Harlow Makes Her Mark in BOMBSHELL

Bombshell – 1932 – dir. Victor Fleming

I first saw the 1932 screwball comedy Bombshell, which stars Jean Harlow in one of her best roles, as part of retrospective at the Brattle titled “Blondes Have More Fun!” The program had grouped Harlow with other blonde Hollywood icons of the classic era: Mae West, Marilyn Monroe, Carole Lombard, Kim Novak, and Veronica Lake. (Funnily enough, Bombshell was at one point known as Blonde Bombshell to flag it as a Jean Harlow comedy rather than a war picture.) Placing Harlow in the context of a fascinating tradition of fair-haired starlets is illuminating – she somehow bridges the worldly toughness of West and the fragility and innocence of Monroe. In the film that made her a star, Howard Hughes’ 1930 epic Hell’s Angels, Harlow famously announced that she was ready to slip into something more comfortable, sending a smoldering look over her shoulder. Starlets have been copying her moves ever since, but it’s rare for actors of either gender to nail Harlow’s distinctive blend of glamour, wit, and grit. (James Cagney, Harlow’s co-star in The Public Enemy, has a similar appeal, blending fast-talking edginess with disarming vulnerability.)

I can think of few better introductions to Harlow than Bombshell, directed by an uncredited Victor Fleming. It ranks among Harlow’s best films and one of the better Hollywood satires I’ve seen, largely due to Harlow’s witty performance. Adapted from an unproduced dramatic play by Caroline Francke and Mack Crane and drawing as much on the life of Clara Bow as Harlow herself, Bombshell tells the story of Lola Burns, a Hollywood sex symbol weary of her own bad reputation and the many hangers-on that her star status attracts. The original story was a tragedy, but screenwriter John Lee Mahin found unintentional humor in the piece and rewrote it accordingly.

In the hands of Mahin and co-writer Jules Furthman, Bombshell becomes a smart antecedent of other behind-the-scenes tales from Singin’ in the Rain to The Player, and a reminder that Hollywood is often at its best when it’s at its most self-obsessed. In her book Platinum Girl: The Life and Legends of Jean Harlow, Eve Golden writes that, “Bombshell is perhaps the best source of information on what it was actually like to be a star in the golden era of movies. Lola Burns stood for every overpaid but overworked, harried but glamorous Hollywood actress. The cluttered confusion of the film sets, the camaraderie of the makeup crew the frenzied dealings with studio brass, reporters, and fans both good-natured and malevolent; it was all put on film with wit and honesty.”

Harlow takes on the opportunity to send up her image with relish (while still looking fabulous, of course). A tiny moment in Bombshell that I love is the bit where Harlow’s Lola interrupts a screaming fit to answer the phone in velvety starlet’s voice. It’s a simple but effective tweaking of the Hollywood façade, a wry glimpse of the flawed humanity behind the beaming publicity stills. Meanwhile, Franchot Tone parodies his own onscreen image and the often stilted dialogue of a Hollywood that had only learned to talk a few years prior (Tone spouts the famous line: “I’d like to run barefoot through your hair!”). Blurring the line between the film’s reality and our own to an even greater extent, Harlow’s Lola spends a few scenes doing re-shoots for Red Dust, an actual Gable-Harlow picture from the previous year. Borrowing liberally from life works a treat for Mahin and Furthman; Bombshell’s grounding in reality has helped it retain a freshness and vigor even today.

The picture is perfectly suited to Harlow’s funny, streetwise persona. Harlow stood out not just because of her inimitable look, but because of her wit and vitality as a performer. That she died of uremic poisoning at age twenty-six feels like a cheat: it would have been wonderful to see this sharp, funny woman grow up, and perhaps even branch out. (An avid reader, Harlow wrote a posthumously published novel titled “Today is Tonight”.) Yet brief as it may have been, her career still holds up, with Bombshell topping the list of Harlow films that one simply must see. It’s a revelation for neophytes and a treasure for fans.

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