Tuesday, September 26, 2023

The Tragedy of Jean Harlow

Jean Harlow
Harlean Carpenter aka Jean Harlow

Recently, as part of my exploration into the decline of Western Civilization, I read Harlow in Hollywood: The Blonde Bombshell in the Glamour Capital, 1928-1937 by Darrell Rooney and Mark A. Vieira. I enjoy reading about the old movie stars, many of whom were great artists in spite of the degradation of living in Tinseltown. I have been criticized for blogging about Marilyn Monroe, because she has been seen as a part of America's slide into depravity, although what Marilyn really wanted was to be a great actress, not a sex symbol. Before Marilyn Monroe, there was Jean Harlow, whom Marilyn modeled herself upon and hoped to portray in a biopic before her own untimely and unexpected demise. Harlean Carpenter aka Jean Harlow had no stage training and ended up in movies almost by accident. Her naturally tow-headed, green-eyed beauty attracted the attention of producers. While free of any illusions that she was an actress, Jean had a natural charisma and presence, in spite of her diminutive stature. Once she became aware that acting was a craft she tried to learn it, and worked very hard at improving her screen performances. She had a photographic memory and after a cursory glance at a script she knew it by heart. She learned to make people laugh and with the right directors became a comic genius.

 Aware that she was being exploited for her body, Jean strove to improve her mind by reading; her dream was to be a novelist and she actually did write one. Other than her literary ambitions, Jean loved children and longed to be a wife and mother. Jean hated playing what she called "sex vultures" and wanted to play "good girls" so she was actually glad when the Hays Code made the studios tone down their lurid sleaziness. Jean Harlow gradually became a top star as the original platinum blonde. However, fame can be a harsh taskmaster. The studio make-up poisoned her; constant bleaching to maintain the platinum mane made her hair fall out. 

Jean was popular with her co-workers for her sweet and childlike personality. Everyone, including her mother, called her "Baby" or "the Baby." No one seemed to think it was bizarre that an extremely unsophisticated woman, whom everyone infantilized and treated as a small child, was a major sex symbol, and repeatedly reduced to her physical assets. In demeanor she was completely unlike the sultry roles she played. Not that she did not have affairs and three attempts at marriage. But her outlook on life remained hopeful and innocent, until William Powell broke her heart.

Jean once confided to a friend that she had been sexually assaulted by a male relative as a child. Maybe it was why she was psychologically frozen at age twelve. Perhaps that was why she was incapable of becoming emotionally independent from her mother. While married as a teen to her wealthy first husband Jean became pregnant, but since she had just started in movies her mother forced her to have an abortion. Later, when she was a star, she became pregnant by her co-star William Powell. Powell did not know of the pregnancy but he had already told her that he would never marry her; after having been married to Carol Lombard he did not want another actress wife. So Jean's mother dragged her to the hospital for a special "operation," another abortion. Jean was noticeably different afterwards, very depressed. She eventually collapsed from kidney failure, caused by a youthful bout of scarlet fever. She died in the same hospital room where she had had her second abortion.

From All That's Interesting:

 Born on March 3, 1911, in Kansas City, Missouri, Harlean Harlow Carpenter had simple childhood dreams and hoped to become a writer. It was her mother who wanted her to become the star that she never was. As Harlean's mother got divorced, relocated, attempted to break into the movie industry, and eventually remarried, the young girl suffered from numerous childhood illnesses, including meningitis and scarlet fever. By the time Harlean was 16 years old, she had eloped with a wealthy young man named Charles McGrew and relocated to Beverly Hills. There, she was noticed by movie executives and began to receive offers to appear in films. Much to the delight of Harlean's mother, she decided to give acting a try. Harlean and McGrew soon divorced, as he didn't support her pursuing a career in Hollywood. But Harlean, who started using her mother's maiden name as Jean Harlow, was about to start an exciting new chapter. (Read more.)

From Country Living:

Harlean was discovered by Fox executives while she was visiting a movie lot with a friend. Apparently, she wasn't all that interested in becoming a star, even giving them a fake name: her mom's. But certainly, they were interested in her—or at least, in her look: a glamorous blonde with killer curves. At the insistence of Mother Jean, the newly dubbed Jean Harlow began auditioning and appearing in Laurel and Hardy shorts and even left her husband when he expressed opposition to the idea of her acting.

Though she had just a small part in the 1929 film The Saturday Night Kid, Jean all but stole the show from the lead, Clara Bow, the "It Girl" starlet of the time. Her big break was in Howard Hughes's Hell's Angels (1930), in which she replaced the original lead, silent film star Greta Nissen, who spoke with a thick Norwegian accent and therefore couldn't, in the director's mind, transition to the "talkies". (Read more.)

Jean Harlow in Dinner at Eight


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