Tag: Jean Harlow

February 25, 2017 / / Main Slate

“I’m just my natural, simple self.” – Lola Burns

Move over Beyonce and Sasha Fierce! Victor Fleming’s 1933 Bombshell showcases the original star/alter ego combo: Jean Harlow and Lola Burns. This pre-code film is a search for an authentic self, both for the main character, Lola, and for the actress playing her. Viewers follow Lola, the current “it” girl of the Hollywood scene as she tries to navigate a hunt for her identity. Every man wants her and every woman wants to be her, but the starlet doesn’t even know who Lola Burns is. Amongst an ensemble of family members and industry workers that are all trying to gain from her, Lola starts to question if a life in show business is truly the route for her and debates finding her calling in motherhood or fulfilling her destiny as a wife. However, her publicist, Space (played by Lee Tracy), would go to outer space in order to keep Lola at arms’ length for both personal and business reasons. Lola’s authenticity becomes further complicated when the man who controls how the public views her is also in love with her.

February 24, 2017 / / Main Slate

Femmes fatales are often revered by women, feared by men and adored by the camera. Within the first few minutes of Red-Headed Woman, we are charmed and seduced by Lil “Red” Andrews (Jean Harlow), despite her deceitful intentions and our moral sensibilities. She is an enigmatic figure who seems to be constantly playing roles, adopting different voices, performing for audiences.

In the opening scene, Lil excitedly reveals to her friend, Sally (Una Merkel), that she is going to surprise her married boss, Bill (Chester Morris), at his house that night to help him write some “important letters.” Sally claims that Bill is madly in love with his wife, but Lil persists. As soon as Lil’s husband walks into the bar and sees her gossiping, she puts down her bottle of breath-freshening spray and rushes over to him with an unthreatening smile now plastered on her face. She gushes, “Hello, hon!” It’s not long before he’s wiping her lipstick from his face with a handkerchief, while she’s fixing herself with a victorious smirk.

October 26, 2009 / / Main Slate

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.)

June 22, 2009 / / Main Slate

The Public Enemy – 1931 – dir. William A. Wellman

It’s one of my favorite Old Hollywood vignettes, and I don’t know if it’s apocryphal or not. I stumbled across it in the Turner Classic Movies glossy Leading Men: The 50 Most Unforgettable Actors of the Studio Era, and it revolves around the famous scene in director William Wellman’s 1931 gangster classic The Public Enemy where James Cagney spontaneously shoves a grapefruit into co-star Mae Clarke’s face. According to the book: “The scene made Clarke’s ex-husband, Lew Brice, very happy. He saw the film repeatedly just to see that scene and often was shushed by angry patrons when his delighted laughter got too loud.” I love the story because it’s silly and ridiculous and not-outside-the-realm-of-possibility: spiteful exes have been known to do worse. But the story also gets at some of the key elements of an uncommonly enduring movie scene, one so memorable that, as critic Carlos Clarens notes in his book Crime Movies: “Not one reviewer failed to mention it, and it undoubtedly contributed to the film’s success.”  (Even Pauline Kael’s pithy two-sentence capsule review of The Public Enemy namechecks Clarke as “the girl who gets the grapefruit shoved in her kisser.”) The grapefruit bit remains a shocker, and was even more jarring in its day, but, as Brice certainly understood, it’s also kind of humorous in its utter nastiness. It catches many a viewer – if not Brice on his hundredth viewing – off-guard, leaving them helpless to do anything but gasp or laugh.