I’m always reluctant to write a Shelved Doll on an old movie star, because Classic Scandals covers them so well. But I guess that is a little bit like saying “I am reluctant to play any sport, because Michael Jordan is a person who exists in the world.” Which is to say, to hell with it. Freedom to cover the Shelved Dolls we want! And in this case, Jean Harlow.
I’ve been obsessed with her since recently reading about the terrible cause of her death, which we will come to later. But, before then, what of her life? How did Harlean Carpenter, from Kansas City, become the blonde bombshell who still has women dying their hair platinum a century later?
Like many people, probably by being “a sickly child.” I always read that phrase and think “God, I wish I was a sickly child.” It would appear these infirm little boys and girls just spent days lying in bed and thinking and willing their future selves into being.
But Harlean (not yet renamed Jean) was truly sickly. “The Baby”, as she was known the whole of her life, had meningitis and scarlet fever, and was generally the kind of feeble creature that inspired her unhappy and overprotective mother to declare, “She was always all mine.” Indeed, when Harlean became ill with scarlet fever while away at summer camp, her mother rowed across the lake to care for her when told by the camp that she could not have visitors.
Harlean and her recently divorced mother had first went to Hollywood from Kansas City when she was age 12. Harlean attended the Hollywood School for Girls, which was a good move in terms of meeting the movie stars of the future like Douglas Fairbanks, but the move was absolutely no help in making her mother a star. It’s weird how we just assume that every mother in the world who wants her daughter to go down a certain career path is some sort of Gypsy Mama Rose figure, when in reality, Harlean’s mother could have been a nice lady who only wanted to be an actress.
As a teenager Harlean and her mother moved to Illinois. While attending Lake Forest Academy (fun fact – only about ten miles from where I grew up!) Harlean met a wealthy fellow student. They eloped when she was 16 (and he was 20) and moved to Los Angeles. Harlean became a notable socialite in Beverly Hills. This was probably fodder for her gold digger roles some time later, but she seemed well liked at the time of her marriage. Her acting career only began when she drove a friend to Fox Studios for an appointment and an executive spotted her sitting in the car and begged her to audition. She said she wasn’t interested; however, her friend dared her, and no one is allowed to turn down dares, ever.
So, signing in under her mother’s maiden name, Harlean became Jean Harlow and a movie star. At a time when you could be a star and not, really, an actress. She had very little technique, but she had magnificent presence, and the camera worshipped her. She often complained that her work was breaking up her marriage. It turns out that, yeah, it sadly actually was. She divorced in 1929 and moved in with her mother who had enthusiastically come to Hollywood as the first signs of success. She was only 18.
That same she starred in Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels, which was being billed as one of the most expensive movies ever made. Variety called it a pip. They also said that Jean Harlow was a flop but that “It doesn’t matter what degree of talent she possesses . . . nobody ever starved possessing what she’s got.” In the movie, she voiced the now classic line, “Would you be shocked if I changed into something more comfortable?”
It’s amazing to think that line even has an origin.
You can judge for yourself:
In truth, Jean only got the role because the actress originally starring had a Norwegian accent that wouldn’t work in the shift from silent to sound. But Jean did have that memorable blonde hair. She once said, “If not for my hair, no one would know I was alive.” It was certainly an essential part of the way she’s remembered. In her biography Life is Banquet, Rosalind Russell wrote:
“I was close to Jean Harlow. I loved her, and oh she was a stunning creature! I remember sitting under a hair dryer in a beauty parlor one day, and sitting next to me was a child, also under a dryer. She was wearing shorts, and her little baby legs perfectly formed, rested against the back of her chair while the nails of her little baby hands were being manicured. My word, I thought, a ten or eleven year old kid having that bright red polish put on, and suddenly the hood of the dryer went back and the child stood up and it was Jean. She was probably twenty-three at the time but without make-up and no eyebrows, she looked exactly like a little kid.”
No wonder everyone called her Baby forever.
To promote Jean’s image Hughes capitalized on her ash-blonde hair color, christened platinum by publicists. He offered $10,000 to any hairdresser that could match the color. Though even she had some help there. The Atlantic reported:
“I used to bleach her hair and make it ‘platinum blonde,'” Alfred Pagano, hairdresser to the stars, once said. “We used peroxide, ammonia, Clorox, and Lux detergent flakes! Can you believe that?”
We’ll talk more about that later.
She followed Hell’s Angels with Platinum Blonde in 1931 – the title a play on her own blonde hair. A series of other movies made with the dashing young Clark Gable, insured that her star continued to shimmer brightly for the next few years. She and Clark also became great friends; while most people called her by her nickname “Baby” he always called her Sis, and bragged that she could drink him under the table.
Her greatest role may have been in 1933 as a gold-digging young wife in Dinner at Eight, a drama which revolves around the personal problems of everyone leading up to a socialite’s dinner. The butler goes to jail for trying to punch the chauffer over a maid, and that is by far the most humorous moment in the film. Every other moment in the film is about people dying. Or having to leave the people they are in love with, and then dress up and go to dinner.
It’s one of my favorite movies.
