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

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.