The Real Mystery of Paul Bern

A film director, writer and executive from Hollywood’s Golden Age, Paul Bern was on the precipice of film immortality when his life was cut short. Isn’t it about time he got his due?

by Wade Sheeler

Paul Bern was more than just a promising, on-the-rise MGM executive. By 1932, he was Irving Thalberg’s right-hand man. He was responsible for a whole roster of films churned out by the dream factory, including Greta Garbo’s first sound feature Anna Christie, and the star-studded melodrama, Grand Hotel. He had directed the likes of Pola Negri and Mabel Normand. All of this should be reason enough for his inclusion on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. But there is no Star to commemorate the talented producer. And it’s pretty obvious why.

Anyone who has even a passing knowledge of the Golden Age of Hollywood probably knows the name Paul Bern for another reason. Briefly married to none-other-than Jean Harlow, the silver screen’s incomparable sex symbol, Bern was found dead in their Benedict Canyon home barely two months into their marriage. He was only 42, killed by a gunshot wound.

The rumors, scandal and innuendo that followed his untimely death haunted his name, and moreover, his family for decades. You can read about it here.

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” as the saying from Liberty Valance goes, and so it would seem that all the hard work and goodwill that Bern was responsible for has faded in favor of the salacious and the unfounded.

But that’s all about to change.

Bern’s great-niece, Laura Riebman, is on a mission to right the wrong, silence the rumors and restore the name of Paul Bern as a worthy candidate for a Hollywood Walk of Fame Star.

In a recent conversation The Retro Set had with Laura, she recounts how she first heard about her Great Uncle: “I remember looking at a book on Hollywood history, and there being a picture of Jean Harlow, and (my mother) telling me this story, how my mother’s uncle was married to (Harlow). And he died under mysterious, tragic circumstances. I was maybe 10 at the very most…It was something my family never talked about.”

Her Great Uncle Paul’s notoriety became something of family lore, and as life tends to do, Laura moved on. Then recently, she was watching Jeopardy!, and the Final Jeopardy question’s answer was “Who was Paul Bern?” Laura remembers jumping up and down – she knew the answer, but none of the on-air guests did.

 

BERN EDIT
Paul Bern, from Laura Riebman Private Collection

This, along with Laura getting contacted by her cousin, also named Paul, about a proposed book that would retell the story of Great Uncle Paul’s death, began to stimulate her interest and imagination. She researched, and was able to separate the fact from the fiction, thanks to an exhaustive biography of her great uncle by E.J. Fleming. As Laura explains, “(From what I Learned) Paul was a really nice guy, he was intelligent, he was kind. My grandfather loved him, who was a wonderful, sweet man, and Paul was supposed to be a lot like him. He was kind to people, he was generous to people. There was so much more to him than this little blip. And that blip, 99.9% wasn’t even the truth. And how disturbing that was. This is a good man, who led a good life, but didn’t deserve what happened to him.”

Laura also remembers the toll the scandal took on her family. Her grandparents never discussed it, even years later. They were hounded by reporters, and had their private lives turned upside down. Now when she thinks about the impact the tragedy had on their lives, it brings tears: “My heart still hurts for my grandparents. I still see photos of my poor grandfather, walking off a plane, bombarded by all these photographers, and his brother’s been murdered; trashing his name.”

Fueled by the desire to right this wrong, to bring closure to not just the scandal, but the career of an important producer and executive from the Golden Age of Hollywood, Laura is on a mission to get her Great Uncle that elusive Walk of Fame Star. But it’s not just the simple task of “nominating” someone.

Laura explains that a well-written application must be created, and there’s the little matter of a fee, $30,000 to be exact. Also, if approved, the application is good for 2 years. But here’s the real catch: because the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce’s process of selecting the stars is non-profit, they want to all ceremonies well attended to make sure there is interest and reason to select the special nominees to be included.

With the application for nomination due by May every year, Laura is now reaching out to classic film fans everywhere with the hopes that we can all rally behind her and support, not just the inclusion of Paul Bern to the Walk of Fame, but the ceremony for presentation.

We here at The Retro Set are committed to helping Laura, by asking your help as well. We’re asking you to do one of two things:

  1. Email us at info@theretroset.com and cut and paste the following one or two statements: “I support Paul Bern’s inclusion on the Hollywood Walk of Fame” and/or “I would like to attend the Paul Bern Hollywood Walk of Fame” ceremony.
  2. Or you can go to FB Page, https://www.facebook.com/theblackmariablog/and type those sentences as a comment.

We’re hoping with enough support, we can do the unimaginable, and have the ceremony take place during the 2017 TCM  Classic Film Festival. If you were in town or attending the festival then, wouldn’t you want to take just a few steps right outside on Hollywood or Sunset Blvd and watch the Star unveiling ceremony? Wouldn’t it be great if, in tandem, TCM would show a film produced or directed by Paul Bern at the Festival?

We’re taking it one step at a time, and just now trying to bolster Laura Riebman’s application. Won’t you take a minute and support her by adding your thoughts in an email or on Facebook?

Paul Bern died tragically, and his death brought no harm to anyone, save himself. However he passed, isn’t it more important to reflect on a person’s body of work, than on their untimely passing? Haven’t we celebrated the careers of Thelma Todd, Natalie Wood, George Reeves, Marilyn Monroe and others for the body of their work and not the mystery behind their deaths?

In the words of Paul Bern’s great niece: “Who knows what (my great Uncle) could’ve brought to Hollywood? How many careers he would’ve impacted had he lived? People felt he was their friend, he was on their side, helping and building careers.”

After some reflection, Laura finishes: “(Paul) was interested in humanity, and that was his point of view for storytelling as well. My whole family would be thrilled to see him vindicated.”

Paul Bern's Great Niece, Laura Riebman
Paul Bern’s Great Niece, Laura Riebman
About Wade Sheeler 150 Articles
Wade Sheeler is a Reality TV Producer & Director, Writer, Frustrated lover of film and obscure music. He still makes mixed tapes if he likes you enough. For The Retro Set, he'll be covering the best new releases of classic and hard-to-find films on DVD, with an occasional foray into comedies and comedy teams you should really stay away from.

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