‘That Jean Har­low sure was a good kisser’

The Daily Observer - - OPINION - SEAN CHASE

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.

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