The brief 26 years of Jean Harlow’s life were marked with tragedy, disappointments, heartbreak and, of course, a tremendously successful screen career. Her intensely sensual on screen presence ignited American movies and gave the world something it had never before known: the blonde bombshell. She was beautiful, true, but hers was an attainable beauty that led even Harlow herself to admit that “men like me because I don’t wear a brassiere. Women like me because I don’t look like a girl who would steal a husband.” She was a natural comedienne with a gift for belting out the difficult, rapid-fire dialogue that made some of the best films of the mid 1930s truly unforgettable. She was not, even by her own admission, a great actress and because of this awareness Harlow worked hard at her craft and eventually would successfully hone her screen personality into one of the most enduring in motion picture history: the sassy, saucy girl from the wrong side of the tracks.
But Jean Harlow’s on screen character belied the real girl underneath. She was not Dinner at Eight’s common-as-the cold Kitty Packard, nor Red Headed Woman’s amoral Lil Andrews. Born Harlean Carpenter on March 3, 1911, she was a shy dentist’s daughter with a heart of gold from a perfectly respectable middle class Kansas City family. She was an actress simply because it was her job and would have been quite happy darning socks for a household of little Harleans. Her mild nature and her mother’s constant presence led her to be known as ‘the baby’ around the MGM. Harlow was known for knitting and hemstitching in between takes, was something of a bookworm, and was generous to a fault.
The story of Jean Harlow’s movie stardom is a curious one indeed since it was never truly her career: it belonged to her mother Jean. It is no accident that mother Jean’s maiden name was Harlow, and by extension, one could argue that Jean Harlow never really had a life of her own. That too belonged to her mother who had an extraordinarily firm grip on every aspect of her daughter’s life. Theirs was a truly special bond, but also an unhealthy symbiotic relationship that would eventually factor in to Jean Harlow’s untimely death.
Throughout Harlean’s childhood, her relationship with her mother was of uncommon closeness. Harlean had health issues as a child including a bout of scarlet fever, which only added to her mother’s over-protectiveness. After her divorce in the early 1920s, mother Jean packed up and moved herself and Harlean out to Hollywood. The toe-headed Harlean attended the Hollywood School for Girls, while Jean Harlow Carpenter pursued her dream of acting. She was a beautiful woman as she’d been reminded of her whole life, but being in her 30s she was too old to start in Hollywood as a starlet. With her dreams thwarted, mother and daughter were soon headed back for Missouri.
It was there that Jean Harlow Carpenter became Jean Bello, marrying a man whose work ethics were questionable at best. Not long after her mother’s elopement with Marino Bello, the 16-year-old Harlean eloped with a young businessman with a large inheritance. She left school forever and the headed West with her new husband where they lived lavishly in the Los Angeles social circles. While she was free of her Mother for the time being, Jean Bello and her husband weren’t far behind.
When Harlean’s marriage quickly (and hardly surprisingly) fell apart, she realized that there was only one way to support herself and her mother and father-in-law in their accustomed fashion. Having done movie work before, purely as a laugh (she’d been bet by a friend that she didn’t have the guts to audition), it was the only professional experience she actually had to her credit and, urged by a mother obsessed with living out her thwarted dreams through daughter, Harlean adopted her mother’s maiden name and became a regular at Fox Studios’s central casting.
Her bit in the 1929 Laurel & Hardy silent laffer Double Whoppee was memorable for some very obvious reasons but the roles were largely very forgettable. And then came Howard Hughes. In that same year, Hughes was in the middle of re-shooting his massively over budget wartime epic Hell’s Angels when Jean was brought to his attention. Hughes hired her on the spot. Her role as the promiscuous vamp Helen (which features the only color footage of Harlow in existence) floored audiences, but was slammed by the critics who called her, among other things, just plain ‘awful.’
Hell’s Angels was a box-office grand slam. The girl had something–even if it wasn’t a pair of acting chops.
And here is where I beg your indulgence as I fasten on my soapbox laces.
As it happens, the decades have been strangely kind to Harlow’s Hell’s Angels performance– her rough edges and unpolished manner now eliciting a certain raw appeal. (And “let me slip into something more comfortable” has become a part of our cultural vernacular.) But Harlow was plagued with insecurities about her acting on the set of Hell’s Angels, which resulted in a poignant exchange between her and director James Whale.
“Tell me exactly what you want,” Harlow pleaded with Whale, “and I’ll do it.”
