Jean Harlow, Evolution of an Actress – Part 1

The Platinum Blonde in June 1931

For Jean’s centenary and for the duration of this Blogathon, I thought it would be fun to take a step back and observe the panorama of Harlow’s growth as an actress. From awkward, unprincipled newcomer, to highly gifted and lovable comedienne over the span of just a few years.

Now… I don’t know about you, but I certainly remember the first day of work at my first big job. A day I’d like to forget, but can’t– like that memory of tripping down the stairs in High School it’s just burned in your subconscious forever. I still wince at the memory of how nervous, and therefore how AWFUL, I was at my first real job. Learning your duties on the fly, jumping in the deep end of a strange new world is nothing short of terrifying. That fear of drowning lurking behind every every teensy weensy wrong move.

Unlike Jean Harlow, my first “big job” was inside a four walled office in a strip mall in the suburbs and only I have to live with the still painful memory of just how much of a novice I was at it.

For Jean, it was photographed in glorious silvery nitrate, splashed on a screen twenty feet tall, viewed by untold millions of people and dissected and criticized by the public press. Preserved for all eternity.

Harlean Carptenter became an actress because she had to pay the bills, simple as that. She’d been living the high life in Los Angeles with her young and newly wealthy husband and only turned up at the studios in order to win a bet from a friend that she didn’t have the guts to do it. But when she split from her husband and suddenly had her mother and stepfather to support, she had only one option to exploit: movie work.

The starlet circa 1930

And so Jean Harlow was born. And so an image was created. Her striking beauty and figure made her a natural for the movies. Her talent as a dramatic actress?

Well. A few things to keep in mind when watching Jean’s early features. A thoroughly inexperienced young girl was suddenly thrust into the glaring Hollywood spotlight, expected to have the acting chops that matched her image, and when it proved an arduous, was more or less devoured by the critics. She was also the sole supporter of a manipulative opportunist (her mother, Jean Harlow) and a flamboyant charlatan (her stepfather, Marino Bello) and the pressure for her to succeed was relentless.

Her first big break came when independent filmmaker and entrepreneur Howard Hughts cast her in the lead of his first Hollywood picture, Hell’s Angels. (The decades have been kind to Harlow’s performance– her rough edges and unpolished manner have a certain raw appeal.) But Harlow was plagued with insecurities about her acting on the set of Hell’s Angels resulted in a poignant exchange between her and director  James Whales saying.

Harlow in the only color footage of her in existance: the two-strip Technicolor segment of Howard Hughes' Hell's Angels (1930). Hardly Shakespeare, but brevity was definitely the soul of her character's wit.
"Would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?" Harlow thought it was the corniest line ever written. Time has proved otherwise.

“Tell me exactly what you want,” Harlow pleaded with Whale, “and I’ll do it.”

He shot back, exasperated, “I can tell you how to be an actress, yes. But I can’t tell you show to be a woman.”

Her work in The Public Enemy proved little better and the critics universally panned her acting ability. Especially next to the explosively talented newcomer James Cagney, Harlow is notably tense and reseved.

“She was embarrassing,” recalled co-star Mae Clark, “just embarrassing.” One critic concurred with the simple statement: “Jean Harlow is awful.”

And still, the public came. She had something, obviously, but how to present it?

Enter Platinum Blonde. (A film that Eve’s Reel Life did a fabulous job of analyzing for the blogathon.) The film’s title was changed to fit its increasingly popular female lead. This early Frank Capra film is best remembered for the exceptional performance of the lead, Robert Williams. Harlow plays the same sexual conquest as before but with this film Harlow has a leg to stand on: even if her acting talents were still in the process of being defined, one thing was quite clear. The public was coming to see her.

But Harlow was not the only one fighting to make a successful transition. Hollywood itself was also in the midst of a very clunky transition from silent to sound. (Hell’s Angels itself a veritable documentary of the sound revolution). It’s interesting to note that Jean’s acting improved with each film, right along with the same technology that would, ever so ironically, wind up providing Jean with her key strength: dialogue.

Harlow opposite Cagney in The Public Enemy

Languishing under her contract with Howard Hughes, she was finally acquired, thanks to the manic persistence of MGM producer (and future husband) Paul Bern where she was very reluctantly (Thalberg’s desperate last resort) cast in the most “unfilmable” movie in Hollywood, a racy sex film called Red Headed Woman. But the film had the good fortune of being adapted by the fast and witty screenwriter Anita Loos, who penned the red-headed Lil Andrews with sass and zippy one-liners.

Jean Harlow fired off the lines like a six-shooter at the OK Corral.

Harlow’s hard work  was about to pay off. Although she resented being painted to the public as a salacious man-eater, the result was solid gold. MGM had a formidable star on their hands. The Legion of Decency had a hernia. The critics took note.

The rest was history.

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Film writer and social media marketing professional. 2019 Social Ambassador for the 10th Annual TCM Classic Film Festival. Previously: social media associate at Warner Archive and script writer for Turner Classic Movies. Working on a Montgomery Clift biography due late 2020.

5 thoughts on “Jean Harlow, Evolution of an Actress – Part 1

  1. She was so young and inexperienced when she made her earliest films it’s hard to believe Harlow was expected to be anything more than a girl (a beautiful one) onscreen. I didn’t think she did a bad job in Platinum Blonde, she was evolving and it showed, but she was getting better. Looking forward to your next installment on Harlow’s evolution.

    1. I agree, Eve. Particularly with Public Enemy, the poor thing is this acting novice working alongside three Vaudeville and Broadway veterans (Cagney, Clark and Blondell)! It’s really a testament to her as a professional that she blossomed so completely as an actress!

  2. I do have to agree with Mae Clarke’s assessment of Harlow in The Public Enemy–she really does make me cringe there. I think my first taste of Harlow as how I think of Harlow comes in The Beast of the City, especially when she’s teasing Wallace Ford with her dance. And then, yes Red Headed Woman, just wow!

  3. I haven’t seen The Beast of the City but fortunately it’s coming up on TCM later this month and I’ll have a chance to take a look. It was apparently the first movie that brought Harlow consistently good reviews. I’ve read that Red-Headed Woman had a so-so preview and that Thalberg had scenes added &/or edited to further emphasize the comedy.

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