Jean Harlow: Blondes, Brains, Boldness, Beauty

Jean Harlow is one of the greatest screen sirens in motion picture history. This post will be about the platinum blonde bombshell who made blonde hair what it is today: Harlean Harlow Carpenter, AKA Jean Harlow.  In short, she is one of the best blonde comediennes in film history and we are going to tell you why.  Hold on to your hair, Monroe and Aguilera….

Jean Harlow was a woman and comedienne who could only exist in the pre-Code era (although she was still successful in the early Code era).  She was a dirty flirt, a temperamental mistress, and sometimes downright untrustworthy.  She could be rotten to the core, but also sprinkled with sugar and dressed in shimmering dresses to distract the moral compass.  What redeems her, though, is the fact she is also vulnerable underneath her spoiled facade.  Although the Production Code banned filmmakers to let audiences sympathise with immoral characters, she made immoral playfulness fun to watch, and we always rooted for her to get her own way because she had a piece of her heart at stake.

Being emotionally involved with her onscreen ordeals causes Harlow’s character(s) to be hot-headed in order to get what she wants.  This allows Harlow to stand up against the force known to literally sweep women off their feet: Clark Gable.

What makes Harlow stand out from the rest of Gable’s leading ladies is her ability to stand on her own against him.  The power was equal between them.  She could seduce him just as easily as he could seduce her, and they were both mutually willing.  When she swoons, she swoons on her terms.  When he treats her rough, she’s swinging her fist or cussing right back at him.  They can throw and catch each other’s punches without a flinch.  They are both each other’s matches.  Powerhouses.  Dynamos.  It’s entrancing to watch them in the six films they starred together: The Secret Six (1931), Red Dust (1932), Hold Your Man (1933), China Seas (1935), Wife vs. Secretary (1936), and Saratoga (1937).

One downfall of playing these types of roles was having the audience believe she was like her characters offscreen.  Harlow was neither promiscuous nor ditzy.  Clark Gable considered her “one of the boys.”  She was known among her peers to be full of self-respect and a great actress whose onscreen persona was sadly mistaken for her real self.  Here is an excerpt from classichollywoodbios.com:

In her book Being and Becoming, Myrna Loy remembered a weekend trip she, William Powell and Jean Harlow took together. A San Francisco hotel manager, confusing fantasy with reality, registered “William and Myrna Powell” in one room when it was actually Harlow and Powell who were to stay together. In the 1930s, with the press looking over their shoulders, they couldn’t be obvious with their affair. Powell had to move to a tiny downstairs room while Myrna and Jean shared the more luxurious upstairs room. “Bill complained bitterly, let me tell you., angling to get upstairs,” remembered Loy. “The mix-up brought me one of my most cherished friendships. You would have thought Jean and I were in boarding school we had so much fun. We’d stay up half the night talking and sipping gin, sometimes laughing, sometimes discussing more serious things. Jean was always cheerful, full of fun, but she also happened to be a sensitive woman with a great deal of self-respect. All that other stuff –that was put on. She just happened to be a good actress who created a lively characterization that exuded sex appeal.”

Not only was she a great actress, she was intelligent and loved to read.  One would have to be smart to deliver lines the way she does!  Before dropping out of high school to be married at age 16, Harlow was educated in private schools and came from a well to-do family.

Jean Harlow left a memorable legacy after her early, unexpected death of a kidney infection in 1937 at the age of 26.  Without Jean Harlow, blonde hair would not have the popularity is still enjoys today.  She was the first star to dye her hair to platinum blonde.  A young Norma Jean Baker idolised Jean Harlow and followed in her footsteps by dying her hair to platinum blonde.  In contemporary times, Christina Aguilera’s hair is inspired by Monroe, but does she know the origin and history behind her own hair color?

Another impact on popular culture she left behind is the quote, “Would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?” from her breakout film, Hell’s Angels (1930).  Most people have heard the idiom but don’t know where it came from.  Now it is a common trope in popular culture.  Here is an index of some of the ways the phrase has been used in popular culture.

