–by Jennifer Kellow-Fiorini
PUBLICATION DATE: Sept 14, 2020
In the first half of her career Jean Harlow was cast as the unapologetic bad girl. And though Jean hated this image, because she was nothing like the characters she played, those signature roles were what made Harlow a product of her time. In another year the Code would send that kind of female characters packing.
The hit movie, “Red Dust,” was quickly followed up with two more back-to-back blockbusters — “Dinner at Eight” and “Bombshell” — a landmark film ushering in the screwball comedies that would come to define the later part of the decade. Jean played Lola Burns, a superstar actress just trying to make it through her day while battling hangers on, greedy family members, psychotic fans, and the press. The genre allowed Jean and other actresses to be more than just eye candy. It leveled the playing field as women engaged in rapid-fire dialog, physical comedy, and witty one-upmanship with their male counterparts. Critics, who had written her off as a complete no talent two years before, now showered her with praise.
A year after her husband Bern’s death Jean was involved in affair with boxer Max Baer. Baer’s wife filed for divorce naming Harlow in her suit. Wanting to avoid another scandal, MGM quickly arranged a marriage between Jean and cameraman Harold Rosson. Their marriage lasted seven months, but love wasn’t done with Harlow yet. In 1934 Jean met and fell deeply in love with MGM leading man, William Powell.
In the summer of 1934, the Hays Code went into full effect and Jean’s hair began to fall out from the harsh chemical bleaching. MGM used wigs to hide the loss, gave her hair a light brown rinse, and rebranded her “the brownette.” Post Code, Jean’s roles changed too. She finally got to play the good-girl parts she’d always wanted. These roles reflected the kind of life Jean wanted off-camera: love, marriage, and motherhood. Sadly, her real-life love, William Powell, had just come out of a two-year marriage to Carol Lombard and didn’t want to marry her. He found Jean’s sex-symbol status intimidating, stating to one interviewer, “You don’t marry someone half of America wants to sleep with.” He gave her a huge star sapphire ring, but wouldn’t propose. Jean confided to a friend, “I do all the giving. He’s breaking my heart.”
Jean’s health had always been frail, and by 1936 it was starting to show. The relationship with her mother had never been a healthy one. When Jean gained weight, her mother put her on a diet of a scoop of cottage cheese, a slice of pineapple, and one carrot a day, making sickness-prone Harlow even weaker. In spite of the diet, she appeared grayish and visibly swollen. In March 1937, Jean needed her wisdom teeth removed. Her mother wanted them done all at once — not the best decision for Jean’s health, but what her mother thought was best for Jean’s work schedule. Under sedation for her wisdom teeth, her heart stopped briefly. She was resuscitated but never healed properly from the surgery. Two months later, on the set of “Saratoga,” she complained of abdominal pain and went home to recover from what she thought was the flu. On the following Wednesday, vomiting and delirious, a doctor was called. He diagnosed a gall bladder problem and gave her injections of dextrose, but Jean got worse and was taken to the hospital where she received what would be the right diagnosis — her kidneys were failing and the fluids prescribed by the previous doctor were killing her. Barely conscious and in terrible pain, when a friend said, “don’t worry Jean, you’ll get better.” Jean said, “I don’t want to.”
Harlow slipped into a coma and died on June 7, 1937, at the age of 26. Clark Gable broke down in tears and Powell was inconsolable, barely making it through her funeral. Her films, including then unfinished “Saratoga,” would be played for a grief-stricken public who flocked to screenings. Jean Harlow was gone too soon, but her influence outlived the draconian Hays Code, directly influencing films like “His Girl Friday,” “Bringing Up Baby,” and paving the way for future icons like Marilyn Monroe and Lucille Ball.
*Writers Note: In Part 1, Harlow’s break-through film was “Hell’s Angels,” not “Wings.”
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.