Thursday, March 3, 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.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Actor Nicholas Courtney Passes On

Nicholas Courtney, best known for playing the Brigadier on Dr. Who, passed on 22 February at the age of 81. Of the co-stars on Dr. Who, it was Mr Courtney who served the longest.

Nicholas Courtney was born on 16 December 1929 in Cairo, Egypt, the son of a British diplomat. Because of this he was educated in Egypt, France, and Kenya. Once he had completed National Service in 1950, Mr. Courtney attended the Webber Douglas School  of Singing and Dramatic Art. For two yeas he was part of a repertory in Northampton, then moved to London.

Nicholas Courtney made his television debut on an episode of Escape in 1957. In the early to mid Sixties Mr. Courtney would appear on such shows as Looking About, No Hiding Place, The Indian Tales of Ruyard Kipling, and The Saint. He first appeared on Dr. Who  in 1965 in a role other than the Brigadier. In 1968 he first appeared as Colonel (later Brigadier) Lethbridge Stewart. He would play the role until 1989. He made his film debut in The Brides of Fu Manchu in 1966. For the remainder of the Sixties Nicholas Courtney would appear on such shows as Sword of Honour, The Avengers, The Champions, Callan, and Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased). He appeared in the films Doppelgänger (1969) and It Takes a Girl Like You (1970).

In the Seventies Mr. Courtney appeared in such shows as Jason King, Doomwatch, The Two Ronnies, and Watch This Space, and All Creatures Great and Small. He appeared in the movies Endless Night (1972) and Uncovers Hero (1974). In the Eighties he appeared on such series as Minder, Juliet Bravo, Yes Prime Minister, and Only Fools and Horses. He appeared in the film Bullseye (1990). From the Nineties into the Naughts Mr. Courtney appeared on such shows as Then Churchill Said to Me, Satellite City, Harry Hill (as the Brigadier), Casualty, The Bill, and The Sarah Jane Adventures.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Late Great Jane Russell

Jane Russell, Hollywood sex symbol and the star of such films as The Paleface (1948) and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), passed yesterday at the age of 89. The cause was a respiratory related illness.

Jane Russell was born on 21 June 1921 in Bemidji, Minnesota. She apparently inherited her looks from her mother, who had been a model and an aspiring actress, and the model for Mary B. Titcomb's painting "The Girl in the Blue Hat," which had hung in the White House during Woodrow Wilson's presidency. As a child Jane Russell studied piano. In high school she took part in school plays and following high school she studied acting at Max Reinhardt’s theatre workshop and with Maria Ouspenskaya.

She had modelled for a friend who was a photographer, although she was a secretary at a chiropractor's office when her picture was seen by the casting department at RKO, then owned by Howard Hughes. Mr. Hughes signed the 19 year old to a seven year contract. She made her film debut in The Outlaw (1943), the controversial film about Billy the Kid, directed by Howard Hughes. Because the film concentrated so much on Miss Russell's breasts (for which Howard Hughes invented a specially made bra), The Outlaw ran afoul of the Hollywood Production Code Administration, who refused to issue their Seal of Approval unless cuts were made to the film. Mr. Hughes refused to cut the movie. While it would debut in San Francisco in 1943 and would run for six weeks that year in the same city, it would not receive a general release until 1946. Regardless, The Outlaw turned Jane Russell, formerly a chiropractor's secretary, into a movie star.

Jane Russell would appear in The Young Widow (1946) before appearing in one of her most well known roles, as Calamity Jane in The Paleface opposite Bob Hope. She would also appear in the film's sequel, Son of Paleface (1952) as Mike "the Torch" Delroy, as well as such films as His Kind of Woman (1951), Double Dynamite (1951), Macao (1952), and Montana Belle (1952). In 1953 she co-starred with Marilyn Monroe in what may be her most famous film, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Not only did Miss Russell have most of the best lines in the movie, but one of the best numbers--"Ain't There Anyone Here For Love." Miss Russell's following film would be another one which would invited controversy. Shot in 3-D and featuring Jane Russell in what were then scanty costumes, The French Line (1953) received the condemnation of the Roman Catholic Church's Legion of Decency and the Breen Office refused to give it a Seal of Approval, just as they had with The Outlaw many years before. Howard Hughes went ahead and released the film without the Production Code seal. Howard Hughes would later make cuts the number which was the source of most of the controversy,  "Lookin' for Trouble," and re-release The French Line in 2-D. It was a hit at the box office in both runs.

