In 1965, in yet another classic example of "Copycat Movie Making" Hollywood produced not one, but two film biographies of Jean Harlow, the 30s 'Blond Bombshell' whose tragic, short life was reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe. One was a gaudy, ambitious big-budget production starring theater and film actress/sex symbol Carroll Baker; the other was a low-budget, experimental film starring television actress/sex 'kitten' Carol Lynley. Both films failed, both in capturing the essence of Jean Harlow, and as film biographies. While the Baker film, which I'll discuss here, had enough lurid titillation for three films, the sweet-natured girl who was loved by nearly everyone who knew her never makes an appearance.
The 'real' Harlow, born Harlean Carpenter, in 1911, arrived in Hollywood at 16, with an over-ambitious mother and newlywed husband in tow. Divorcing her husband, she appeared in 'bit' parts until Howard Hughes 'discovered' her, and cast her "Hell's Angels", in 1930. She was a sensation, despite possessing a tinny, twangy speaking voice (which voice coaches would work on, throughout her career.) Eventually signing with MGM, she would become a sensation, frequently co-starring with Clark Gable, and her off-screen life would be even more sensational; her second marriage, to producer Paul Bern, would last only two months, and he would soon commit suicide, fueling rumors of his inability to 'perform' his duties as a husband; a third marriage, to cameraman Harold Rosson, soon followed, only to last eight months. She finally found happiness with actor William (The Thin Man) Powell, but before they could marry, she developed uremic poisoning and kidney failure, dying in 1937, at 26.
Baker's "Harlow" dumped any references to Gable and Powell (Mike Connors, in an off-beat piece of casting, plays the character 'based' on Powell), created an agent who served as a confidant (Red Buttons), and showed a decline in Harlow's spirit, until she became as sleazy as some of the characters she occasionally played (which those who knew her best flatly denied; the sensational headlines did not 'cost' her a career, or her 'soul', they maintain). The film presents her finally 'cleaning up her act', but dying before she can share her new-found joy.
Jean Harlow was an optimist, self-reliant and resilient, with a ready laugh, and an often too-generous nature. She never took her sex appeal too seriously, and preferred 'being comfortable' to creating illusions. She was adored by her co-workers, and the grief everyone felt at her death was genuine, not staged.
If "Harlow" had gotten even a part of this right, it would have been a far better film!
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