A Day with Harlow

Harlow at her Club View Drive home, circa 1932

I spent the majority of today in 1932.

Well, as close as I’ll ever get to it, anyway.

On this exceptionally bright, magical March afternoon, the not-so-distant past collided head on with the present.

The authors of Harlow in Hollywood: The Blonde Bombshell in the Glamour Capital held a book signing on Club View Drive in Beverly Hills- the former residence of Jean Harlow. The gracious current owners of the home, Mr. and Mrs. Chandler, hosted a lovely afternoon luncheon whose guests included Leonard Maltin, Holly Madison, members of the Harlow family (the Carpenter side), veteran Hollywood actress Pauline Wagner (Fay Wray‘s King Kong double!) and Hollywood historians Lisa Burks, Darrell Rooney and Mark Vieira.

I was thrilled to be a part of such a distinguished group, and really cherished every blessed second.

Armed with my partner in crime, the beautiful vintage model Lauren Foulk, we arrived at the legendary home ready for an afternoon of pure Hollywood history… and were certainly not disappointed.

The Chandlers love of their homes’ history is evident in every lovingly preserved square inch. Beautiful period prints of Harlow in the Club View Drive home were prominently placed in areas of particular interest, creating a tangible, living museum.

Harlow at Club View Drive in 1932... and the same view today.

It was a truly extraordinary experience, roaming the hallways of a legend. A costume worn by beautiful Carol Baker awaited upstairs– lead actress in the miscalculated  1965 film that was a victim of misinformation. (Baker’s talent as an actress could have been explosive given the correct material.)

Sitting in the the living room which had once played host to the wedding of Jean Harlow and ill-fated MGM producer Paul Bern was quite surreal … even moreso was speaking with a delightful lady who had graced its presence before… eight decades ago…

When Pauline Wagner signed my autograph book today, she tagged it with “SAG #2”. Meaning, quite simply, that she was officially the second member of the Screen Actors Guild. A photograph of the strikingly young Pauline with Jimmy Cagney on set rested in the Club View Drive drawing room, and a crowd of willing, waiting pupils sat at her feet. Eager, ever so eager, to hear the stories of working as an actress in 1930s Hollywood FROM an actress who worked in 1930s Holltwood. Pauline may be 100 years old on paper, but certainly doesn’t look it. In fact, when Lauren and I were told her real age we were fairly knocked off our feet. Lauren, arrayed in the most delightfully vintage tresses, was spyed by the very spry Pauline from across the room. We had no idea at the time that the sweet little lady introducing herself was a living Hollywood legend.

Her strikingly well preserved form? Summed up thusly:

Me: Pauline, whatever you’re doing, please keep doing it!

Pauline: It’s not what I’m doing… it’s what i DON’T do!

A statement followed up by a gloriously vivid account between her and director Mitchell Leisen who, after an uncharacteristically bleary-eyed morning with the actress, said: “Take my advice, kid. DON’T GO TO HOLLYWOOD PARTIES.”

She listened. Much to the benefit of all of us assembled this afternoon.

She wallopped me, that dame, and I’m still trying to recover…

Entrance to Club View Drive

Inside Club View Drive... Stairway to History

Portrait of Jean, in the room where she wedded Paul Bern.

Is it 2011 or is it 1932?

Vintage Model Lauren Foulk-- hitting on all six cylinders!

Carol Baker's negligee from the 1965 film "Harlow". Great actress... awful film.

Club View Drive's Tudor exterior.

Photograph of Harlow inside Club View Drive on her wedding day with Paul Bern, Norma Shearer and Irving Thalberg. (WOW!)

After the fun had ended, Lauren and I were still weren’t quite ready to rejoin the present. So we made a stop at the legendary Sunset Tower Hotel to have a drink in Jean’s honor. The Jean Harlow Cocktail was a slight challenge for our willing bartender, who’d never heard of the concoction before, but the end result was delicious!

Here’s to Harlean!