Miss Russell would go onto appear in such films as Foxfire (1955), Gentlemen Marry Brunettes (1955--the sequel to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), Hot Blood (1956), The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1956),  and The Fuzzy Pink Nightgown (1957). Following The Fuzzy Pink Nightgown, Miss Russell appeaered on television on The Colgate Playhouse, Person to Person, Westinghouse Desliu Playhouse, What's My Line, The Ed Sullivan ShowThe Red Skelton Hour, and Death Valley Days. She did not appear in a feature film until Johnny Reno in 1966. Afterwards she would appear in the films Waco (1966), The Born Losers (1967), and Darker Than Amber (1970). On television she appeared on such shows as The Merv Griffin Show, Vicki, The Yellow Rose, and Hunter.

Jane Russell also had a singing career. In 1947 she recorded two singles with the Kay Kyser Orchestra and that same year an album for Columbia Records, Let's Put Out the Lights. In 1950 she recorded the single "Kisses and Tears" with Frank Sinatra. In the early Fifties she would record Gospel songs in a trio composed of herself, singer Connie Haines, and Beryl Davis. In 1957 she had a successful tour of nightclubs and in 1961 she recorded another album, Fine and Dandy. She also appeared on Broadway in 1971 in Stephen Sondheim's musical Company.

While it was Jane Russell's admittedly fantastic figure that initially made her famous, it was her incredible talent that made her a star. In my humble opinion she was one of the greatest comic actresses of the mid-Twentieth Century,. Miss Russell had impeccable timing when it came to comedy and could deliver lines better than many stand up comedians. Indeed, she was one of Bob Hope's few co-stars who was every bit a match for him. What is more, Miss Russell was a very good singer and also a fairly good dancer. This made her ideal as a musical star, so it should not be surprising that most of her best known films were musicals. Jane Russell was always at her best playing women not unlike herself, such as Dorothy in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, intelligent, outspoken, and strong willed women who were nobody's pushovers. Beautiful and talented, Jane Russell lived her life according to her own terms, and it was that quality as much as her talent that made her a star.

Monday, February 28, 2011

The Oscar Non-Event

Every year I watch the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Science Awards ceremony, also known as the Oscars. It does not matter who is hosting or which films is nominated. It doesn't even matter that I have serious doubts that the Academy Awards are an accurate gauge of what the best films released in any given year were. The fact is that it is a chance to see many of my favourite actors, to see clips from some of my favourite films released that year, and, of course, to see who wins.

Unfortunately I did not get to watch the Academy Awards last night. At approximately 6:00 PM last night a thunder storm rolled through mid-Missouri. It about 6:10 PM that our power went off. Our power stayed off until about 2:30 AM. In other words, I entirely missed the Oscars. It is for that reason I can offer no review of the ceremony as I usually do. I cannot comment on how good or how bad James Franco or Anne Hathaway were (although I will confess I am happy just to watch Anne Hathaway breath). I cannot comment on the acceptance speeches. I cannot comment on anything.

And given the fact that last year I saw fewer movies than I usually do, I cannot even comment that much on the various winners. For the  category of Best Picture I was rooting for either True Grit or Inception. That having been said, I cannot criticise the fact that The King's Speech won, even though it seemed like the most conventional choice among the movies nominated. I have not yet seen The King's Speech, although I have heard very good things about it. For the same reason I cannot criticise the fact that Colin Firth took Best Actor over Jeff Bridges--I have not seen The King's Speech.

I will say that I am happy Toy Story 3 won Best Animated Feature (unlike the live action features, I kept better track of the animated films) and I am very happy that Randy Neuman won for Best Song (I was scared that song from Country Strong would win). I am also glad that Alice in Wonderland won Best Art Direction, although I cannot say I would have been disappointed if Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 had won. I am also happy that Inception  won Best Cinematography.

In fact, the only award I have a real complaint about (and I think this is justifiable even if I have not seen all the nominees) is Best Film Editing. Oh, I am not going to begrudge The Social Network winning, given it does have great editing and I suspect that editing is better than the other nominees. What I am going to complain about is the fact that Inception was not even nominated. As great as the editing on The Social Network is, the editing on Inception  is better.

Anyhow, I feel as if I have to apologise for this rather pathetic excuse for an Oscar post, but then it is what happens when the lights go out for the entire extent of the ceremony. With any luck, it will not happen again next year!