Last November, I covered the first 1965 biopic about Jean Harlow (also titled Harlow) starring Carol Lynley. If you’d like to read that review, you can do so here. Being made for television and filmed in black and white, that film wasn’t the best known of the Harlow biopics. This Harlow saw a theatrical release, bigger budget, and bigger stars…which makes for a grandiose disaster. Nothing about this Harlow is likeable, and some of it is downright scummy. Carrol Baker is lovely, but her Harlow could easily be a Marilyn or a Jayne because there seems to be only one way to write a blonde Hollywood starlet. As I’ve mentioned with several biopics in this series, if you don’t enjoy the subject being depicted, it shows; I argue that the director and screenwriter downright detest Jean Harlow.
Jean Harlow (Baker) wants to be a movie star, not just for herself but to keep her freeloading parents afloat. With the help of a benevolent agent (Red Buttons), Harlow becomes synonymous with A-list stardom.
Harlow is based on the book (now out of print) by Irving Schulman which has some pretty heinous reviews on Amazon. It’s described as “pulpy,” which can be good for a book, but translates into exploitation on-screen. If you’ve been following this series you remember the worst biopic I ever watched: the 1976 Marilyn Monroe film Goodbye, Norma Jean; a sickening story depicting Monroe being consistently raped for 90 minutes. While Harlow isn’t as bad, there’s a thick sliver of smut that runs underneath the entire movie. For some reason, biopics about blonde bombshells who died young are highly interchangeable and always have to focus on how they simply didn’t get enough sex. You can take Baker’s Harlow, and place it next to the countless Marilyn biopics or The Jayne Mansfield Story (or go all the way back to the Thelma Todd Story) and every beat/character trait is the same. Jean Harlow led an interesting life that was nothing like Norma Jean Baker‘s, yet Hollywood creates them the same.
Take the characterization and introduction to Harlow, herself. All you need is platinum blonde hair right? Because that’s all that’s given to the audience for you to understand that this is HARLOW (and they never call her Jean Harlow so I hope you know her first name). Carrol Baker is beautiful, but I can grasp as to why this film ruined her career. She looks beautiful in the Edith Head gowns, but the script does her a disservice by turning Jean Harlow into a screeching shrew; Baker has to say every line through gritted teeth, as if it’s the most important thing in the history of the spoken language. If you’ve studied Harlow’s career, you’ll be disappointed, of course. Similar to the other Harlow biopic, this one doesn’t include the titles of any of her movies nor does it use real actors names; so Harlow works for “Majestic Studios,” aka MGM, and her love for Jack Harrison (Mike Connors) I’m assuming is a stand-in for William Powell. Outside of her parents (played by Angela Lansbury and Raf Vallone), her second husband, Paul Bern (Peter Lawford), is the only other character cited under his real name. The lack of accuracy is frustrating because there’s no basis what’s changed. Bern kills himself because of his impotence; a theory that has been thrown out for Bern’s death although I’m waiting for the biopic that alleges Harlow killed him (I’m REALLY surprised that wasn’t touched in either movie). Don’t even get me started on how Harlow dies here; okay, I’ll tell you…pneumonia! I’ll get into the background on that in a second, but why change that one thing? Whether she dies of pneumonia or what she really died of, uremic poisoning, why is it important to change the one, irrefutable item that we have established about Harlow’s life?
In lieu of accuracy, director Gordon Douglas and screenwriter John Michael Hayes want to focus on Jean Harlow’s quest for sex! It’s a tired trope established in the various Monroe biopics: Actress couldn’t find sexual satisfaction, which she equates to love, and thus her life is doomed from the start. The problem is, by the end of the story Jean is so sex-obsessed she openly propositions her stepfather! Keep in mind, prior to this she accused him of wanting to molest her, and during her wedding to Bern the camera lingers on Marino Bello’s face in a profession of love. Yet the script wants to make him pious by not having sex with his daughter, something he apparently didn’t want all along? Then why set events up as such?! It makes as much sense as Jean seducing him because she’s out of work (yes, the script equates sexual frustration with unemployment). There’s just a disturbing connection to sex – incest specifically incest – that continues to crop up throughout the boring two-hour runtime. We’re meant to understand that Mama Jean (Lansbury) and Marino have an active sex life, and that really the only reason the two are married is because of sex. Cut to one unsettling conversation where Jean praises Marino’s sexual prowess and Mama declaring that’s the “first nice thing” her daughter’s said towards her stepfather! See why I place this next to Goodbye, Norma Jean? I’ve never understood screenwriters’ obsession with blonde bombshells and sex? Is it because they see these stars flaunting their sexuality, and it must be ironic that their sex lives were less than active? In the case of Jean Harlow that makes little sense, and it simply creates an excuse for a sleazebag screenwriter to degrade a woman for 120 minutes.
Mired in the exploitation are terrible production values and ridiculously slow pacing. Over thirty minutes of the movie is devoted to Jean deflecting unwanted sexual advances (one of which comes from Leslie Nielsen!). After that, over an hour focuses on Harlow’s early career where she gets hit in the face with pies and thrown into water fountains. Can anyone tell me if that is true, because I don’t believe it is? While her manager tells her “You won’t be doing this forever” it feels like she has because over an hour goes by of zero progression in her career. Once she hits it big it comes with a whimper and disappears, only to be replaced by Jean having a career as a burlesque dancer complete with Mae West one-liners. Again, any authenticity? Don’t forget the horribly misplaced music cues that end up being hilarious; one sequence has Jean showing up at her manager’s doorstep after being beaten by Paul Bern. When the manager opens the door I swore the music cue was from Frankenstein. Instead of a battered (if you call a few makeup smears “battered”) Jean Harlow, I expected a hulking monster.
The movie ends with the ominous declaration that Jean “didn’t die of pneumonia, she died of life.” Well, any idiot could tell you she didn’t die from pneumonia, but what are we supposed to take away from this? Life didn’t kill Harlow, her kidneys did! Oh, you want me to believe that because she wasn’t sexually satisfied, and thus had to start prostituting herself (which does happen), that life broke her?
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.