Tough talking, sassy, stands her ground, platinum blonde hair, gifted comedienne, and had one of the most distinctive voices in classic film history. Who are we talking about? The one and only Jean Harlow of course.
Born on the 3rd of March, 1911, Jean would go on to become one of the greatest stars of American cinema. Tragically Jean only lived to the age of 26. She died of kidney failure in June, 1937.
Known affectionately as Baby; Jean was very adept at playing tough talking, fun loving dames and she owned every inch of the screen that she appeared on. When she is on screen you don’t look at anyone else. I like how she makes her characters likeable and natural. Jean makes her characters seem like real people who you could imagine meeting in life. Jean also inspired Marilyn Monroe who was a big fan of hers when she was growing up.
My all time favourite Jean Harlow film is Red Headed Woman (1932); this terrific pre-code finds Harlow’s outrageous secretary going after the man she wants no matter what the cost may be. Jean is clearly having a lot of fun in this role. Her character would have been considered highly immoral at the time, yet Jean makes her likeable and you can’t help but admire her tenacity in continuing to go after the man that she wants.
Her character in this film is also quite sexually forward for the time period, pre-codes were notoriously daring for the time, but Jean’s character must surely have raised plenty of eyebrows. I love her in the drunk scene, and the “do it again, I like it!” scene. When I first saw this I was pretty surprised by the ending, as this film is one of the few where a ‘bad’ character isn’t punished for their actions which were deemed bad or immoral at the time.
Red Dust (1932) is another favourite of mine. Her character in this is Vantine, and she is so much fun, and she is clearly the perfect match for Clark Gable’s Carson. This film also features what is possibly Jean’s most memorable scene, taking an outdoor bath, while really in the nude on set. There is a story that she apparently stood up at the end of the bath scene and said “this is for the boys in the lab”, I’ve always wanted to believe that story as it sounds so like her, of course it could just be one of those legends that just gets repeated through the years.
My problem with this film (and the 1950’s remake also starring Clark Gable, called Mogambo )is that it has always seemed highly unlikely that Gable’s character would ever choose the Mary Astor/ Grace Kelly character over Jean Harlow/Ava Gardner’s.
At the time of Jean’s death she and Thin Man actor William Powell were engaged, and he was devastated by her loss. I like to think that had she lived they would have married and been very happy.
There are many classic actors and actresses that I wish I could have met, Jean is one of them. She packed quite a lot into her short life, and her performances and film characters were quite ahead of their time. I think the modern style of her acting, and the types of characters that she played is why so many of Jean’s performances still feel quite modern when they are viewed today. I love watching her films, and I think that I always will.
Thank you Baby for all your wonderful performances.
I love Jean the most in the following films: Red Headed Woman, Red Dust, Dinner At Eight, Three Wise Girls and Libeled Lady.
Please share your thoughts on Jean. Which of her films do you love the most?