was very concerned when she saw Harlow, who was not an angry or violent person, become blatantly hostile. It was the other end of the pendulum. Biographer Stenn says “the more she drank, the more she hated her mother. She became verbally abusive. On film, Harlow’s fury was funny. Off screen, her tantrums were terrifying.
Filming for Saratoga was not smooth going and Harlow became increasingly unwell. No one could have dreamed that MGM’s ‘baby,’ all of 26 years old, was dying. The rumors of the cause of her death were far-fetched and blown out of proportion for years, but Jean’s death was the result of uremic poisoning and kidney failure. The scarlet fever she suffered in her childhood had doomed her and her kidneys had been failing for years. True, she was misdiagnosed, but even if she had been properly diagnosed, in the 1930s there was no such thing as dialysis for kidney failure. Nothing could have been done to save her. And even if there had, her Doctor later said that Harlow ‘didn’t want to be saved. She had no will to live whatsoever.’
It took years for a devastated William Powell to recover from Jean’s death. Without her ‘baby,’ Mother Jean deteriorated into an eventual state of complete dementia. Workers at MGM left their sets, unable to work when they heard the news. Harlow probably would have never believed any of it.
But Harlow’s image has passed on into immortality and her spirit is preserved perfectly on celluloid. Long after we’re gone, the simple dentist’s daughter from the Midwest who never thought anything of herself will still be there for the world to see: beautiful, young and eternal.