The Jean Harlow Cocktail

Sunset Tower Hotel

Jean Harlow, Evolution of an Actress – Part 1

The Platinum Blonde in June 1931

For Jean’s centenary and for the duration of this Blogathon, I thought it would be fun to take a step back and observe the panorama of Harlow’s growth as an actress. From awkward, unprincipled newcomer, to highly gifted and lovable comedienne over the span of just a few years.

Now… I don’t know about you, but I certainly remember the first day of work at my first big job. A day I’d like to forget, but can’t– like that memory of tripping down the stairs in High School it’s just burned in your subconscious forever. I still wince at the memory of how nervous, and therefore how AWFUL, I was at my first real job. Learning your duties on the fly, jumping in the deep end of a strange new world is nothing short of terrifying. That fear of drowning lurking behind every every teensy weensy wrong move.

Unlike Jean Harlow, my first “big job” was inside a four walled office in a strip mall in the suburbs and only I have to live with the still painful memory of just how much of a novice I was at it.

For Jean, it was photographed in glorious silvery nitrate, splashed on a screen twenty feet tall, viewed by untold millions of people and dissected and criticized by the public press. Preserved for all eternity.

Harlean Carptenter became an actress because she had to pay the bills, simple as that. She’d been living the high life in Los Angeles with her young and newly wealthy husband and only turned up at the studios in order to win a bet from a friend that she didn’t have the guts to do it. But when she split from her husband and suddenly had her mother and stepfather to support, she had only one option to exploit: movie work.

The starlet circa 1930

And so Jean Harlow was born. And so an image was created. Her striking beauty and figure made her a natural for the movies. Her talent as a dramatic actress?

Well. A few things to keep in mind when watching Jean’s early features. A thoroughly inexperienced young girl was suddenly thrust into the glaring Hollywood spotlight, expected to have the acting chops that matched her image, and when it proved an arduous, was more or less devoured by the critics. She was also the sole supporter of a manipulative opportunist (her mother, Jean Harlow) and a flamboyant charlatan (her stepfather, Marino Bello) and the pressure for her to succeed was relentless.

Her first big break came when independent filmmaker and entrepreneur Howard Hughts cast her in the lead of his first Hollywood picture, Hell’s Angels. (The decades have been kind to Harlow’s performance– her rough edges and unpolished manner have a certain raw appeal.) But Harlow was plagued with insecurities about her acting on the set of Hell’s Angels resulted in a poignant exchange between her and director  James Whales saying.

Harlow in the only color footage of her in existance: the two-strip Technicolor segment of Howard Hughes' Hell's Angels (1930). Hardly Shakespeare, but brevity was definitely the soul of her character's wit.

"Would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?" Harlow thought it was the corniest line ever written. Time has proved otherwise.

“Tell me exactly what you want,” Harlow pleaded with Whale, “and I’ll do it.”

He shot back, exasperated, “I can tell you how to be an actress, yes. But I can’t tell you show to be a woman.”

Her work in The Public Enemy proved little better and the critics universally panned her acting ability. Especially next to the explosively talented newcomer James Cagney, Harlow is notably tense and reseved.

“She was embarrassing,” recalled co-star Mae Clark, “just embarrassing.” One critic concurred with the simple statement: “Jean Harlow is awful.”

And still, the public came. She had something, obviously, but how to present it?

Enter Platinum Blonde. (A film that Eve’s Reel Life did a fabulous job of analyzing for the blogathon.) The film’s title was changed to fit its increasingly popular female lead. This early Frank Capra film is best remembered for the exceptional performance of the lead, Robert Williams. Harlow plays the same sexual conquest as before but with this film Harlow has a leg to stand on: even if her acting talents were still in the process of being defined, one thing was quite clear. The public was coming to see her.

