Directed By: Gordon Douglas
Starring: Carroll Baker, Red Buttons, Raf Vallone
Tag line: "What was Harlow really like? She was the star who didn't know when to stop!"
Trivia: Burt Bacharach and Hal David wrote two songs for the picture, "Harlow" and "Say Goodbye," but they weren't used
An actress who appeared in over 40 films prior to her untimely death at the age of 26, Jean Harlow’s brief but chaotic life had all the makings of a great biopic. Unfortunately, director Gordon Douglas’s 1965 movie, Harlow, ain’t it.
As the story opens, Jean Harlow (Carroll Baker) is a struggling extra, taking any role she can to help support her loving mother (Angela Lansbury) and her lazy step-father (Raf Vallone). Not willing to sleep around to get the lucrative parts, Jean’s career flounders until she hooks up with Arthur Landau (Red Buttons), an agent who believes she’s destined to become a star. But as Jean will soon discover, the road to stardom isn’t an easy one, and achieving fame and fortune doesn’t mean your troubles are over.
Harlow isn’t a bad film; Baker is both beautiful and convincing in the title role, and the supporting cast is also strong, especially Vallone as her slimy stepfather and Red Buttons as the kindly agent who takes the actress under his wing. There are some memorable scenes as well; I loved the opening sequence, where we watch hundreds of extras suiting up for the day. As a fan of movies, this glimpse into Hollywood’s past was certainly a thrill. Another strength is the look of the film, which owes a lot to the crisp cinematography of Joseph Ruttenberg and the period costumes designed by the legendary Edith Head. The pieces were in place to make Harlow a truly remarkable biopic. So, what happened?
The problem lies in the fact that the movie intentionally simplifies Harlow’s life, going so far as change the names of certain famous people (I’m pretty sure producer Richard Manley, played by Leslie Nielson, was a stand-in for millionaire Howard Hughes, who gave Harlow a part in his WWI drama Hell’s Angels after signing her to a 5-year contract in 1929). Even more frustrating is how Harlow fictionalizes elements of the actress’s movie career, like when she attends the premiere of The Allegheny Trail, which is a film she never made (and, for that matter, never even existed). There are posters and marquees for other pictures as well, like Yukon Fever, Wild Journey, and Luscious Lady… all phony.
Some details remain intact: Paul Bern (played by Peter Lawford) was, indeed, one of Harlow’s husbands, yet even here, the story is watered down. The real Paul Bern, who worked as a producer in Hollywood, was found dead of a gunshot wound at their home in 1932, and though his death was eventually ruled a suicide, there were those who believed Harlow herself shot him. I’ve read about this scandal before, and was anxious to see how the movie would handle it. But it makes no mention of any possible wrongdoings, presenting it as a straight-up suicide and draining as much melodrama from the event as they can (showing Harlow as the inconsolable widow). I’m not saying Harlow should have been the motion picture equivalent of a gossip rag, complete with every rumor and innuendo that plagued the actress over the course of her career, but give us something to remind us why hers was a life worthy of our attention.
I’m certainly not the world’s foremost expert on Jean Harlow, but I have seen a few of her movies. She was pretty darn awful in The Public Enemy, delivering a ridiculously wooden performance as Cagney’s favorite girl, but she lit up the screen in the controversial Red-Headed Woman, and held her own with the likes of Marie Dressler and the Barrymore brothers in 1933’s Dinner at Eight, where she showed some skill as a comedienne. At the time of her death, Harlow was one of the most popular stars in Hollywood. Nicknamed the “Blonde Bombshell”, she had been romantically linked to heavyweight boxing champion Max Baer, and, towards the end of her life, was involved in a loving relationship with fellow MGM star William Powell. She died quite suddenly of renal failure in 1937, which struck while she was in the midst of making Saratoga with Clark Gable.
Interesting stuff, isn’t it? Why Harlow ignored most of it, giving us instead a saccharine, by-the-book account of the actress’s “life”, is really a mystery.