Jean Harlow and the Hard Knocks School of Acting


Jean Harlow, had she not died at the tragic age of 26, would have celebrated her 104th birthday today. I thought it would be fun to take a step back and observe the panorama of Harlow’s growth as an actress: from awkward, unskilled newcomer, to highly gifted and lovable comedienne over the span of just a few years. If ever there was one, Jean Harlow was a graduate of Hollywood’s Hard Knocks School of Acting.

Now… I don’t know about you, but I certainly remember the first day of work at my first big job. A day I’d like to forget, but can’t– like that memory of tripping down the stairs in High School it’s just burned in your subconscious forever. I still wince at the memory of how nervous, and therefore how AWFUL, I was at my first real job. Learning your duties on the fly, jumping in the deep end of a strange new world– it’s nothing short of terrifying. Fear of drowning lurking behind every teensiest wrong move.

Unlike Jean Harlow, my first “big job” was inside a characterless strip mall in the suburbs and, thankfully, only Me, Myself, and I have to live with the painful memory of just how bad I was at it.

For Jean, it was photographed in glorious silvery nitrate, splashed on a screen twenty feet tall, viewed by untold millions of strangers and dissected and criticized by the public press. Preserved for all eternity. 

That definitely puts my first job into pretty harsh perspective.

Harlean Carptenter became an actress because she had to pay the bills, simple as that. She’d been living the high life in Los Angeles with her young and newly wealthy husband and only turned up at the studios in order to win a bet from a friend that she didn’t have the guts to do it. But when she split from her husband and suddenly had her mother and stepfather to support, she had only one option to exploit: movie work.

And so Jean Harlow was born. And so an image was created. Her striking beauty and traffic-stopping figure made her a natural for the movies. Her talent as a dramatic actress?

Well …

First, there are a few things to keep in mind when watching Jean’s early features. A thoroughly inexperienced young girl was suddenly thrust into the glaring Hollywood spotlight, expected to have the acting chops that matched her image, and when it proved an arduous, was more or less devoured by the critics. She was also the sole supporter of a manipulative opportunist (her mother, Jean Harlow) and a flamboyant charlatan (her stepfather, Marino Bello) and the pressure for her to succeed was relentless.

Her first big break came when independent filmmaker and entrepreneur Howard Hughes cast her in the lead of his first Hollywood picture, Hell’s Angels. In all honesty, the decades have been kind to Harlow’s performance– her rough edges and unpolished manner have a certain raw appeal, and her famous line “would you be shocked if I slipped into something more comfortable” has become a part of the public vernacular. (Harlow thought it the corniest line ever written. Time would prove otherwise.)

Harlow in the only color footage of her in existence: the two-strip Technicolor segment of Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels (1930).

She was plagued with insecurities about her acting on the set of Hell’s Angels 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.”

He shot back, exasperated, “I can tell you how to be an actress, yes. But I can’t show you show to be a woman.”

Her work in The Public Enemy proved little better (OK, actually, it was worse) and the critics universally panned her acting ability. Especially next to the explosively talented newcomer James Cagney, Harlow is notably tense and reserved. Her opening scene is almost painful:

“She was embarrassing,” recalled co-star Mae Clark, “just embarrassing.” One critic concurred with the simple statement: “Jean Harlow is awful.”

But still, the public came. She had something, obviously, but how to present it?

MGM tried again with Platinum Blonde. (The film’s title was changed to capitalize off of Harlow’s increasing popularity, demonstrating the fact that even though MGM had no idea what to do with her, they knew that they had to do something.) This early Frank Capra film is best remembered for the exceptional performance of the lead, Robert Williams, whose refreshingly down-to-earth newspaperman promised a lengthy career as a leading men. (Unfortunately, Williams died three days after the film’s release, robbing 1930s cinema of what would have been one of its most sparkling talents.)  Harlow plays the same sexual conquest as before, and, as with the Public Enemy, is entirely miscast. As the public would soon realize, Harlow was not a dramatic, aristocratic ice queen. Harlow obviously belonged in the street-smart Girl Friday role. Sigh. Yet Harlow does her best, and when the script allows her to show a bit of levity, she is positively charming:

But even if her acting talents were still in the process of being hammered out, one thing was quite clear. The public was coming to see her. By the millions.

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 itself is 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 appropriately, wind up providing her with her key strength: dialogue. And I mean lots of it.

Languishing under her contract with Howard Hughes, she was finally acquired, thanks to the manic persistence of MGM 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 MGM’s most daring gamble had the good fortune of being adapted to the screen by the fast and witty Anita Loos, who penned the red-headed Lil Andrews with plenty of sass and zippy one-liners.

The hitherto wooden Jean Harlow, claustrophobic and uncomfortable in her skin, fired off Anita Loos’ dialogue like a six-shooter at the O.K. Corral.

It was a monumental breakthrough, and 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 solid gold. MGM had a formidable star on their hands. The Legion of Decency had a hernia. The critics took note.

And the rest was history. In just two years, Harlow transformed from a cardboard cutout to a fiery, irrepressible movie star.

The rest, as they say, is history.


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