But Harlow was not the only one fighting to make a successful transition. Hollywood itself was also in the midst of a very clunky transition from silent to sound. (Hell’s Angels itself a veritable documentary of the sound revolution). It’s interesting to note that Jean’s acting improved with each film, right along with the same technology that would, ever so ironically, wind up providing Jean with her key strength: dialogue.

Harlow opposite Cagney in The Public Enemy

Languishing under her contract with Howard Hughes, she was finally acquired, thanks to the manic persistence of MGM producer (and future husband) Paul Bern where she was very reluctantly (Thalberg’s desperate last resort) cast in the most “unfilmable” movie in Hollywood, a racy sex film called Red Headed Woman. But the film had the good fortune of being adapted by the fast and witty screenwriter Anita Loos, who penned the red-headed Lil Andrews with sass and zippy one-liners.

Jean Harlow fired off the lines like a six-shooter at the OK Corral.

Harlow’s hard work  was about to pay off. Although she resented being painted to the public as a salacious man-eater, the result was solid gold. MGM had a formidable star on their hands. The Legion of Decency had a hernia. The critics took note.

The rest was history.

Blog it for Baby: Day One of the Jean Harlow Blogathon

The Jean Harlow Blogathon Day One!

Today The Jean Harlow Blogathon kicks off and we are off to a roaring start! Thoughtful, imaginative and introspective—everyone is really putting out some beautiful work which just amps up the excitement of what’s in store for the rest of the week.

Thanks to all the participants who have jumped on board for this special week of activity! Let’s get this show on the road, shall we?

color by Victor Mascaro

Carole & Company:

Vincent from Carole & Co., who has been a major supporter of this Blogathon, has created an alternate universe in which real-life friends Jean Harlow and Carole Lombard have swapped careers. Let’s Switch” is a winsome short story that asks us to tap into our imagination and wonder how might they have fared in the other’s films:

Harlow, Lombard: Let’s switch!

For the centenary of Jean Harlow’s birth, I tried to find a way to commemorate it – especially since this will be part of a Harlow blogathon at “The Kitty Packard Pictorial,” a superb site on Harlow, classic Hollywood and popular culture (https://kittypackard.wordpress.com/).

An entry linking Carole Lombard and Harlow isn’t easy. Although they were good friends and were beloved by casts and crews throughout filmland, no picture of them together has ever been discovered – a holy grail among both fandoms. Carole’s first husband, William Powell, later had an intense, but ill-fated, romance with Harlow, and Lombard’s second husband, Clark Gable, was renowned for his steamy romantic films with Jean (although in real life, they were good friends, never lovers).

So, what’s a writer to do? Use imagination, that’s what. I’m going to create an alternate universe where Lombard stars in Harlow’s movies, and vice versa. How might these silver screen goddesses have fared in each other’s films?

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Kevin Scrantz runs a fascinating blog called Clarosureaux and specializes in colorizing and restoring vintage photography. He’s also a Jean Harlow enthusiast as you will find in his post Harlow Centenary:

March 3 will mark Jean Harlow’s 100th birthday, so pretty much my entire blog will be devoted to her for the next couple of weeks

As part of the celebration of her hundredth year, the Max Factor Museum in Hollywood will be hosting a new Harlow exhibit that contains such cool items as her Packard and a mural that once hung in Paul Bern‘s Benedict Canyon home depicting Harlow, Joan Crawford, and a host of other MGM stars as medieval courtiers.

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Eve’s Reel Life

Oh that Lady Eve Sidwich! Her Eve’s Reel Life blog is a real treasure trove : an intelligent blend of thoughtful prose and painstaking research and she has really outdone herself with “Platinum Blonde and Beyond“. Here she takes a look at one of Harlow’s early features, Platinum Blonde, and within the contextual framework of Harlow’s early career she does a marvelous job of pinpointing what makes Platinum Blonde pivotal:

It was her trademark, her calling card and, in 1931, the name of a film in which she received third billing. Platinum Blonde had originally been intended as a vehicle for top-billed star Loretta Young but, by the time it was released, the film’s title had changed and changed again until it was an outright reference to pale-haired co-star Jean Harlow. It was not Harlow’s breakout picture, that had come with Hell’s Angels (1930), nor is it generally cited as one of her great classics, but Platinum Blonde was pivotal – it proclaimed her stardom.

