16 April 2009
Finally Getting Gaga Over Harlow
At first I didn't quite "get" Jean Harlow. Sure I loved almost every film she was in and I loved her characters, but I just wasn't gaga over her.
In Platinum Blonde (1931) her co star Loretta Young is ever so much lovelier. As seductive and "bad' as Harlow is in Red Headed Woman (1932), she's not up to the standard Barbara Stanwyck sets in Baby Face (1933).
I was missing the point about Harlow. I was guilty of thinking about her with that other brain us men so famously possess. So I was liking her and intrigued by her but felt that maybe she just wasn't my type. Then I got it. (Watch her films enough times and it'll happen.) I stopped just looking and started listening.
Ladies and gents, Jean Harlow was funny as all get out.
The stork's deliveries got nothing on the way Harlow delivers this line from Bombshell (1933): "Is that the way you prove that you just more than care for me? Treating me like a strip act in a burlesque show! A glamorous bombshell, eh? A glorified chump, that's what I've been! Well, I'm sick of it, you understand? With the business and everybody! You can get another "It Girl," a "But Girl" or a "How, When and Where Girl." I'm clearing out, and you can all stay here in this half-paid-for car barn and get somebody else to pull the apple cart!" It's rapid fire but with just the right inflections. Harlow spits out words and sentences like they're hers to do with as she pleases.
And say can she do sarcasm? In my favorite of her films, Red Dust, she's an ex hooker on a rubber plantation when she suggests:" I thought we might run up a few curtains and make a batch of fudge while we were planning on what to wear to the country club dance Saturday night." Oh but its the way she says it.
Harlow played smart, funny and wise -- while you thought she was just a looker. In the same film she's more than a match for the worldly, handsome boss played by Gable (why, Clark of course). "You can check the wings and halo at the desk," she tells him.
Some actors have a way with words, Harlow had her with them. I'm gaga now, brudder.
And by god you didn't mess with her or try to get the best of her. In Libeled Lady (1936) she said to Spencer Tracy, "I don't care who he is. Nobody talks to me like a house detective." Spence thought himself wise by responding: "How do you know how a house detective talks?" Harlow fired back with: "Don't you think I read?" Try to one up that dame.
Harlow was fetching, sure enough, but it was the banter that got ya. She might look the part of simple dame but she never played it. Any heartbreak she suffered was not worn on her sleeve but tucked away, a resource to fuel future understanding and action. Born wise and better yet a natural and astute learner. Especially adroit at figuring out what made others tick. And brother don't kid yourself, she was self reliant. Sure she might hook up with some guy (and why not it's not like they stayed away or anything). That was her prerogative. And if she didn't like his terms she set her own. Harlow's characters were tough and smart enough to make choices, not always a simple thing for easy on the eyes dames like her who attracted all kinds.
Unfortunately most people just know the mentally running on empty Harlow of Dinner at Eight (1933). She's fine as the gold digging wife of a nouveau riche Wallace Beery, just as she's dandy as James Cagney's moll in Public Enemy (1931). But to really appreciate her you've got to see Bombshell, Red Dust, Red Headed Woman, Libeled Lady, Reckless and even Wife vs. Secretary (1936). Whether it's Tracy, Gable, William Powell or Franchot Tone, this dame hold her own.
She came across two formidable foes in her life and career. The first was the enforcement of the production code. The skunks at the Hays office put a real crimp in the sexually charged characters she excelled at and reduced the power of one of her chief weapons: salty talk and the actions to back it up. Such censorship set movies back several decades and especially hurt certain directors and stars like Harlow. Still she had great roles and performances skiting around the code as best as could be expected. The other foe was the uremic poisoning that took her away from the world decades too soon.
Goodness, dead at 26. What a tragic loss for movie audiences. To think what she could have done in another 40 or so years of films. Fortunately she's got about 21 sizable roles left behind. Catch as many as you can and remember to give her a good listen. You don't even have to take your eyes off her to do it.