Yesterday was Jean Harlow’s birthday. Here is a discussion Mitchell and I had about her.
Here is the next installment in a long-running conversation-series with one of my best friends, Mitchell Fain.
Part 1: We discuss Justin Timberlake, Lena Horne, Doris Day, Jill Clayburgh, Cary Grant, Don Rickles.
Part 2: We discuss Woody Allen, Joan Crawford, Lily Tomlin, Claude Rains, Burt Reynolds.
Part 3: We discuss Joan Rivers.
Part 4 (posted yesterday): We discuss Zac Efron.
The setup: I pick the names of a bunch of famous people, throw them at Mitchell, first asking him to describe each person in only “one word”, and then moving onwards into a deeper discussion. Mitchell and I have been friends since we met in college, and these conversations have been part of our relationship since the beginning. We discussed Matthew Modine for probably five straight hours after seeing “Birdy” in college. So a while back I thought, I need to start taping these conversations. While I was in Chicago, we didn’t go outside for an entire freezing day, and talked for hours about all of the names on my list. Here’s the second installment, about a fascinating and influential figure, mostly in pre-Code films but moving on into the 30s before her untimely death. We get into “what is it” about her, what makes her special, because she was not cookie-cutter bombshell/starlet. It was something else, entirely.
Sheila O’Malley: Jean Harlow. One word.
Mitchell Fain: [thinks a bit] Brassy! She had this beautiful almost pudgy face and this …
SOM: Luscious body.
MF: Crazy luscious body. Gowns cut on the bias were created for Jean Harlow’s body or, at least, she made the look popular. She had this gun-moll voice. Every generation has the dumb blonde, or The Blonde, and Harlow was the dumb blonde of that era, but what’s interesting is – whether it’s Jean Harlow or Marilyn Monroe – those dumb blondes are FUNNY.
SOM: Goldie Hawn.
MF: Goldie Hawn! Every generation has their version of that.
I think unfortunately Harlow’s reputation has either suffered or … she’s not remembered right. First of all, she died so young, and there’s an atmosphere of scandal about all of it, and that’s unfortunate and unfair. She was so of her era. I would say that that was true of Joan Crawford too.
Harlow is so of her era that she ends up being totally contemporary. I recently watched Red Dust, with Harlow and Clark Gable. And Harlow comes across, once again – in the style of acting that we love – and the style that most people (who don’t watch old movies, or don’t understand that these people were inventing screen acting) find dated … but you watch her in Red Dust, and compared to the other actresses of her time, she’s making such – and I say this in a positive way – pedestrian choices. She’s so tough. A tough chick.
SOM: She wasn’t Garbo.
MF: She wasn’t Katharine Hepburn. She didn’t use that mid-Atlantic speech that actors used back then. Harlow didn’t even try. As a result, she comes across as very real. And she’s funny. I guess Dinner at Eight has become her legacy.
There’s that moment in Dinner at Eight where Harlow shows up at the snooty party, and says something like, “You know, we’re all going to be replaced by robots or machines some day …” and Marie Dressler says, “You have nothing to worry about, my dear.” And sometimes comments like that make it seem like she’s a whore, but she’s so adorable, you like her anyway.
I wonder what Harlow’s goals were.
SOM: She was pretty mother-dominated.
MF: She had a stage mother who was powerfully in her life.
One of Marilyn Monroe’s tragic downfalls, unfortunately (but fortunately for us, because her work is strangely depthful) is that she aspired to be a great actress. Unfortunately, it kept her constantly disappointed in what she was doing, which she was better at than anyone.
It doesn’t seem that that was Harlow’s deal. Harlow was more like Carole Lombard. She seems to have loved what she did. Did she want to be Katharine Hepburn or Bette Davis? Of course, Harlow was before them, really.
SOM: There was no real model for what she did, you mean?
MF: Who would she have modeled herself after? Norma Shearer?
SOM: Jean Harlow was one of those women under contract to Howard Hughes. He put her in Hell’s Angels, that huge expensive legendary extravaganza. It put her on the map.
And she was such an attention-getter, the hair, the face, the eyebrows, that BODY, but then when she opened her mouth out came this tough-cookie sassy street girl. And it felt real, like it was who she actually was. It was the 1930s when she really arrived, not the elegant (supposedly) 1920s, and even though she wore white silk gowns and had platinum hair, outside the door of the studio lot was a pretty ugly scary world. And you can FEEL that in Harlow’s persona.
MF: The world she has protected herself from. She’s a scrappy survivor.
SOM: Harlow brought with her a breath of the Depression, the dirty city streets, the criminality. There was something about her that wasn’t fully manufactured.
MF: We always want to compare contemporary stars to the old stars. “So-and-so’s the new so-and-so.” And the reality of it is that there is no such thing as the “new so-and-so”. The people who truly succeed, who leave legacies behind are individuals. They are one of a kind. And certainly at the time, Jean Harlow was one of a kind.
In a way, Pretty Woman is an homage to Harlow, too. People seemed to view it as a tribute to Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Roman Holiday.
SOM: That always bugged me. Audrey Hepburn was pure thoroughbred, not like Julia Roberts’ character at all – or Julia Roberts herself, whose persona is pretty down-to-earth.
MF: Also Breakfast at Tiffany’s was such a watered-down version of Truman Capote’s book. Harlow was “Pretty Woman”, now that I think about it. That’s who she actually was. I could totally see her playing that part.
SOM: Harlow is so brilliant in Red-Headed Woman.
MF: I remember the last time I saw her in something, I thought to myself, “This is a modern woman.” Jean Harlow was a totally modern woman.
