‘That Jean Harlow sure was a good kisser’
Before Veronica Lake, Lana Turner and Marilyn Monroe, there was Jean Harlow.
She was quite simply, the original Blonde Bombshell. Her meteoric rise, in less than 10 years, took her from being a punch line for Laurel and Hardy to becoming one of the biggest stars of Hollywood’s golden age. Appearing in only 36 films, she co-starred alongside some of cinema’s immortal giants Clark Gable, Charlie Chaplin and Spencer Tracy. The American Film Institute once listed her among the Greatest American Screen Legends. The first film actress to grace the cover of Life Magazine was among the many milestones she achieved during her short career.
Her tumultuous life was as mystifying as her untimely death at just 26. Yet nearly 80 years since she left this earth, Jean Harlow continues to captivate not just devoted moviegoers but remains an indelible influence on pop culture.
She was born Harlean Carpenter on March 3, 1911 in Kansas City, Missouri. Her father, Abraham, was a dentist. Her mother, Jean Poe, was the daughter of a successful realestate broker. Harlean attended Miss Barstow’s Finishing School for Girls in Kansas City. She was 11 when her parents divorced. Receiving full custody, Jean and her daughter moved to Los Angeles. For a short time, young Harlean attended Hollywood School for Girls where she met her first movie star – Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
Known as “Mama Jean,” her mother pursued any opportunity to get into acting in the theatre. However, pressured by her father, Jean returned home to Kansas City in 1925. That summer, 14-year-old Harlean was shipped off to Camp Cha-Ton-Ka, in Michigan. During her stay, the teen came down with a serious bout of scarlet fever. It would be the first of many ailments to plague Harlean throughout her life.
Jean eventually married her boyfriend, Marino Bello prompting a move to Chicago. Harlean attended the Ferry Hall School in Lake Forest, Illinois. While there, Harlean befriended 19-year-old Charles “Chuck” McGrew, who was in the senior class and the heir to his family’s sizable fortune. They eventually dated, eloped and married. She was only 16.
Attempting to distance his wife from her increasingly domineering mother, Chuck moved Harlean out to Beverly Hills, California. Harlean soon settled into life as a socialite. One day in 1928, Harlean agreed to drive her friend, Rosalie Roy, to Fox Studios for an audition. Rosalie was hoping to break into the moving picture business. Waiting outside, Harlean was approached by an executive who was taken by her beautiful looks and believed she had what it took to be an actress. Harlean, surprisingly, turned him down.
However, her life would change a few days later when Harlean took Rosalie up on a bet that she did not have the nerve to audition for a film role. Harlean walked into central casting at Fox. Applying for the audition, Harlean signed up using her mother’s first and maiden names “Jean Harlow.”
The audition did open the door to show business but success was far from instant. The studio offered only small parts which Harlean wasn’t interested in. However, Mama Jean sensed that her daughter could achieve something that had eluded her – fame. Although much has been written and speculated about how manipulative Jean was, mother and daughter always had a strong bond. Harlean bowed to pressure from Mama Jean and accepted her first role as an extra in “Honor Bound.” The gig paid $7 a day.
Now going by her new official stage name, Jean Harlow continued taking bit parts in silent pictures such “The Love Parade” and “Moran of the Marines.” Her fledgling career soon diverted her to comedy where she took on small but noticeable roles appearing alongside one of the biggest acts of the era – Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. In 1928, she signed a five-year deal with MetroGoldwyn-Mayer producer Hal Roach which paid $100 a week.
Her first major film under the contract was “Double Whoopee,” a story about the hijinks of two doormen at an upper class hotel. In one particular scene in the 20-minute silent short, Jean’s character, described in the cast billing as a swanky blonde, steps out of a cab to be met by bellhop Stan Laurel. The incompetent bellhop proceeds to trap her elegant dress in a door. The poor girl soon loses the dress entering the lobby in a slip. While it showed Jean could play comedy without batting an eye, there was also a sex appeal on display (Harlow also appeared in the movie poster).
She went on to pair with Laurel and Hardy twice more in “Liberty” and “Bacon Grabbers.” In 1929, she made 15 movies, however, a majority were uncredited parts. That year, she had her first speaking role in “The Saturday Night Kid.” However, Jean Harlow finally had a breakthrough hit the following year when she received top-billing in “Hell’s Angels,” produced by the great aviation mogul Howard Hughes. Harlow was a last-minute casting replacement when Norwegian actress Greta Nissen dropped out of the project.
An epic set during the First World War, Jean played Helen, the love interest of the main character, a British pilot, played by James Hall, who must face his Oxford school chum who has been conscripted into the German Air Force. The movie is notable for two things. First, it features a colour sequence which is the only colour footage of Harlow in existence. Secondly, Harlow remains famous for one line she delivered in the picture: “Would you be shocked if I changed into something more comfortable?”
While Hughes was praised for the cinematography used to stage the aerial dogfights, the critics were not as kind to Harlow. The New York Times stated that “Hughes’ film is absorbing and exciting. But while she is the center of attraction, the picture is a most mediocre piece of work.”
