Friday, June 17, 2011

Jean Harlow in the Tabloids

After moving to Los Angeles, a few of Jean Harlow's friends wagered that she would not have the nerve to try out for a role in the motion-picture business. She took that dare and ultimately accepted a few minor roles. When eccentric tycoon Howard Hughes signed her up for the female lead in his latest, lavish and most expensive Hollywood picture to date, the groundbreaking aviation drama Hell's Angels (1930), her role in cinematic history was cemented in stone.

The premiere of her first feature film, Hell's Angels, drew an estimated crowd of 50,000 at Grauman's Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. The film also boasts an expensive eight-minute, two-color Technicolor sequence. To date, this is the only color footage of Harlow known to exist.

Her first role was as an extra in Honor Bound (1928), which she worked for only seven dollars a day. After her claim to fame from Hell's Angels, Howard Hughes sold her contract to MGM for $60,000. She spent much of her money supporting her mother, and ignorant step-father who was notoriously known for failed get-rich-quick schemes. 

The makers of the 1933 classic, King Kong, wanted Jean Harlow for the lead role. She turned them down, ultimately paving the way to Fay Wray's immortality. Just one year prior, Harlow turned down the lead in Tod Browning's Freaks (1932). Can you imagine Harlow as the duck woman? It certainly would have been a shock to the audience that Browning was looking for.

Harlow was considered the first "platinum blonde" of the silver screen. She was the first actress to be referred to as a "slut" in a talking picture. Her screen career was almost ruined when her husband, Paul Bern, committed suicide under mysterious circumstances (it was later revealed that he had been confronted by his common-law wife and wanted to avoid a scandal of his own). 

Harlow spent her Sundays having her ash-blonde hair bleached platinum with a mixture of peroxide, ammonia, Clorox and Lux flakes. The painful procedure wrecked such havoc on her hair that she was eventually forced to don a wig. After the Production Code was enforced in the summer of 1934, Harlow agreed to have her hair dyed brown and proved that it wasn't her hair color that attracted sexism. Heck, watch the scene in Hell's Angels where she starts taking her clothes off as she enters the bedroom, revealing her bare back... a scene that would never have been done on the screen after the Code.

As a sex symbol, Harlow was known to put ice on her nipples right before shooting a scene, in order to appear sexier. Along with Hedy Lamarr, Harlow's titular figure was the primary inspiration for Batman creator Bob Kane's Catwoman character.

MGM certainly knew how to capitalize on her "goods" by awarding her with scene-stealing roles in Dinner at Eight (1933) and Libeled Lady (1936). The latter of which she got to work with her dream man, William Powell, and confessed to her close friends that he had intentions of marrying him. They shared a romantic relationship lasting two years. It was while shooting Saratoga (1937) that she fell ill and died ten days later of uremic poisoning. She was twenty-six. Turns out she was suffering from kidney disease since she was in her teens and the alcohol at Hollywood parties helped contribute to her death.

For many years, it was a widely-believed that Harlow died because her mother, a member of Christian Science, refused to allow doctors operate on her. And that she allowed only the church nurse to assist with the ease of bed-side pain. This story was even reprinted in David Shipman's book, The Great Movie Stars. This has since been disproven, and nothing more than a popular myth.

Saratoga became the highest-grossing film of 1937 and set an all-time record for MGM, due almost entirely to her untimely death. History repeats itself every few years, with similar box office statistics in light of the recent Batman movie with Heath Ledger as the Joker. 

William Powell, who became a close friend and lover for two years, gave Jean Harlow an 85-carat star sapphire ring, which she hoped signified their engagement. However, he said nothing to confirm this, so she wore it on her right hand and rarely took it off -- even wearing it in her 1937 comedy, Personal Property. Don't you love Hollywood trivia? 

Assorted Trivia
Her career cut short, Jean Harlow set the standard for numerous other screen blondes including Marilyn Monroe, Diana Dors, Mamie Van Doren and many others. Days before her untimely passing, Marilyn Monroe scheduled a time to meet with producers on the possibility of playing Jean Harlow in a movie about her.

Jean Harlow was the very first film actress to grace the cover of Life magazine. She appears on the cover of the May 3, 1937 issue.

Jean Harlow has to leave her prints in cement outside of Grauman's Theatre not once, but twice. The first time was done inside in front of a paying audience. The slab accidentally broke before making its way to the front of the theatre. Harlow returned four days later, this time doing it outside. 

When she passed away in 1937, Harlow's estate was valued at over one million, left entirely to her mother. Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM Studios, paid in full for Harlow's funeral and burial. William Powell supposedly paid $25,000 for her private crypt. Mayer had Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy sing his favorite song, "Oh, Sweet Mystery of Life," in the church chapel, followed by a huge banquet with an orchestra. It was a Hollywood funeral fit for an actress of Harlow's stature.

Many Hollywood celebrities were treated to gossip columns dedicated to their personal eating habits, off-screen romances, and anything else the tabloids could dish up to sell copies of their magazines. While most of the stories were provided by the movie studios to help publicize their latest picture, others were the fairytale kind of gossip that American movie goers could never get enough of. You can get many of these vintage magazines for a variety of prices (depending on the condition of the magazine), with the cost ranging as high as a few hundred dollars. Featured below for your amusement are a number of direct scans from said magazines, devoted to Jean Harlow.









 

2 comments:

Barry Traylor said...

Very nice article about one of my favorite actresses of the 1930's. I have been a fan of Harlow since I caught "Red Dust" on late night tv when I was 15 years old. Nice blog you have here Martin.

Wendy King said...

The love story of Jean and William Powell is one of the greatest romances of the 20th century. Her best freind was the amazing Myrna Loy. I cry when I see "baby" on TCM. I hate how they tried to in the 1960's to change her into something she was not! In Myrna's autobiography, "Being and Becoming" she smashes that myth. Remember, she was 26 years old. Please a moment of silence for all these amazing, long gone MGM brilliant actors.

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