“Men like me because I don’t wear a brassiere. Women like me because I don’t look like a girl who would steal a husband. At least not for long.”* That’s how Jean Harlow described her appeal.
She became a star playing a sexy, wise cracking, bad girl. Harlow died at the young age of 26 so her film career only lasted nine years, 1928-1937. But in those nine years, she became one of Hollywood’s biggest stars and built a legacy that still endures today.
In her personal life, Jean Harlow must have been something special. When she died, not only her fans, but MGM stars, executives, and all the crew members mourned her death deeply.
When she hit her prime at Metro Goldwyn Mayer beginning in 1932, Harlow was consistently voted one of the strongest box office draws—and her movies made huge profits, even during the Depression.
Born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1911, Harlow ran away at 16 to get married and moved to Los Angeles. She started working as an extra in films in 1928. And later that year, she signed her first contract with Hal Roach Studios. Her first speaking role was in a Clara Bow film The Saturday Night Kid in 1929. The same year she divorced her husband and moved in with her mother who had also migrated to Los Angeles with her husband Marino Bello, Harlow’s stepfather.
Later in 1929, Ben Lyon, starring in Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels, told him about Harlow. Hughes tested her, gave her the part, and signed her to a five-year contract. Hell’s Angels was the highest grossing film of 1930—and made Harlow an international star.
Reviews for her acting were pretty bad, but Variety magazine said: “It doesn’t matter what degree of talent she possesses…nobody ever starved possessing what she’s got.”
Harlow knew her acting needed a lot of work. She said: “I was not a born actress. No one knows it better than I. If I had any latent talent, I have had to work hard, listen carefully. Do things over and over and then over again in order to bring it out.”*
As her career progressed, her acting improved. So did her critical acclaim. She was praised for her acting, sex appeal, and her talent for comedy.
Jean Harlow had two superstitions: she always wore a lucky ankle chain on her left leg, and she would never leave her dressing room without first looking at herself in her lucky mirror.
In 1931, Hughes loaned Harlow out to Frank Capra for Platinum Blonde, her blonde/white hair giving her the additional sobriquet of Platinum Blonde–and in 1932 she appeared in The Public Enemy, the film that made James Cagney a star. Also in 1932, Hughes loaned her out to Metro Goldwyn Mayer for The Beast in the City. That’s when she met Paul Bern, who worked for MGM and whom she would later marry. He arranged a 10-week tour for Harlow after the film wrapped and she packed every theater.
Bern urged Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM, to buy Harlow’s contract from Hughes. Mayer refused. MGM’s leading ladies were elegant—Harlow was not, he claimed. It’s said that he even called Harlow a tramp. (But when Harlow died, Mayer gave her an extravagant funeral complete with a banquet, orchestra, and Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy singing Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life—when Harlow often said that when she died, she wanted a “simple, unpretentious send off.”*)
Bern then turned to Irving Thalberg, his close friend and head of production at MGM. Thalberg was reluctant, but Bern convinced him of Harlow’s great popularity. In 1932, MGM purchased her contract from Hughes.
MGM cast her in leading roles in such hits as Dinner at Eight in 1938 where she joined such strong actors as John and Lionel Barrymore, Marie Dreschler, and Wallace Beery. Harlow’s popularity steadily rose, surpassing MGM’s leading stars.
Harlow married Paul Bern in 1932, but their marriage only lasted two months when he committed suicide. Mayer, fearing negative publicity, had the studio arrange a marriage for Harlow with cinematographer Harold Rosson—that marriage ended eight months later. Despite the scandal, Harlow not only survived, but became even more popular.
Harlow met William Powell in 1934; they fell in love and were engaged for two years at the time of her death. Harlow died of kidney failure in 1937. She was starring in Saratoga with Clark Gable at the time of her death. Using long shots and a body double, MGM completed the film. It was a hit and MGM’s highest grossing film of 1937—and of Harlow’s career.
Even though Jean Harlow died 85 years ago, she is still remembered and even revered by some. On March 3, 2017, The Hollywood Museum honored Harlow on what would have been her 106th birthday. Their exhibit, called “Jean Harlow: Hollywood’s First Blonde Bombshell,” included Harlow’s 1932 Packard Phaeton convertible, her personal wardrobe, and an autographed photo from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Harlow was the first female star to be invited to a Washington, DC celebration in January 1937.
Many honors have come to Jean Harlow posthumously:
- She was awarded a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960.
- She appeared in four films that have been selected for the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically “ significant: City Lights 1931, The Public Enemy 1931, Scarface 1932, and Red Dust
- In 1999, she was ranked #22 on the American Film Institute‘s “100 Years, 100 Legends” list.
- Entertainment Weekly voted her the 49th Greatest Movie Star of all time.
- Several films have been made about Harlow—portrayed by Gwen Stefani in The Aviator 2004; by Susan Buckner in the 1977 The Amazing Howard Hughes; by Lindsay Bloom in Hughes and Harlow: Angels in Hell 1977; by Carroll Baker in the 1965 Harlow; and by Carol Lynley in another film titled Harlow, also produced in 1965.
- And she was Marilyn Monroe’s idol.
Harlow was truly loved by her fans and co-workers. When she died, an MGM writer said: “The day Baby (Harlow’s nickname at MGM) died…there wasn’t one sound in the commissary for three hours.”**
Frequent co-star Spencer Tracy wrote in his diary: “Jean Harlow died. Grand girl.” And film actress Anita Page said: “She was a lovely person in so many ways.”**
Her frequent co-star in six films and close personal friend Clark Gable said: “She didn’t want to be famous. She wanted to be happy.”***
I hope she found that happiness in her short, but golden life.
***The Hollywood Museum