While critics remained unimpressed, the studio kept pairing her with major stars including James Cagney in “The Public Enemy,” “Iron Man” with Lew Ayres and “The Beast of the City” with Walter Huston. MGM promoted Harlow as “America’s newest sex symbol.” She played comedy well becoming known as the “laughing vamp.” Her biggest asset appeared to be her trademark platinum blonde hair. Jean had to undergo gruelling, sometimes painful, bleaching to achieve the effect but soon it sparked a nation-wide trend. Girls around the U.S. began dying their hair so they could look like Harlow. Hughes even set up “Platinum Blonde” to capitalize on the fad.
Seeking to cash in on the bankable star, Louis B. Mayer bought out Harlow’s contract from Hughes for $30,000. While her risque image clashed with the family entertainment image that he wanted to promote with MGM, Mayer knew that her films were profitable.
Meanwhile, privately Jean and Chuck had divorced. She moved in with her mother. Mama Jean was only too happy to preserve and relish in her daughter’s newfound fame. By this time, Jean had become romantically linked with German-born director and screenwriter Paul Bern, who had pushed for Mayer to gain the rights to Harlow. She had met Bern at the premiere for “Hell’s Angels.” The press were skeptical of the relationship as Bern, at age 42, was double her age.
“He likes me for my mind,” Jean would tell reporters. “He isn’t pawing me all the time.” On July 2, 1932, Jean and Paul were married, however, it was to be short-lived. More than two months later, a butler found Bern’s body in the couple’s Beverly Hills home. He had died from a gunshot wound to the head. It appeared he had shot himself with a .38 calibre pistol found by his side. Witnesses reported a mystery woman driving away from the house shortly before the body was found. The coroner’s office ruled it a suicide. Bern had left a note that read: “Dearest Dear, Unfortunately this is the only way to make good the frightful wrong I have done you and to wipe out my abject humiliation, I Love you. Paul.” There was a post script which read: “You understand that last night was only a comedy.”
A shocked Harlow could offer no explanation for what drove her husband to take his own life. She had been spending the night at her mother’s place. Speculation remains rife to this day that Bern may have been murdered by his first wife, actress Dorothy Millette. The day after Bern’s body was discovered, Millette boarded a steamer on the Sacramento River that was bound for San Francisco. During the night, she jumped overboard and drowned in the river. Jean paid for her funeral and cemetery plot.
Allegations have surfaced in the decades since that the studio was notified by the butler prior to the police being called. It’s been theorized by those who have studied the case that MGM’s security chief went to sanitize the crime scene and that the original suicide note was either removed or one was created. Furthermore, it’s been alleged that MGM security had been directed by producer Irving Thalberg, for whom Bern was an assistant at the time, to tamper with evidence.
Three days after Bern’s funeral, Harlow went back to work on filming “Red Dust” with Clark Gable. Jean had found her match in Gable. The two had a remarkable chemistry on-screen, a byproduct of their cherished friendship off-screen. Although America’s most desired man was a notorious womanizer, it appears Gable and Harlow were nothing more than close friends. He enjoyed her warmth, quick wit and free-spirited attitude. Clark was more of a protective older brother to Jean. His nickname for Jean was “Sis.” The pair would end up making six movies together.
Jean appeared to have moved on from the loss of Bern and was rumoured to have dated Max Baer, the heavyweight boxing champion of the world. The studio, however, frowned upon her involvement with Baer. As soon as she began seeing cinematographer Harold Rosson, executives pushed for the couple to get married as they wanted to avoid potential scandal in the future.
The wedding took place on Sept. 17, 1933 in a ceremony in Yuma, Arizona. Like her two previous matrimonial unions, Jean’s marriage to Harold was doomed. They separated a year later. Rosson’s work would gain fame in 1939 with his cinematography on “The Wizard of Oz.” Her real-life trials seemed to enhance her image as a sex symbol and sassy starlet.
“Men like me because I don’t wear a brassiere,” she was once quoted as saying. “Women like me because I don’t look like a girl who would steal a husband. At least not for long.”
Jean kept churning out movie gold with box office hits like “Dinner at Eight” with Lionel Barrymore, “Hold Your Man,” with her favourite co-star Gable, and “Bombshell,” a screwball comedy with Lee Tracy. Then she appeared in “Wife vs. Secretary” starring alongside rising star James Stewart. In one romantic scene in a car, Harlow and Stewart were required to kiss but the director demanded several takes before he was satisfied with the final shot. Stewart, one of the most wholesome stars to ever grace the silver screen, was taken by Harlow’s allure stating: “That Jean Harlow sure was a good kisser. I realized that until then I had never been really kissed.”
Behind the glamour, Jean was not well. She had barely shaken a terrible bout of influenza when she required dental surgery to pull two wisdom teeth. She soon came down with septicemia as a result. Although she eventually recovered from the surgery, friends and co-stars would soon see alarming physical changes in the silver screen siren.
What they couldn’t have known was that Jean Harlow did not have long to live.
Perhaps the most iconic photo of Jean Harlow, as Lil Legendre from "The Red Headed Woman." There remains a mystique about the 1930s silver screen legend that endures 80 years after her sudden death, at just 26.