We’re going to talk about it some more!
So, Jean Harlow has a great, memorable through-the-ages moment in that movie in which, at the end, she turns to a woman and haughtily declares that she never goes sunbathing because she can’t expose her skin. Then she turns around to reveal a gown that is cut so low in the back it nearly reaches her buttocks.
The final exchange in Dinner at Eight, between Marie Dressler (playing the aging femme fatale Carlotta) and Jean Harlow (Kitty, the gold digging blonde) is one of the best in movie history. It runs:
Kitty: I was reading a book the other day.
Carlotta: Reading a book?
Kitty: Yes. It’s all about civilization or something. A nutty kind of a book. Do you know that the guy says that machinery is going to take the place of every profession?
Carlotta: Oh, my dear, that’s something you need never worry about.
Incidentally, this was how she looked in the trailer for that movie. She looked like she was oozing sex out of her pores:
Basically, it’s a really good movie, and Jean Harlow is excellent in it. No New Yorker critic would take issue with her performance in that, I hope.
And it was around this time (after divorcing her first husband, having her second husband commit suicide and having an arranged marriage as a third) that she embarked on a love affair with William Powell. Look at how stupidly glamorous they are together:
The summary of Reckless, a movie the pair starred in that pretty much no one watches now (but is really enjoyable, in spite of that) runs:
Wealthy Bob Harrison buys all the seats in the theatre to watch Mona Leslie’s musical by himself. He loves her, her agent Ned Riley loves her. Conflict ensues.
And it was a conflicted relationship, perhaps because the third party in the love affair between them was “the world.” By 1935, there probably wasn’t a man in America who wasn’t in love or lust or some sort of extreme emotion with Jean Harlow. Oh, and, incidentally, here’s a clip of Reckless:
Myrna Loy, William Powell’s onscreen wife, also loved Jean. When the three of them went on a road trip, the concierge, thinking William and Myrna were married in real life, put them in the same room. When he realized the mix-up he put Myrna and Jean in the same room, and they, perhaps, felt embarrassed to correct him once again.
Myrna recalled, “”Bill complained bitterly, let me tell you, angling to get upstairs,” remembered Loy. “The mix-up brought me one of my most cherished friendships. You would have thought Jean and I were in boarding school we had so much fun. We’d stay up half the night talking and sipping gin, sometimes laughing, sometimes discussing more serious things. Jean was always cheerful, full of fun, but she also happened to be a sensitive woman with a great deal of self-respect. All that other stuff –that was put on. She just happened to be a good actress who created a lively characterization that exuded sex appeal.”
So the affair went on, and off, and then on again for a few years. At one point, Jean became pregnant with Powell’s baby, but Powell did not want children though Jean dreamed of having them. Her mother pressured her to abort it and continue her career, and she did, though not without a huge degree of sadness. Supposedly she never told Powell. He proposed to her later that year.
And she seemed to have a bright career ahead of her. However, in 1937, her health problems seemed to increase. Her hair began falling out in chunks, and while she continued to work, she suffered from symptoms that we later know probably pointed to kidney failure, such as water retention, fatigue, nausea,loss of appetite and severe sunburns. However, she continued to work up until two weeks before her death. The Atlantic writes:
She remained on set working up to weeks before her death. When she was bedridden, Clark Gable went to visit her and noticed when he bent over to greet her, “It was like kissing a dead person, a rotting person.” This was because she was no longer able to urinate and was now excreting waste through her breath. By then water weight had caused her body to double in size.
AGH. DO NOT DIE OF KIDNEY FAILURE EVER, OKAY?
And incidentally, that kidney failure? That’s now thought to be at least partly due to her hair dye. That hairdresser was right to be shocked! They should not have mixed incredibly toxic chemicals together! Apparently, when you mix ammonia and clorox bleach it produces hydrocloric acid which, if you’re exposed to it over a prolonged period, can cause kidney failure, or, the worst death possible.
It was said that every day, William Powell would come out of her room with a face so bloated from crying it appeared purple.
They had to cut off all her hair in the hopes of draining some of her excess fluids through her head.
Most astonishingly, for someone who never really wanted a career as an actress, was that Jean seemed determined to keep working right until the end. She returned to the set on July 3, though by July 6th, she fell into a coma. The day she died, a writer at MGM wrote, “The day Baby died there wasn’t one sound in the commissary for three hours.” William Powell paid for her funeral, and saw to it that there were always flowers on her grave. In her hands, he placed a gardenia and a note on which he’d written, “Goodnight, dearest darling.” On her gravestone it was written only “Our Baby.”
It seems remarkable that Jean Harlow was still truly a baby, as life-spans go. I marvel at the fact that she died when she was my age, perhaps because she seemed to pack so much living into a few brief years. Like the pilots in Hell’s Angels, she went down in a blaze of glory. (A nickname for her, prior to “the blonde bombshell”, was “the darling cyclone.”)
Try to do that. Remember to go out and live life, and do great things, because you don’t really know how long you have. And also, don’t fuck around with hair dye, I guess. Or chemicals, in general.
Pictures via Wikipedia