–by Jennifer Kellow-Fiorini
PUBLICATION DATE: Aug 04, 2020
Rarely has a star shone so bright and packed so much into such a short lifetime as Jean Harlow — Hollywood’s first blonde bombshell. She died at 26 years old, but her influence on style hasn’t aged a day.
Jean Harlow was born Harlean Carpenter on March 3, 1911, in Kanas City, Missouri. She probably wouldn’t have been an actress if it weren’t for her mother who transferred her desire for stardom onto her daughter. Harlow’s mother had a tremendous influence on her, encouraging her to end her first marriage at age 17 and forgo her dreams of marriage and motherhood in favor of an acting career that teenage Harlean initially didn’t want. Harlean changed her name from Harlean Carpenter to her mother’s maiden name, Jean Harlow, when she started working in Hollywood in 1928 in extra roles. By 1929 she was playing the sexy blonde in Laurel and Hardy shorts. She soon grew tired of playing an empty-headed vixen, and with encouragement from her mother to move on to bigger and better studios, she asked to be released early from her contract with Hal Roche Studios.
In 1930 Howard Hughes was looking to recast the female lead in his overblown spectacle of a movie called “Wings” and he discovered Jean. Hughes put her under contract and sewed her into a dress so slinky it embarrassed her. She was young and inexperienced as an actress when she made “Wings” and it showed. But something else showed too, and, while critics panned her acting, they couldn’t deny her star appeal. As Variety wrote, “No one has ever starred possessing what she’s got!”
It took Harlow several films to learn to act, and she floundered at first in movies that exploited her figure and youth. Although she played gangster molls, prostitutes, and society women, screwball comedies came to define her career and legacy. In 1931 she made “Gallagher,” retitled “Platinum Blonde,” to capitalize on her signature white-blonde locks. Director Frank Capra asked if she thought she could make people laugh and Harlow replied, “At me or with me?” “At you,” he said. Jean quipped, “Why not, people have been laughing at me all my life.” Platinum blonde hair became the rage. Legions of girls idolized Harlow, flocking to her films sporting white blonde hair made from a combination of vinegar, household bleach, and Lux soap flakes.
On a film shoot in 1932, Harlow met MGM executive Paul Bern who convinced MGM to sign her even though the studio specialized in good, rather than bad girls. Bern became Harlow’s friend, confidant, and mentor before marrying her that same year. Ironically, Jean ditched her blonde hair for her first starring role at MGM, “Red-Headed Woman.” In the movie Jean plays the ultimate home-wrecking bad girl. It shocked the censors, but it was a hit, and gave Jean the opportunity to show off the dramatic and comedic skills she worked so hard to develop.
Then tragedy struck. Two months into her marriage, while shooting “Red Dust” with Clark Gable, husband Paul Bern took his own life with a gunshot to the head
in their Hollywood home. Officially ruled a suicide, to this day Bern’s death is shrouded in speculation. A grief-stricken Jean returned to the set of “Red Dust” while MGM worried about how the scandal might affect the film’s box office receipts. But “Red Dust” was a hit earning the studio triple its cost and cementing Harlow and Gable as a highly successful box office team.
Harlow’s story continues next month with more career highlights, and the actress’s tragic death at age 26.
For more Reel Cinema articles, resources, and photos, check out my Reel Cin blog at jenfior.com/blog-1
Jennifer Fiorini holds a bachelor degree in advertising from The Fashion Institute of Technology where she minored in film studies, Italian film and language. Originally from Toledo, Ohio, she divides her time between New York City and Torino, Italy. She is part of Creative Oxygen’s New York team, writes for eCurrent Magazine, and contributed to Troy Howarth’s book, Murder By Design – The Unsane Films of Dario Argento.