Sunday, November 18, 2012

Oh, Jean

I never understood the allure of Jean Harlow.  I couldn't quite make the connection between descriptions of her and the woman I saw onscreen.  Although she's commonly described as the most molten thing to come out of old Hollywood, all I saw was a sad-eyed girl with a sweet face and too-blonde hair.  She seemed out of place.  This was supposed to be the sex banshee who haunted the souls of a million Delano-era men? I had envisioned someone more like Raquel Welch instead of a small voiced and smaller-statured woman whose childlike features and pouting lips had earned her the lifelong nickname of "The Baby".

In movies, she's almost always the put-upon, resentful side dish who gets elbowed out of the way when the Loy type comes sweeping in to win the prize man.  She's the vampy secretary, the blowsy blonde, the tacky poor girl, the one who gets put down as soon as she's picked up.  She's vulnerable, yet resilient. 

I have a feeling that seeing her onscreen is to see her out of context.  I think that her real power, perhaps something akin to those breathless descriptions, was rooted entirely in her interpersonal behavior.  I assume this because I've read a number of items in which men and former lovers like James Stewart or Bill Powell share their recollections of her, which frankly are a bit breathless and awed.  James Stewart called her "all woman," which is something he would say, and then made coy references to her generally braless state and the way this went over in a silk sheath dress.  He later said that he realized that he had never been "really" kissed until they filmed the car scene in Wife vs. Secretary together. Well, it is a memorable scene. 

Paying closer attention to her has caused me to shift my perceptions completely, and not only do I love her, but I think I understand the sex witch characterizations.  She played women honestly and never seemed like a caricature as so many other female characters were at this time.  She always seemed like a real person, and managed to place her sexuality at the forefront in a way that was unashamed, affecting, and yet subtle.  But most importantly, she was a great comedienne with excellent timing and perfect expression.

In her private life, she seems to have been an intelligent and genuine person who was not much impressed with fame or Hollywood, and who didn't much resemble her characters in behavior.  She spoke in a measured and thoughtful way and carried a book with her always.  Myrna Loy called her "a sensitive woman with a great deal of self-respect."  She had a tumultuous few years of stardom, which included multiple marriages including a farcical two month marriage to Paul Bern, who shot himself in their bedroom, leaving a bleak and mysterious suicide note.  His ex-girlfriend killed herself by jumping from a ship the following day.  Jean died five years later at 26 years old from kidney failure, apparently resultant of undiagnosed complications following a childhood bout of scarlet fever. Because she was so young, her illness was underestimated in its first stages so that it was too late when doctors finally figured out that her kidneys were failing.  Hollywood legend credits Clark Gable with leading doctors to the diagnosis after he reported to them a strange odor emanating from Jean's body as she lay in the hospital bed.  Harlow and Gable were self-professed BFFs who had worked together in a string of movies during her short career.  Gable had a lot of blonde trouble in his life, as I may have mentioned in one of my 17 Carole Lombard posts, and later with poor self-destructing MM, still unfairly blamed for his death. 

Here is an interesting article written by Hollywood reporter Adela Rogers St. Johns about the Bern suicide aftermath.  Her writing style is weird - schizophrenically baroque, well written, melodramatic, dark, and speculative.

Photo: Edwin Bower Hesser

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