Jean Harlow wasn’t born, but created by, Hollywood. In fact, it was Howard Hughes who was behind the creation of the woman who would become Jean Harlow. Harlow was born Harlean Harlow Carpenter on March 3, 1911, in Kansas City, Missouri. She moved with her mother, Jean Harlow, to Los Angeles after her parents separated.
She was a sickly child, and endured bouts with polio, meningitis and scarlet fever as a child. Craving a better life, she eloped with a young bond broker named Charles McGrew at age 16, though their marriage ended when she decided to pursue an acting career.
Adopting her mother’s maiden name for her films, Harlow captured the public’s attention when she flashed her legs in the 1929 Laurel and Hardy comedy Double Whoopee. She also made her sound debut that year in The Saturday Night Kid, but her breakout performance came the following year in Howard Hughes’s update of Hell’s Angels.
Harlow’s greatest scene comes when she serves the character, Monte (Ben Lyon), a drink, only to ask him in a seductive tone, whether he would mind if she put something more comfortable on. Harlow is wearing a slinky velvet evening dress with beaded straps, that barely covered her breasts. Monte replies back with ”I’ll try to survive” in a nonchalant fashion (as one would do if asked that question by the Platinum Blonde). Harlow makes her way to the bedroom, letting her wrap drop to reveal her backless evening dress. She returns, wearing a white-trimmed dark robe which is open to her waist and bare underneath (not much is left up to the imagination). The dialogue exchange the two characters only fuels the sexual tension unfolding on-screen.
Monte: Well, are you more comfortable now?
Helen: Yes, are you?
Monte: Oh yes. You know it seems strange being here like this after hearing Roy rave about you for months.
Helen: Does Roy rave?
Monte: Or rather, he idolizes you.
Helen: Well, I do wish he wouldn’t. It makes me feel guilty.
Monte: I can understand his raving now.
As first roles go, it is certainly quite an impressionable one. Harlow proved to be a big draw at the box office, and as a result, Hughes signed Jean to a $100-per-week contract. To publicize the movie, as well as his newest find, Hughes wanted to give Harlow an unforgettable nickname that would catch the eye of movie-goers, not unlike Clara Bow, who was known as “The ‘It’ Girl.” Hughes’ publicity department settled on “the Platinum Blonde.”
The actress’s ash-blonde hair was colored a white-blonde shade—transforming the sweet, down-to-earth Harlow into a siren sex bomb. Completing the look: her eyebrows were shaved off, then drawn into an extreme arch and her lips painted red and into a cupid’s bow. To publicize her film, the studio’s publicists offered $10,000 to any hairdresser who could match the colour. Of course, no one could match the original Hollywood blonde bombshell.
Harlow appeared in six films in 1931, including The Public Enemy and Platinum Blonde. Hollywood’s original blonde bombshell, and her rise was fueled by her sexual allure. Harlow wasn’t the first choice for The Public Enemy, in fact the role was offered to Louise Brooks who turned it down. In the opinion of Brooks’s biographer Barry Paris, “turning down The Public Enemy marked the real end of Louise Brooks’s film career.” It may have marked the end of Brook’s career, but Harlow’s was only just beginning.
Harlow’s role in the 1932 film, Red-Headed Woman, put her comedic abilities on display and established her as a bona fide star. I have previously discussed how Red Heded Woman caused problems for the censors in 1930 Red Hot! How Red Headed Woman Played Hard to Get with the Censors. Red Headed Woman is the story of Lilian Andrews, an ambitious career girl, who is willing to do what it takes to get success. Harlow was a natural at playing this role, and even dyed her blonde hair, red.
Harlow’s on-screen seduction of the leading men, continues here, with her hitching up her skit to reveal her long legs and stockings. Harlow continued to make films throughout 1932 and 1933, which included Red Dust, one of several acclaimed pairings with Clark Gable, and in the following year’s hits Dinner at Eight, Hold Your Man and Bombshell.
Despite her perceived charmed life as a leading lady, Harlow’s personal life was anything but glamorous. Her second husband, an MGM executive named Paul Bern, died in an apparent suicide at their home in 1932, and a third marriage, to cinematographer Harold Rosson, lasted less than a year. Harlow got engaged to fellow MGM actor William Powell, her co-star in Reckless (1935) and Libeled Lady (1936).
Her love life may have been in poor health, but it was her actual health that should have been her real concern. After years of undergoing weekly treatment with toxic chemicals to maintain her famous platinum-blonde locks, she wore a wig to mask her hair loss in the 1935 film China Seas. The following year, she was stricken with a throat infection and influenza.
While on the set of Saratoga in 1937, Harlow was bedridden with fatigue, nausea and abdominal pain. Believed to be on the path to recovery, she instead lapsed into a coma and died in a Hollywood hospital on June 7, 1937, from kidney failure. The film was completed with other actresses standing in as doubles for the recently deceased starlet. Harlow’s career may have been brief (spanning just under a decade).
But she left a lasting impression on Hollywood and laid the way for other blonde bombshells like Veronica Lake, Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield. Such is Harlow’s legacy, that her name is lent to a cocktail, which is equal parts light rum and sweet vermouth. I think we should all drink to her memory.