SOM: She didn’t wear underwear.
MF: When your dress is cut on the bias, you really can’t wear underwear because everyone could see it. They didn’t have thongs back then. She was a modern woman.
I mean, think about the other actresses at that time: if you weren’t from New England, how could you relate to a Katharine Hepburn? Hepburn was aspirational but she wasn’t the girl who worked at the factory next to you. After Jean Harlow, Shelley Winters took up those parts but showed the darker side of them in Place in the Sun, Night of the Hunter …
SOM: And Big Knife, with Jack Palance and Clifford Odets’ script. Shelley Winters plays the desperate starlet who has casting-couched her way to nowhere. They’re going to kill her to shut her up.
MF: Harlow hinted at that dark side. What I like about Harlow, and what I love about her in Dinner at Eight, is that as much as Marie Dressler wins that moment in Dinner at Eight, Harlow still wins. She wins the war. You don’t dislike her at all, or judge her. She’s adorable. It’s like that moment in Postcards from the Edge when you meet Annette Bening in that one scene with Meryl Streep. Meryl Streep is the star of the movie, but Bening ends up winning that scene.
Bening’s character is adorable in her whore-dom.
SOM: And she doesn’t give a shit that “endolphins” is not a word.
MF: That’s what it is. Shelley Winters came in in an era when …
SOM: Freud had kicked in.
MF: And so in Shelley Winters’ day, that kind of character had to suffer. What happened to the flapper? Where did she go? She became Jean Harlow. Harlow was like, “I’m going to win.”
Harlow’s sexuality was so full. It’s the same thing that Mike Nichols explored with Ann-Margret in Carnal Knowledge. Ann-Margret had an almost corpulent sexuality, boobs and hips, and in Carnal Knowledge she could barely get out of bed because of it. I mean, did that character ever leave the bed?
In Dinner at Eight, I think the first time we see Harlow, she’s in bed in one of those idealized white fluffy silky beds. Her version of sexuality was … she didn’t have to get scruffy like Crawford. She wasn’t a stick figure. She was a thick gal. In a way, on some level she’s a descendant of Mae West. But what’s also interesting is the little-girl-ness of what Harlow does sometimes. I always thought what a shame that Born Yesterday was written too late for her. What if she had been of the age to play that part in Born Yesterday? Not that Judy Holliday wasn’t great.
MF: Harlow had a fiery anger too that always felt very real. In Wife vs. Secretary, where she’s a secretary and everyone thinks she’s having an affair with the boss … but she isn’t.
And her righteous indignation about it, the accusations coming at her only because of how she looks … And she’s innocent. She’s really good at it, and you really get it. It’s like what happens with Meghan sometimes. [Meghan Murphy, a friend, you can check out a performance of hers right here.]
I see the way girls who aren’t secure in themselves react to Meghan. They don’t take the time to figure out that Meghan’s actually a real girl’s girl. These other girls treat her suspiciously, like she’s going to be a man-eater.
SOM: But it’s their own insecurities.
MF: Right. And Harlow’s persona wasn’t exactly a man-eater either. Yes, she was a sex symbol. Marilyn Monroe was soft and whispery and pliable. Harlow wasn’t at all. Harlow was more like what Leslie Ann Warren does in Victor/Victoria.
Warren’s performance is more of an homage to Harlow than it is to anyone else. Lying in bed eating bonbons and then throwing them at you when they’re not good enough.
SOM: Harlow seems so much of her era but that’s only because she died in that era. How would she have translated into the more serious socially-conscious 40s or the rigid 50s? By that point she could have played gun-moll matriarchs, for sure, someone like Dillinger’s mother, or something like that.
MF: There were the Mary Astor types who played either someone’s mom or the Bad Girl. Was Jean Harlow a pinup? Did men … Obviously she was a sex symbol because her legacy has lasted. Everyone knows who she was. There’s that line in that horrible song: “Move like Harlow in Monte Carlo … “
SOM: And “Vogue.”
MF: “Bette Davis, Harlow Jean…”
SOM and MF, chanting in unison:
“Pictures of a beauty queen.
Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire.
Ginger Rogers. Dance on air.”
MF: But what did she represent at the time? On one level, I think people think she represents a pliant Marilyn Monroe thing but that wasn’t her at all. She was a full-faced tough cookie. I see more of Mae West in her, although Mae was a more cartoon-y version of sex. The lineage might go: Mae West to Jean Harlow to Shelley Winters.
I’d throw Carole Lombard in there too. People always talk about the actors who couldn’t transition from silents into talkie films because they had bad voices or thick accents. And yet Harlow did not have an elegant voice, by any means. I mean, hers were not dulcet tones.
SOM: I think her voice fit with the stories that were being told in the early 30s, the pre-Code stuff, with criminality, and vice, and gangsters. Films rooted in urban life. You needed the type of women who could do that. Women who you could believe were “kept women” and who had come up hard on the streets. Joan Blondell played those kinds of parts, although she could do spunky good sport side-kicks, too.
Like Midnight Mary, with Loretta Young, who plays a character who was put into juvie, basically, when she was a kid, and then came out into a world of crime and prostitution. Those kinds of gritty films vanished within three years once the Code came down. But Harlow was very much a part of that.
MF: Harlow came at that hard tough material with a really light touch. That might be her biggest gift. Harlow’s ultimate legacy is the urban girl who makes her way into society. That’s Dinner at Eight. She does it half by guile, half by accident, as well as an attitude of: “I just happen to look like this. Sorry. But you know what? I’m not sorry at all.”