Although Jean Harlow isn’t talked about as much as other comediennes such as Lucille Ball or Carole Lombard, she has nonetheless left an indelible mark on popular culture.  She has also left behind an image of a tough, promiscuous woman who can also stand on her own and fight back yet can win the sympathy of the audience.  She can be cute, sexy, and drink all the boys under the table…

Katie is a Film Studies student in Canada and the co-host of a classic film podcast called The Scarlett Olive.  The biggest star she and her co-host have interviewed so far is Ed Asner. For more information be sure to check out her website.

 

  • BRIAN

    Jean got her start in Laurel and Hardy films.she wasnt the only one,Stephen McNally,Boris Karloff,Robert Mitchum,Sidney Toler,Alan Ladd,Thelma Todd,Julie Bishop,Peter Cushing,etc We all got to start somewhere.

    • Mark A. Vieira

      For more recent and accurate info about Jean Harlow, you may wish to read this book:

      Harlow in Hollywood: The Blonde Bombshell in the Glamour Capital, 1928 to 1937. by Mark Vieira & Darrell Rooney) Santa Monica: Angel City Press, 2011

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1312071083 Shelly Silver

        Mr. Viera!
        I love your books and this one is no exception! A beautiful book!

  • Allen Hefner

    One can only imagine where her career would have gone if she had lived a fuller life. Harlow was a jewel. Her final appearance with Laurel and Hardy was only her photograph. She was Ollie’s “Jeanie-Weenie.”

  • Phil Kuoni

    Jean Harlow, like so many other great actresses from the golden age of Hollywood, had substance.
    That is what, in part, makes her so appealing to this day. Ehat so many have today is form but no substance. That is why she will always be fondly remembered and revered and todays “celebrities” will be forgotten before they reach 50. Yes, I am an old foggie and proud of it.

  • Anonymous

    You know what? I just don’t get into cheering for people like Jean Harlow playing seductive characters. Whether we admit it or not, it has a subtle negative influence on society, and takes the culture in the wrong direction, albeit slowly.

    To portray such characters as some type of heroes or positive role models shows we’ve slowly been duped into accepting this negativity in our culture. Not a good thing, and yes, we have evolved into an unhealthy direction–even though Hollywood is about fantasy. The bar was lowered more and more through the decades–and look where we are now!

    I prefer much more positive Hollywood characters, showing moral strength, while still being entertaining. To me, that’s much more positive–and infinitely more healthy for our culture.

    • Uncle Felix

      Anonymous, I don’t think you’ve seen the films. You’ve just bought the hype.

  • ADA

    It’s attitudes like that, Anonymous, that brought about the Hays Code.

    Seductiveness is not a crime, and the world isn’t black and white, anyway. Talented actors like Jean Harlow have portrayed the shades of grey of real life, in entertaining Hollywood fashion.

  • Lisa C

    Anonymous, have you seen Wife vs. Secretary? She wasn’t a seductress in that movie, in fact, she was a very decent young lady with a crush on her boss who even warned his wife about what (the wife) was losing. The look exchanged between Myrna Loy (gratitude) and Jean Harlow (sad resignation) at the end is a great moment in cinema.

  • Shawn

    Some of my personal favorites of Jean’s are Red Headed Woman, Dinner at Eight, Libeled Lady, Bombshell, and Platinum

    • Shawn

      Oops, ‘Platinum Blond’ (accidently submitted)

  • jim

    She was a great actress.

  • VKMfanHuey

    Red-headed woman!!! Harlow at her ‘Harlow-eist’!!!

    As Lead Gingerologist, I think it would have been awesome to see Harlow and Rogers in a movie together, as sisters maybe?
    Their parallels are pretty striking – both born in 1911, both from Missouri, both Christian Scientists, and both awesome actresses!!! The ’65 movie ‘Harlow’ with Carol Lynley (there were two made that year) wasn’t very good – but it was cool that Ginger played Mama Jean… another interesting ‘connection’ between the two ‘Girls from Missouri’…

    Keep It Gingery (and Harlow-like!) y’all!

    VKMfanHuey

    • Baz

      Wasn’t it Carol Baker?