In 1931, the 20-year-old starlet was still under an oppressive five-year contract with Howard Hughes, producer/director of Hell’s Angels. She had proven her appeal in the film, but Hughes had no projects in the works for her and most Hollywood insiders believed he was mismanaging her career. Harlow’s then-friend/future husband Paul Bern arranged for her loan to MGM for The Secret Six (1931) an underworld drama with Wallace Beery and not-yet-famous Clark Gable.

Immediately after, she was loaned out to Universal for an unsympathetic role in The Iron Man (1931), a boxing drama with Lew Ayres. While still on that project, she went back to MGM for retakes on The Secret Six and began work on her next film, this time on loan to Warner Brothers for the gangster classic The Public Enemy (1931), with James Cagney. Her fourth film in five months was for Fox, Goldie (1931), a comedy with Spencer Tracy. Of these films only The Public Enemy was an unqualified hit, and it was a blockbuster, but it was Cagney who became the overnight star…Harlow’s allure was noted, but her performance was widely panned.


The Hollywood Revue:

Angela with The Hollywood Revue is a super swell dame and, in honor of Jean’s centenary, she has published a great review of one of Jean Harlow’s best films, Wife vs. Secretary. It’s also in conjunction with the 75th anniversary of the film’s release back on Febraury 28 1936:

Van Stanhope (Clark Gable) seems to have it all: he’s a very successful magazine publisher, he’s been very happily married to Linda (Myrna Loy) for three years, and he’s got Whitey (Jean Harlow), the best secretary he could ever want.  Most wives would be worried about their husbands having secretaries, who look like Whitey, but Linda trusts Van completely and she has every reason to.  At least she trusts him until all the suggestions from friends and family that Whitey must be one of those secretaries finally start to get to her.  But Linda isn’t the only one jealous of Van and Whitey’s working relationship.  Whitey’s boyfriend Dave (James Stewart) wants to marry her, but she loves her job and doesn’t want to quit to stay at home.

When Van decides to take on a new business venture, he has to keep it top secret from everyone, including Linda.  Whitey is the only person who knows what’s going on.  So when he says he’s been at a club all afternoon one day, Linda does a little investigating and finds out he wasn’t at the club all day, he was with Whitey.  Linda begins to fear that all those insinuations were right after all, she has no idea that he and Whitey were working together on the new business deal.  Things get even worse when at a company skating party, Linda thinks Van and Whitey look like a little too friendly and she asks Van to transfer Whitey to a new job.  Van refuses and Linda eventually decides she’s being ridiculous and Van promises to take her on vacation soon to make it up to her.

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The Platinum Page:

Ah, the lovely Lisa Burks. If you’re a fan of Harlow’s you almost certainly have spent many an hour at her Platinum Page. It was the first such one on the Internet dedicated to Harlow and is still the place to go for anything and everything related to her. It is hardly surprising, then, that in her post Harlow 100 Week she has proposed a truly beautiful gesture in Jean’s honor:

This weekend I had my thinking cap on to come up with some article ideas, when my friend and fellow Harlow fan Reg Williams pinged me about his efforts to encourage fans to fill Jean’s room in the Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Glendale with flowers.

If you’d like to participate, contact The Flower Shop at Forest Lawn to place your order. Please note, Forest Lawn’s $3 placement fee will apply.  The delivery location is Great Mausoleum, Sanctuary of Benediction, Private Family Mausoleum Room #34, Crypt B.

How will we know if the goal is met? Being a private room, special permission is needed to visit in person. The Platinum Page is on the case and will be working our contacts to bring you officially sanctioned updates, so stay tuned!

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Keep the links coming, everyone!

Join in the celebration and email The Pictorial!