HARLOW, JEAN (Harlean Harlow Carpenter) (1911–1937) Actress
Forever the embodiment of the blond bombshell, Jean Harlow became one of the greatest stars of the 1930s, although her career lasted less than a decade. On March 3, 1911, she was born Harlean Harlow Carpenter in Kansas City. After her parents divorced in 1922, her domineering mother, Jean, moved with Harlean to Los Angeles, where Jean pursued an acting career with little success. She and her daughter soon returned to Kansas City, later moving to Chicago after Jean remarried. At a school dance, Harlean met Charles McGrew II, a wealthy student with whom she eloped at age 16. The couple set up home in Beverly Hills. Harleen quickly tired of life as a housewife. Divorcing McGrew in 1929, she began finding jobs as an extra in films such as Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights (1931). Working her way into bit parts, she appeared in Double Whoopee (1929), a comedy short with Laurel and Hardy, and Saturday Night Kid (1929), a silent feature starring sex symbol CLARA BOW.
Now billed as Jean Harlow, she had her big break in 1930, when she was cast in Howard Hughes’s Hell’s Angels. An enormously expensive film about World War I, it boasted fabulous aerial footage but featured woefully weak characters and plot. Critics were particularly critical of Harlow’s mannered performance. Yet, despite her amateurish acting, the public was intrigued by the lighthaired, green-eyed beauty. Encouraged by the touting of Hollywood’s new “platinum blond” by Hughes’s publicity machine, women began trying to capture the Harlow look.
Almost overnight, Harlow became a star in great demand. Hughes loaned out his find to a series of studios, which inevitably cast her as a tough, worldly woman with no hesitation to use her sexual appeal to get what she wants. After playing variations on this type in films such as Public Enemy (1931) and Iron Man (1931), she welcomed the chance to play a wealthy heiress in a Frank Capra comedy. But the film did little to change her image after it was retitled Platinum Blonde (1931) to capitalize on Harlow’s newfound fame. Feeling frustrated with being pigeonholed, Harlow went head-to-head with Hughes, who in retaliation sold her contract to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). The move to the new studio proved a great career boost. MGM recognized her comic gifts and placed her in several vehicles that showed them to their best advantage. In 1932 she cemented her stardom with Red-Headed Woman, a comedy written by Anita Loos in which she played a gold-digging secretary out to seduce her boss. Almost unique in films of the day, in the end Harlow’s bad girl got her man without having to suffer for her conniving. Harlow followed its success with Red Dust (1932) and Hold Your Man (1933), both of which paired her effectively with Clark Gable. But she found perhaps her best role in Bombshell (1933), a savage Hollywood satire in which Harlow perfectly lampooned her own sexpot image.
While she was enjoying spectacular professional success, Harlow experienced a series of personal disasters. The most public was her brief marriage in 1932 to MGM executive Paul Bern, who was twice her age. Known for acting as a kindly adviser to stars, Bern committed suicide only two months after their wedding. His suicide note, which was widely reproduced in the press, included an apology to Harlow and hinted that impotence had led him to take his own life. Hollywood gossips sensationalized Bern’s death, but the resulting publicity helped rather than hurt Harlow by eliciting public sympathy for the young bride.
When she insisted on returning to work on Red Dust after the suicide, Gable was reported to have said, “That little lady has more guts than any man in Hollywood!” Harlow went the altar a third time the following year, wedding Bombshell ’s cinematographer Harold Rosson, again a man many years her senior. The marriage lasted only 14 months. Harlow had a final, impassioned romance with actor William Powell, with whom she costarred in Reckless (1935), but the couple never married. While filming Saratoga (1937) opposite Gable, Harlow became ill with blood poisoning. Only 10 days later, on June 7, 1937, she was dead at the age of 26. The news of her sudden, expected death stunned Hollywood and shocked her devoted fans. Though Harlow left behind only a handful of films, she has remained a powerful infiuence in cinema history for her creation of screen sirens whose allure lay as much in their wit as their sex appeal.
Golden, Eve. Platinum Girl: The Life and Legends of Jean Harlow. New York: Abbeville Press, 1991.
Stenn, David. Bombshell: The Life and Death of Jean Harlow. New York: Doubleday 1993.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Bombshell (1933). Warner Home Video, VHS, 1992.
Intimate Portrait: Jean Harlow (1999). Unapix, VHS, 2000.
Red-Headed Woman (1932). Warner Home Video, VHS, 1992.