8 December 2009 | Doghouse-6
In the mid '30's, Myrna Loy penned (ostensibly) an article for Photoplay titled, "So You Want To Be A Movie Star," which went into grim detail about the grind that is the real life of a star studio player both on and off the soundstage. BOMBSHELL takes this conceit and runs with it as brilliant and lacerating satire.
Jean Harlow is at her best as Lola Burns, the at-once pampered and put-upon star in question. Depicted are the constant demands for Lola's attention, time, energy and money, and the film has fun with all of it, from fatuous fan-mag interviews and staged photo ops to Hollywood politics and trouble with household and studio staff. Though awakened at the crack of dawn, Lola gets breakfast in bed - but with sauerkraut juice instead of orange juice. "There are are no oranges," apologizes the butler, to which Lola retorts, "No oranges?! This is California, man!" Before she's even out of her boudoir, Lola's had to contend with the pandemonium created by last-minute schedule changes, fussing and bickering from hair and makeup people and the inconvenient attention of her outsized dog. Finally ready to leave the house, she laments, "Well, here goes for another day; 7:00 AM and I'm already dead on my feet!"
Also driving Lola to distraction with his constant headline-grabbing stunts is the scheming studio publicity director played by the irrepressible Lee Tracy, who always gave co-stars a run for their money when it came to on-screen dominance. Harlow more than holds her own with him.
Appearing in able support are reliable players such as Franchot Tone as an apparently blue-blooded suitor unaware of Lola's fame, Pat O'Brien as her understanding director, Una Merkel as a less-than-reliable personal assistant and Louise Beavers as maid Loretta, who is deferential to Lola but takes no prisoners otherwise (responding to Merkel's early-morning crabbiness, she warns, "Don't scald me wit'cher steam, woman...I knows where the bodies is buried!"). As Lola's bombastic father and ne'er-do-well brother, respectively, the usually-lovable Frank Morgan and the never-lovable Ted Healy are ultimately rather tiresome, but that's what their roles require.
In a good-natured way, the film throws in some weirdly biographical elements of Harlow's real life, in which she coped with familial hangers-on in the persons of her domineering stage mother and somewhat sleazy stepfather, and Lola's reference to her palatial home as a "half paid-for car barn" is reported to have been uttered by Harlow herself about her own ostentatious digs. There's even a scene depicting Lola doing retakes on "Red Dust," a hit for Harlow the prior year.
In addition to snappy dialog and a mile-a-minute pace, the picture is enjoyable for its time-capsule look at the Ambassador Hotel and Coconut Grove in their heyday, as well as the grounds of the MGM lot itself, all used as locations.
Although bordering on farce at times (but in a good way), BOMBSHELL gives the impression of an only slightly exaggerated look at what the "real" life of a top-name contract player might have been like at the height of the studio system, with Harlow giving perhaps her most genuine (and least mannered) comic performance.