The director shot back, exasperated, “I can tell you how to be an actress, yes. But I can’t show you how to be a woman.”
This emotional handicap, fostered by her mother’s ever growing domination of her professional and personal life, was to be the tragic paradox of Jean Harlow’s existence. On screen, the Harlow image would be created to define the ultimate embodiment of female sexual freedom. In real life, Jean Harlow would not be free to live her own life as a human being.
Her work in The Public Enemy (1931) proved little better and the critics universally panned her acting ability. Especially next to the explosively talented newcomer James Cagney, Harlow is notably tense and reseved.
“She was embarrassing,” recalled co-star Mae Clark, “just embarrassing.” One critic concurred with the simple statement: “Jean Harlow is awful.”
And still, the public came. That “something” was obviously there– but how to present it?
Enter Frank Capra’s Platinum Blonde. The film’s title was changed to fit its increasingly popular female lead. This early Frank Capra film is best remembered for the exceptional performance of the lead, Robert Williams. Harlow plays the same sexual conquest as before but with this film Harlow has a leg to stand on: even if her acting talents were still in the process of being defined, one thing was quite clear. The public was coming to see her.
But Harlow was not the only one fighting to make a successful transition. Hollywood itself was also in the midst of a very clunky transition from silent to sound. (Hell’s Angels is itself a veritable documentary of the sound revolution.) It’s interesting to note that Jean’s acting improved with each film, right along with the same technology that would, ever so ironically, wind up providing Jean with her key strength: dialogue.
Languishing under her contract with Howard Hughes, she was finally acquired by MGM thanks to the manic persistence of producer (and future husband) Paul Bern where she was very reluctantly (Thalberg’s desperate last resort) cast in the most “unfilmable” movie in Hollywood, a racy sex film called Red Headed Woman. But Thalberg was proved very wrong indeed: the film had the good fortune of being adapted by the fast and witty screenwriter Anita Loos, who penned the red-headed Lil Andrews with sass and zippy one-liners, and he certainly hadn’t be on Jean Harlow being capapble of firing off those lines like a six-shooter at the OK Corral.
Harlow’s hard work was about to pay off. Although she resented being painted to the public as a salacious man-eater, the result was box office gold. The Legion of Decency had a hernia. The critics interests were piqued. Regardless of what Irving Thalberg or Louis B Mayer thought of her (neither were complimentary), MGM had the makings of a formidable star on their hands.
But still, Jean’s rise to superstardom was progressive and far from overnight. Harlow was next placed opposite MGM’s top male star, Clark Gable, in Victor Fleming’s Red Dust. Both were tremendously popular with audiences and both were tremendously troubling to the censors, leading to increased efforts to enforce the unpopular Hays Production Code. These roles were manipulative women who lacked any type of moral instinct, slept their way around town, drank and spoke in thinly veiled innuendos.
Because Harlow nailed those characters so well, most naturally assumed that was the sort of woman she was offscreen. It couldn’t have been further from the truth. In real life, the role was reversed: it was Harlow who allowed herself to be manipulated by those she loved most and she worked hard to keep her mother approving and to keep her father-in-law, whom she disliked intensely, quiet.
Of course it needs to be said that Harlow didn’t exactly make the best decisions. But since when do 21 year old’s make good decisions? Those of us still blessed enough to enjoy life have the luxury of hindsight and the ability to reconcile our bad decisions as young person with who we’ve become as an adult. Harlow, struck down at 26, would never have that advantage. One can only wonder what Harlow would have, in her more mature years, made of the tragic events that were to next take place:
In 1932, Paul Bern, the producer that had brought Harlow to MGM, proposed to Harlow.
She was 21.
He was 43.
The marriage was a mistake from the beginning and lasted all of two months, ending when Bern was found dead in their home from a shot to the head on September 5, 1932, at the couple’s Beverly Hills home. MGM were masters of staving off scandal and they put round the story that Bern had shot himself in the head because he was impotent and incapable of consummating his marriage with Harlow, getting the idea from a note supposedly ‘left’ by Bern’s body. The note read simply: “you understand that last night was only a comedy.” (The Paul Bern death could fill the pages of a novel, so for more information on the mystery pick up a copy of David Stenn’s most excellent Harlow biography Bombshell or Darrell Rooney’s Harlow in Hollywood.)
