“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.
In full pre-code glory, real-life starlet Harlow is dressed in beautifully tight gowns – usually heavily embellished with sequins – while whipping her platinum blonde locks to and fro as she sarcastically quips at someone trying to tell her what to do. “Ya big patent leather peanut vendor!” happens to be one of Lola’s best snarky comments. The sexual innuendos are aplenty as is the liquor that Lola’s father and brother drink during the course of the film. With the strict enforcement of the code coming just a year after Bombshell was released, Fleming made the most of this sassy romantic comedy due to the lack of stringent censorship guidelines.
Who is the real Lola Burns? The opening scene features a montage of magazine covers emblazoned with Lola’s face intercut with average Joes staring adoringly into the camera (seemingly at the starlet). The love of the world doesn’t mean anything to Lola. She is just an immature girl that is trying to figure out life and her place in it. Throughout the film, she puts on many personas, trying to see which one is more authentic. In fact, she even goes to the depths of changing her crude voice to one with a more refined British accent in order to appear classier. As Lola puts on multiple masks throughout the film, the viewer simultaneously searches for the character’s authentic self.
Interestingly, Fleming chose to focus part of this film on Red Dust, a film he had directed the year prior. Red Dust starred Harlow as Vantine, a sexy yet unrefined prostitute that vies for a Vietnam plantation owner’s affection (Dennis, played by Clark Gable). In Bombshell, Lola has to go into the studio to shoot some retakes for Red Dust, specifically from a scene where she is bathing naked in a barrel. It is fascinating that Fleming chose to slightly fictionalize Harlow’s role in Red Dust and rework the actual film into the plotline of Lola’s story in Bombshell. As Lola tries to search for her authentic self, this begs the question, what is Jean Harlow’s authentic self?
Known for her status as sex symbol, Harlow thrived in the pre-code films of the ‘30s before her untimely death in 1937. She exuded an unrivaled sexiness while maintaining a girl-next-door attitude. In Bombshell, Lola wants to stop playing hussies like Vantine from Red Dust; she wants to become refined, sophisticated. How did Harlow feel about her roles that consisted of her wearing tight dresses or nothing at all? Lola is critical of the roles that she takes on, which is just an extension of Harlow’s actual filmography. Does Bombshell serve as Fleming’s critique of his past films that highlighted sex and drinking or does it act as a satire of the conservatives that hated pre-code films? In Bombshell, Fleming creates a commentary on a star persona and how that intertwines with ideas of an authentic self. As Lola searches for her true identity, one can only wonder if Harlow ever found hers.
Throughout the film, Lola tries on many personas; mainly ones that seem too refined and polished for the starlet. Every time that she puts on airs and tries to act more distinguished or cultured than she is, high jinks, foibles, and hilarity follow. Thus, the clean, refined facade is ultimately destroyed. This idealized notion of sophistication just won’t stick to the bombshell. Perhaps what Fleming is showcasing with this film is that sophistication is not all it is cracked up to be. Tea time, three piece suits, and poetry all can be wonderful, but who wouldn’t rather see a wisecracking Jean Harlow yelling at Clark Gable while naked in a barrel?