A Tribute to Jean Harlow
Jean Harlow was the first “blonde bombshell.” In fact, the phrase was coined for her. But she was much more than just a platinum-haired sex symbol, and because she died so young (of kidney failure at the age of 26, the result of a childhood illness), we will never know what kind of actress, or person, she might have become.
Harlow made three dozen films between 1927 and 1937, though she had only small parts in many of them. She appeared in color only once, during a short sequence in 1930’s Hell’s Angels (no, it had nothing to do with the motorcycle club). Even with such a brief career, she was still voted #22 on the American Film Institute’s list of the greatest actresses of the Golden Age. Never a great dramatic actress, she nevertheless had a beauty and energy that filled the screen, and her comic performances were wonderful. The potential was there for much more. According to biographer Eve Golden, “in the last year or two of her life she was really starting to take charge…” Unfortunately, as was the case with Marilyn Monroe, Rudolph Valentino, James Dean, and so many others, we’ll never know what could have been.
Born Harlean Carpentier on March 3, 1911 in Kansas City, Missouri, she later took on her mother’s maiden name (leaving her mother to be forever known as “Mother Jean”), but not before running away from home at the age of 16 to get married, the first of several ill-fated pairings. She broke into pictures as a teenager, but her career was going nowhere until she was discovered by Howard Hughes and cast in Hell’s Angels. That one was a hit, and was followed by another hit, Platinum Blonde, and several films with Clark Gable, all of which did very well, making her the reigning Hollywood “sex goddess.” In 1933 she appeared in a film that was essentially a parody of her own career, called Bombshell.
Her personal life was the stuff of tabloid gossip, including the suicide of her second husband, producer Paul Bern, her relationships with gangsters, nude photos at the age of 17, problems with a greedy stepfather, and a reported abortion of a child fathered by William Powell. She was the first movie actress to appear on the cover of Life magazine (May, 1937). On screen, she caused such a sensation with her easy sensuality that it led the Hays Office, the official Hollywood censors, to decree that adultery could not go unpunished, in response to her role in Red-Headed Woman. But she was also well-liked, and had a reputation as somebody who would go out of her way to do whatever if took to get the job done.
Her death occurred during the filming of Saratoga (1937), and the film was completed with a double used in long shots. Clark Gable was quoted as saying that he felt he was acting with a “ghost.” In many ways, Jean Harlow is a ghost, an apparition who flashed on the screen for a brief time and was gone. Many of her silent films are lost forever. But she still has a large number of fans, many of whom have created Web sites in her honor. Please visit those listed in this tribute article, as well as the pages with reviews, photos, posters, etc.
Part I: Introduction
Part II: Jean Harlow Tributes and Other Pages
Part III: Movie Reviews & Where to Find Her Movies
Part IV: Books, Photos, Art, and Posters