What stars. What Cars! They were truly something to see if not unique back in the 1930s.
Harlow! Cadillac! Only one name needed.
Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, here today pondering a first class star and her first class car. (Boy! you gotta admire the sheen on that devil. The car, that is, not Jean Harlow.)
Note the relaxed smile on her face. That sunniness summed up a big part of her appeal. Even at those gargantuan Hollywood movie openings featuring appearances by scores of self-impressed big stars, Harlow stood out for her warmth and easy-going manner. She always greeted her fans with what was described as “friendly good humor.”
British author-critic David Thomson is on the money when he wrote that although Harlow was often belittled by contemporaries as an actress, she was so far ahead of her time that her best work still seems fresh and arousing. At a time when Hollywood worked hard to manufacture ladies, Harlow was a contented broad.
Born Harlean Carpenter in Kansas City (Mo.), Harlow covered a lot of ground before she died in 1937 — at just 26 — of kidney failure. The daughter of dentist, she eloped at 16 with a rich businessman whom she dumped to work as a film extra.
Her first real break was provided by — there he is again — Howard Hughes, who cast Harlow as Greta Nissen’s replacement in 1930’s Hell’s Angels. Her amiable sexiness stole the movie, and Hughes soon exploited her earnings potential by loaning her out to other studios. One was Columbia for Frank Capra’s 1931 comedy, Platinum Blond, which showcased what Thomson calls Harlow’s onscreen sense of being undisguisedly pleased with her own sexuality.
Another Hughes loan out was to Fox for the 1931 comedy Goldie, costarring a new-to-movies Spencer Tracy. Jean’s milky white complexion and platinum hair made the eye go straight to her in any shot she was in, wrote Tracy biographer James Curtis. The script for Goldie broke questionable ground when the word ‘tramp’ was applied to her character on four separate occasions. (Harlow) was sweet-natured, though, earnest and professional, and had a photographic memory to rival Tracy’s own.
Jean’s most memorable pictures were made at MGM. For example, who can fail to appreciate her earthy sexuality opposite Clark Gable in 1932’s Red Dust. It was as much (her) attitude as her deportment that achieved the the effect of frankness, wrote Thomson.
She made four more pictures with Gable — 1933’s Hold Your Man, 1935’s China Seas, 1936’s Wife Vs. Secretary — including her final movie, 1937’s Saratoga.
Harlow’s private life was notoriously complicated. Her marriage to MGM executive Paul Bern ended with his suicide (supposedly because of his sexual impotence). A subsequent marriage to cinematographer Harold Rosson was supposedly arranged by MGM bigwigs to extricate Harlow from a potentially scandalous affair with heavyweight boxer Max Baer. She also had a long-standing romance with actor William Powell.
At the time of her death, Harlow was one of America’s biggest stars. MGM even nurtured hopes that she was the next — Greta Garbo.