Before Madonna, before Marilyn Monroe, there was Jean Harlow—the original blonde bombshell. One of the most popular actresses of the 1930s, Harlow's blonde hair and skin-tight gowns made her an iconic image of the silver screen. Today would have been her 100th birthday.
The Baby, as she was nicknamed, was tiny (just 5' 2) and had luminous skin, a perfect figure (she didn't like to wear underwear because it created lines), and that hair. Harlow's platinum blonde hair changed the lives of women. Seriously. Before her, dyed hair was equated with prostitutes. Harlow's screen appearances had thousands of women rushing to the salon to mimic their favourite actress' blonde tresses and suddenly being a bottle blonde was acceptable.
Harlow began her career in Hal Roach shorts and co-starred with Laurel and Hardy in a few of their films while learning to be a good actress. There is no question that the camera loved her but her delivery was stiff often laughable. Harlow herself said, "I was not a born actress. No one knows it better than I. If I had any latent talent, I have had to work hard, listen carefully, do things over and over and then over again in order to bring it out." But as she continued to vamp it up on screen she got better and soon she began to exhibit great comic timing. Her big break came with Howard Hughes' Hell's Angels (1930). She would go on to star in some of the best films of the 1930s—Dinner at Eight, Bombshell, Red Dust, Libeled Lady. Her co-stars included Wallace Beery, Cary Grant, Spencer Tracy, William Powell, and Clark Gable (she and Gable made six films together and were great friends off screen).
Harlow was an animal lover and filled her home with dogs and other furry pets. She was beloved by everyone she worked with and was known for helping crew members out financially. She was also smart. Harlow could memorize her lines with just one reading of a script. She was known to always have a book with her on set and even wrote a novel, Today is Tonight, which wasn't published until 1965.
Her cheery disposition helped to mask the sadness in her personal life. She was married three times; her second husband, Paul Bern, committed suicide just two months after their wedding. Her great love, William Powell, refused to marry her. She supported her domineering stage mother who attempted to control all aspects of her daughter's life and a step-father who lost huge amounts of Harlow's income on ill-conceived investments.
Harlow was in the midst of making her sixth film with Gable, Saratoga, when she complained of not feeling well. A few weeks later, on June 7, 1937, she died from uremic poisoning. Most likely a bout of scarlet fever as a teen had damaged her kidneys and in the 1930s there was no cure for kidney failure. MGM writer Harry Ruskin said, "The day 'the baby' died there wasn't one sound in the commissary for three hours—not one goddamn sound." Harlow was just 26.
So Happy Birthday Jean Harlow. You will always be one of my favourite blondes.
If you'd like to see some of her films, Harlow is TCM's star of the month. And to learn more about her, check out David Stenn's excellent biography Bombshell.