Thursday, February 4, 2010

Favorite Actresses, #10: Jean Harlow

First Movie I Saw Her In: Libeled Lady (1936)

Three Favorite Movies: Dinner at Eight (1933); China Seas (1935); Libeled Lady (1936)

Honorable Mention: Wife vs. Secretary (1936)

Favorite Performance: Dinner at Eight (1933)

Why I Like Her: To be honest, having Jean at #10 saddens me. Harlow died in 1937 at age 26. To get an idea of that devastation, imagine if Ginger Rogers had died right after Swing Time. We would be robbed of her at her peak. I'm certain that had her career lasted another ten years, Harlow would place much higher. It may sound "romantic" in that sickening "Youth Cult" sort of way, but losing Jean Harlow, one of the great movie comediennes of any era, was just tragic. There's nothing glamorous about someone dying in the prime of life. I'd rather Harlow lived to be a bawdy, eighty-year-old, Shelly Winters kind-of-gal than have her gone before she hit 30.

Before I ever saw a Harlow film, I had believed the half-truths of the brainwashed people who parrot whatever they hear, (“Jean Harlow was the Marilyn Monroe of her day”; “Sex Goddess”) but when I saw Harlow play a lovable, headstrong woman in Libeled Lady, I knew right away that there was infinitely more to her than ill-informed critics or so-called film buffs ever knew; did they even see her movies? Harlow was, on the surface, the platinum blonde dressed to the nines, but that’s all it was, a look. She had none of Monroe's childlike innocence or sensual breathiness. Harlow's sensuality, as it were, was largely confined to the imaginations of her male costars or the jealousy of her female costars. (The photo above is my favorite picture of her, looking sophisticated and nothing at all like the Deco Goddess she was portrayed as being. I think she's better looking as a "regular" girl). A Harlow character was tough, tender, but definitely not helpless, though she could convey vulnerability as well as anyone. I lament her early death, I truly feel sorry that she didn’t live a long life. Harlow could’ve done anything and been a smashing success.

I’m consistently amazed at how Harlow steals the show in Dinner at Eight, when she’s on screen with an MGM all-star cast and the biggest stars of the day: John and Lionel Barrymore, Marie Dressler, Wallace Beery, Billie Burke, and Lee Tracy. The reason that film is remembered is because of Jean Harlow’s star-making performance. Every time she appears on screen she commands the viewer’s attention. If you never knew anyone from that film, you would believe that Dinner at Eight was a vehicle for Harlow at at her peak, not in her first real comedic role.

Harlow’s appeal to me is that she was so much more than those oft-repeated generalizations about who she was merely based on her appearance. When I took a really good look at her, I saw a pretty girl, not the sex goddess everyone talked about. I saw a sweet girl who had charisma and personality to burn and that ability to show vulnerability without breaking into melodramatic hysterics. To me, she’s the best-kept secret on this list and also in the Golden Age.


  1. What a great post that sums up Jean's wonderful talent!

  2. Jean was a charming, down-to-earth, lovely woman with flaws just like the rest of us. She was real and that's why I love her.

    My personal favorite of hers is "Red-Headed Woman". "Three Wise Girls" is a lot of fun, if you can ever catch it - I was lucky to see it on TCM.

    I also believe she was at her most radiant and beautiful when just being a "regular" woman.

  3. I've got some of her movies in my queue, but don't think I've seen one of hers yet. Other than Public Enemy, but I don't remember her standing out.

  4. C.K., a great to start to a series I'm really looking forward to following. I wasn't into Harlow for a long time, but now see her obvious appeal and talent. For great performances, I also remember "Red Dust" (where she met her match in Clark Gable) and my own favorite Harlow performance in "Bombshell." I'll be seeing "Red-Headed Woman" soon and am eagerly anticipating it.

  5. You always find the prettiest pictures. Great post

  6. You really have a lovely way of writing. This was a beautiful tribute to one of my favorite comediennes, thank you!

  7. Thank you CK, you said a mouthful and you said it perfectly. I don't think I've ever seen a Harlow performance that I didn't like, save for one. During her all too brief career, she was constantly showing us more, always evolving. My fav would be Wife vs. Secretary because it's such a different kind of part for her, or perhaps I should say the legend of who she is thought to be.

    Public Enemy was the one I didn't like but I honestly don't think it was her fault. She was still so new, I was Cagney's show, all the way, and I suspect she didn't get much direction.


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