Bern was Irving Thalberg’s best friend and at first he and wife Norma Shearer, along with a number of Bern’s other friends, shunned Harlow. But even after Harlow was cleared of any involvement with Bern’s death and the Hollywood community began to rally around her in support, Harlow blamed herself entirely and felt unworthy of the sympathy of any of her colleagues. It worsened Harlow’s already considerable inferiority complex she suffered from under her mother’s autocratic rule and she developed two excesses: an overdeveloped guilt complex and a growing dependency upon alcohol.
Recovery from scandal is hard enough today even in our ultra-permissive society, but in those days scandal could mean the end of a career. But after Bern’s death, Harlow’s career skyrocketed into superstardom. Dinner at Eight, Bombshell Hold Your Man, and China Seas all came in the wake of the scandal, one after the other, hit after hit–both with audiences and critics alike.
Harlow had found her knack for comedy. The critics suddenly found themselves praising her street-smart approach. Dinner at Eight was a comedic dazzler from master director George Cukor. Bombshell was a positively infectious mock biopic of Jean Harlow as Jean Harlow. China Seas was yet another Harlow-Gable sizzler.
Then came Reckless and, as MGM did with all of its talent during the craze for movie musicals, made Harlow sing and dance. She could do neither. Her mother’s constant presence on the set added to the pressure. A fellow dancer in the cast recounted stories of Harlow getting hungry and her mother allowing her daughter a scant ration of cottage cheese and shredded carrots each day. The film was a flop.
Fed up with people thinking she was ‘that kind of a girl,’ her pleas to MGM were at last taken into consideration and the studio went about the business of remaking her image with one smart move: her platinum locks were darkened to ‘brownette.’
Harlow was thrilled. “No woman will ever be afraid of me again,” she said with relief at finally not having to live up to the platinum image that was so very much unlike her real self. Her roles in Riffraff and Wife vs. Secretary were a complete about-face from the Lil Andrews and Kitty Packards of the past.
(It also saved Harlow’s scalp: the extreme regimen of keeping her hair its signature platinum blonde included Lux flakes, bleach, and peroxide. By the time of China Seas, Harlow required a wig due to the chemical damage of her hair.)
Reckless may have been a critical missfire, but it did bring her into the life of the older and urbane William Powell. Harlow truly believed that, with Powell, she had finally met the love of her life. It is no secret that Harlow loved Powell considerably more than he loved her, but that should not negate their affection for each other. They had good chemistry together, and Powell was very good for her–in a paternal way–in that he taught her a lot about taking control of her finances as well as tried to get her to take steps to try and pry her from her mother and father-in-laws dominance. For someone like Harlow, who never had a strong male leading figure in her life, it is little wonder she became so deeply attached to him.
The problem was Powell didn’t understand that Harlow was completely unlike the other girls he normally went with. Whereas his former wife Carole Lombard was street smart, strong, and wonderfully witty, Harlow was shy, highly sensitive, and overly eager to please. It didn’t help that Powell was a great put-down artist—he knew Harlow had a brain and was nothing like her on screen characters, but he liked to make digs at her about it nonetheless.
It was that marvelous brand of sarcastic humor that made audiences adore him as Nick Charles. It was much harder for little Harlean Carpenter to take it on the chin as Nora Charles always did, much less retaliate. She was deperately in love with Powell, and although Powell’s remarks were all in fun, his digs inwardly devastated the insecure Harlow. Powell thought that Harlow could just take it, the way everyone else could.
He thought wrong. Harlow was heartsick over Powell’s unwillingness to marry her and her drinking worsened. The perpetually guilt-stricken Harlow could never hope to understand that it was not her fault: Powell was simply afraid to marry her.
Myrna Loy, Powell’s famous co-star, became a close confident of Jean’s during her roller coaster relationship with Powell and called her friendship with Harlow one of her ‘most treasured.’ Loy is also one of the many people who noticed a marked change in Harlow’s appearance during the production of the 1936 film Wife vs Secretary (arguably Harlow’s finest dramatic performance and the film that suggests that, had Harlow lived, she would have become an accomplished dramatic actress). Loy urged Harlow to consider seeing a doctor: she had started to put on noticeable weight, and was frequently tired and highly irritable.
But in spite of her personal issues, Harlow’s pictures continued to be solid blockbusters. Libeled Lady was one of the finest comedies of the 1930s, and her next film Saratoga was to re-team her with Clark Gable.
No one could have dreamed that Saratoga was to be Harlow’s final film.
