Thursday, 3 March 2011

Happy 100th Birthday, Jean Harlow

It was 100 years ago today, on 3 March 1911, in Kansas City, Missouri, that Harlean Harlow Carpenter was born. She would gain everlasting fame under a different name, forever to be known as Jean Harlow. Miss Harlow was hardly Hollywood's first sex symbol. There had been several before her, Louise Brooks and Clara Bow among them. That having been said, she may well have been the first sex symbol to emerge from the Talkies. And it can be certain that she was the original Blonde Bombshell, the original Platinum Blonde.

Today Jean Harlow remains well remembered as one of the screen goddesses of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Indeed, she still maintains a large following. This is in some ways surprising given the brevity of her career. Jean Harlow made her film debut in a bit part in Moran of the Marines in 1928. She achieved stardom with her role in Hell's Angels (1930). Her last film would be Saratoga in 1937. It was that year that Miss Harlow died at age 26, apparently from cerebral oedema. Jean Harlow's career then lasted only about nine years, with only seven of those spent as a major star. How then is it that she is still remembered and revered to this day, when other stars with longer careers are forgotten?

Much of the reason for Jean Harlow's last fame is undoubtedly due to her appearance. Miss Harlow had platinum blonde hair and  green eyes that were striking even in black and white. She also had an incredible figure. While Miss Harlow was indeed beautiful, however, it would seem that there must be more to her lasting popularity than mere looks. After all, there have been other actresses who were as striking as Miss Harlow who have long since been forgotten.

Indeed, I suspect Jean Harlow's initial success and her continued popularity have more to do with her innate personality than her appearance. It was after Miss Harlow and then husband Chuck McGrew moved to Los Angeles that she befriended young actress Rosalie Roy. Miss Roy did not own a car, so she asked Miss Harlow to drive her to Fox Studios for an audition. It was while Miss Harlow was waiting for her friend that she was noticed by Fox casting director Joe Egli. Mr. Egli gave her a letter of introduction to the head of Fox Central Casting, Dave Allen, which Miss Harlow folded up and put in her pocket while politely telling him that she was not interested.  A few days later friends bet Jean Harlow $250 that she was not brave enough to even meet with Mr. Allen. Not about to be labelled a coward, Miss Harlow did indeed meet with Dave Allen, signing with her mother's maiden name "Jean Harlow." Afterwards she was receiving calls from Fox Central Castingon a daily basis, which Miss Harlow ignored. It was only after pressure from her mother that Miss Harlow finally took roles in films.

It the means through which Jean Harlow entered film acting that also demonstrates in part why she became a major star. Quite simply, even at the tender age of seventeen she was already her own woman. Miss Harlow was not about to be considered a coward by her friends, let alone lose a bet. At the same time she had the strength to turn down Fox Central Casting and the chance to become  a movie star, something most young women even now might well jump at. It is this strong sense of self that can be seen in many of the characters Miss Harlow played. Indeed, it can be seen in her first major role, that of Helen in Hell's Angels. Although at the outset of the film, Helen seems demure, as the movie progresses it becomes clear that she and she alone is in charge of her love life. She would play another self possessed woman in The Public Enemy (1931), the original cool blonde Gwen Allen. Much of Miss Harlow's career would be spent playing women who were definitely in charge of their own destinies.

While Miss Harlow could convincingly play strong willed women, she was also a very fine comedienne. In fact, her more comedic roles may actually have been better than the ones she played in dramas. This should not be surprising, as not only Miss Harlow possessed of a strong will, but a keen sense of humour as well. She proved a formidable comedy talent in the Anita Loos comedy The Gril From Missouri (1934). A few years later in Wife vs. Secretary she proved a match even for Myrna Loy when it came to comedy. That her talent for comedy must have been inborn can be seen in her many, often funny quotes, some of them worthy of even Mae West.

In my humble opinion it was not only Jean Harlow's incredible looks that made her as star, but her appearance combined with a strong sense of self as well as a razor sharp sense of humour. Miss Harlow was no dumb blonde. She was an intelligent, self possessed woman  who was sure to make an impression. It was these qualities that made her a star that is still remembered and revered on her 100th birthday. I suspect she will still be remembered on her 200th birthday.

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