      • VKMfanHuey

        …actually, there were TWO Harlow movies in ’65, as I think that was when it was finally allowed (by her last will, I guess) to portray her in film, and the two studios with the stories(Paramount (the Carol Baker version) and Magna (the Carol Lynley version)) rushing them through to get theirs out first…Magna won, with a film that took 8 days to shoot… of course, the film wasn’t very good – it was shot in a ‘experimental’ camera technique, called ‘Electronovision’…
        Angela Landsbury played ‘Mama Jean’ in the Baker version…haven’t seen that one, but the reviews were not much better than the Lynley version…

        All that said, wish there would be a GOOD movie made about Harlow…and of course one about Ginger as well…

  • Tommie

    When will “Red Dust” be issued in DVD? It’s long, long overdue. In my opinion, it a MUCH better film than the remake, “Mogambo”

  • Robin

    I’ve never “got” Jean Harlow. I really don’t see what others see in her. I’m amazed that after all these years she still has a large fan base.

    I watched Red Dust a few weeks ago. I thought she was pretty bad. Ava Gardner in the remake blew her into the weeds.

  • Anonymous

    Harlow and Lombard came close to working together in a 1932 film about three gold-diggers, “The Greeks Had A Word For Them,” but Jean (then signed to Howard Hughes) dropped out and illness kept Carole out of her role. Despite this, they apparently never met until 1935, about the time Harlow became involved with Lombard’s ex-husband William Powell (whom she remained friends with); not long after that, Carole and Clark Gable became a romantic item. Harlow and Lombard became good friends, no surprise since they were both likable, generous, popular with film crews (although Carole was far more the extrovert than Jean). Harlow’s early death, and the hoopla that surrounded it, affected Lombard, and she told Gable that if she had a funeral, it should be low-key and simple. Sadly, less than five years later, Gable had to plan such an event.

    Nearly a year ago for the blogathon honoring Harlow’s centenary, I wrote an entry for my site, “Carole & Co.”, imagining what it might have been like if Harlow and Lombard had switched careers; as their film roots weren’t that dissimilar, it could well have happened. I think you’ll find it a tribute to these two beloved icons of the ’30s. Find it at http://carole-and-co.livejournal.com/387404.html.

  • BadGnx2

    LET’S GET INTO THIS!!:
    To “ANONYMOUS” – simply put…YOU’RE AN IDIOT!!! Get off of your moral spoutin’, hypocritical ass and go SIT IN A CORNER. Or better still, take your butt back to BIBLE STUDY!! Anything past a “G rating” is probably gonna offend you. A good movie to you probably has Pat Boone singing “April Love”.

    To “Robin”: If you didn’t get it then, then you didn’t GET IT. And its obvious by now, YOU DON’T GET IT!!

    Personally I will admit that as I’ve grown older and have been more analytical of movies new and old, I can see why Jean Harlow DESERVES to be heralded. She was an attractive woman in her day. She was an actress who was adept at comedy as well as drama. She could satirize herself on screen and play with her own persona. She brought screen sexiness to a high level at that time and one can see by the fit of many of her outfits that she wasn’t wearing any undergarments. Quite BOLD at that time.
    And she deserves to be honored for the platinum blond hair and sporting it YEARS before Marilyn copied it.

    MGM was a true factory in those days and for any performer to stand out at that time and STILL be mentioned YEARS LATER, says alot.

    And I DO AGREE. A better, more honest movie bio should be done of her. Or on HBO or Showtime to say the least.

    • VKMfanHuey

      …well, everyone’s got an opinion…and while I generally like to see ladies…well, being ladies in films, it’s pretty hard to have any type of story worth watching without some adversity, which often is a result of wrongdoing…and more often than not, the characters suffer consequences, but usually find redemption in the end… most movies have SOME type of ‘moral of the story’…
      Anyway, I’ve always thought it’s best to know what ‘right’ is by learning what’s ‘wrong’…and maybe some of these movies actually DETERRED some young folks from going down an unsavory path in life…OK, rant over…
      NOW, WHO will play Harlow in a new bio?

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