The people closest to Harlow around this time knew she wasn’t well. George Hurrell had to retouch her photographs and her extreme unhappiness had begun to change the very nature of her personality. Harlow’s friend Rosalind Russell, who had grown close to Harlow during their time together on China Seas, had to make repeated trips to local bars to take Harlow home. Russell would later say that Harlow became “a sad girl, driven by her mother, madly in love with a man who wouldn’t marry her, and drinking too much.” Russell was very concerned when she saw Harlow, who was not an angry or violent person, become blatantly hostile. It was the other end of the pendulum of her personality. Biographer Stenn writes, “the more she drank, the more she hated her mother. She became verbally abusive. On film, Harlow’s fury was funny. Off screen, her tantrums were terrifying.”
Filming for Saratoga was not smooth going and Harlow became increasingly unwell. No one could have dreamed that MGM’s sweet-natured, warm-hearted “baby,” all of 26 years old, was dying.
The rumors of the cause of her death have been sensationalized and blown out of proportion for years, but the fact is: Jean Harlow died from uremic poisoning from kidney failure. The scarlet fever she suffered in her childhood had doomed her, and unbeknownst to doctors, Harlow’s kidneys had been failing for years. The illness is horrific and brutal; and Jean’s final days were ones of acute suffering. Clark Gable, who initially thought the MGM’s baby guilty of being dramatic over her illness, was unconsolable on sight of her when coming to see her in the hospital. According to witnesses, Gable could ‘smell the urine’ on Jean’s breath. (Uremic poisoning renders the kidneys unfunctional thereby storing waste within the blood.)
The symptoms are clear here in the 21st century, but in 1937 such was not the case. It is a matter of record that Harlow’s visible swelling, irritability and acute fatigue (during the shoot for Saratoga the 26 year old lacked the strength to even walk from her dressing room to the set and had to be driven) were misdiagnosed by her physician. And, also true, is the fact that her mother was a practicing Christian Scientist which made medical attention something of an issue. But two facts must be cleared up: the first being that Jean Bello was willing to push aside her faith to seek medical help for her daughter when it became evident that her was in very real danger. And, the hardest fact of all: even if Jean Harlow had been properly diagnosed, and her mother had sought medical attention earlier, there was no such thing as dialysis for kidney failure in 1937.
Nothing could have been done to save Jean Harlow.
And what’s worse that that: even if there had been some sort of treatment available, it is doubtful that Jean would have had the heart to fight. Harlow’s Doctor later said that Harlow “didn’t want to be saved. She had no will to live whatsoever.”
It is foolish to put this want of heart on her failed romance with William Powell. At 26, she’d had a life full of failed romances. Rather, it is more likely that her lack of will to live came from the fact that she had never truly lived for herself to begin with. When one’s personal image has been created by a machine (the studio system), when one’s life has been dictated by another’s desperate need to fulfill their dreams vicariously (Jean’s mother), when one’s childish dreams of love and a home full of children has been thwarted by disastrous relationships (her second husband killed himself) it is not much of a stretch to come to terms with Jean’s want of heart.
Not even her name was her own.
Jean Harlow’s death, not only took the world by shock, it devastated the Hollywood industry. Mickey Rooney described the blow in detail, stating that the crew could hardly speak. “We weren’t just workers on her set,” said one crewmember, “we were real to her. If you were sick, she was the first one to notice. The first one to send flowers.” When a studio executive cut down on crew coffee breaks, Harlow had stormed to the office with the ultimatu “either they get a coffee break or I don’t work.” The MGM crew adored Jean Harlow, and production came to a stop at MGM upon hearing of her death. They were simply unable to work; a choking hush swept across the MGM lot, and all of Hollywood.
It took years for a devastated William Powell to recover from Jean’s death. Powell himself fell ill from cancer the very year of Jean’s death. And when Powell did recover, he married quickly (Powell and his wife Diana Lewis knew each other only 3 weeks) and loyally (they remained married until his death in 1984). Without her ‘baby,’ Jean Bello eventually deteriorated into a state of complete dementia. Workers at MGM left their sets, unable to work when they heard the news.
Harlow’s mindset at the time of her death was of such prodigious unhappiness that she probably would not have believed any of these displays of terrible grief and loss. But Harlow’s image has passed on into immortality and her spirit is preserved perfectly on celluloid. Long after we’re gone, that simple dentist’s daughter from the Midwest who never thought anything much of herself and who truly, in the deepest manner possible, lived only for others, will still be there for the world to see: beautiful, young and eternal.