Jean Harlow's finest hour is The Girl from Missouri. If you've never seen a movie starring the original blonde bombshell, this is a good place to start. You probably know that she was Marilyn Monroe's idol, and it's not hard to see why when you watch this hilarious 1934 comedy predating Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and written by the same woman, Anita Loos. In this story, two small town girls run away to the big city and try to make it in show business; the brunette has common sense and falls for any guy who whistles, and the blonde wants to marry a millionaire. Sound familiar? Well this movie came first, so if you liked the remake, you've got to rent it.
When Jean and her friend Patsy Kelly get to the big city and take jobs as chorus girls, Jean tries to hook the first millionaire she gets her hands on: Lewis Stone. She's not as charming as she thinks-well, she is, but Lew only pretends to fall for her so quickly-and moments after they become engaged, Lew kills himself! Jean and Patsy are found in the room, but another millionaire, Lionel Barrymore, saves them from scandal by providing a false alibi.
This was the first Lewis Stone movie I ever saw, and I was surprised by his lack of screen time, given his high billing. I had no idea he was a beloved silent star who continued his career for another two decades and made himself a household name with the Andy Hardy movies. I always thought he was "that tired guy who kills himself". When the next few movies I saw him in he also had low energy and seemed extremely tired, I thought he was always that way; but it turns out he has lots of energy if you see him in the right movies.
Lionel Barrymore is absolutely hilarious in this movie. He may tell Jean, "I'm not a ladies man," but it's completely understandable that she wants to marry him, even after she meets the handsome, charming Franchot Tone. Lionel is such a cutie! He's smart and shrewd, but all his money doesn't make him feel like he's really earned a place at the top. The part of him that started off poor and ambitious understands that side of Jean; you can tell that even though he doesn't respect her, he still likes her. "What do you take me for?" Jean asks haughtily after Lionel insults her at a party. "What do you think?" he quips back.
Franchot is an interesting romantic rival, playing a spoiled playboy who doesn't believe Jean's as innocent as she claims. He's pretty self-centered for most of the movie, so don't feel bad if you're on Team Lionel. After all, how are you really supposed to root for Franchot when he's on the phone with another girl, lying to her about why he hasn't called, and then tells his secretary, "Stall her, tell her you're the operator, cut her off! I don't care," and leaves the room to hit on Jean Harlow? He's the perfect foil for Jean's character. Where she's innocent, he's experienced; when she feels, he's plotting. Her main goal is marriage, and his main goal is an affair. When you watch this movie, you've got to keep in mind that it was released just after the passing of the Hays Production Code. Being a "good girl" is extremely important in this movie, so put on your 1930s goggles and try to understand how important it is for Jean to get a husband, rather than a boyfriend.
Speaking of the Hays Code, when you know that this film was under heavy scrutiny and censorship, it's amazing some of the jokes made it through. Taking home the Rag Award for Best Screenplay, this movie is sweet, clever, fast-paced, romantic, and inventive. Patsy Kelley is side-splittingly funny as Jean's sidekick. Every one-liner out of her mouth is hilarious and shocking, from "Did someone ask you to sniff a little white powder?" to unbuttoning the bellboy's uniform and reasoning, "Well, when you can't afford to tip them. . ." Patsy is so funny, it's amazing she didn't completely steal the show. But when you're up against Jean Harlow, I guess that's impossible.
Finally, we come to Jean Harlow, the belle of the ball. If you know anything about Jean's personal life, you know that she wasn't really a painted harlot when the cameras stopped rolling. She was remarkably down to earth and playful, and her sweetness was missed by all who knew her. When you watch The Girl from Missouri, it doesn't feel as if you're watching her real life, but it is nice to see her in an innocent light. She may scheme to get Lionel, but all she's really after is a wedding ring. She doesn't do anything devious or at the expense of anyone else, so when Lionel accuses her of being a "blonde chiseler", your heart bleeds for her. She's a good girl, in more ways than one, and all she wants is someone to love her and take care of her. In her famous monologue, she bares her soul to Franchot and admits that she may look cheap but she has feelings just like anybody else. I know that in today's lifestyle, no one can identify with Jean's character from 1934-which in itself is rather sad-but she's still touching, compelling, and endearing. There's never been a bombshell with a brighter, purer light inside her.