Monday, August 18, 2008
Favorite Classic Movie Stars - JEAN HARLOW
Jean Harlow who's real name was Harlean Harlow Carpenter, was born in Kansas City Missouri on March 3, 1911, and passed away on June 7, 1937 at the age of 26. Harlean was the daughter of Mont Clair Carpenter, a dentist and his wife Jean Poe Carpenter (Harlow). Her father came from a working class background while her mother was the daughter of a wealthy real estate broker named Skip Harlow, and his wife Ella Harlow. This was to be an arranged marriage by Jean's father, Skip. Jean, an intelligent and strong willed woman, resented the marriage and would eventually become very unhappy in it.
Harlean would eventually become an American actress and sex symbol of the 1930's. She was frequently called "The Platinum Blonde" and "The Blonde Bombshell". Due to the unique shade of her hair. She has also been ranked as one of the greatest movie stars of all times by "The American Film Institute". Originally, Harlow was cast in films mainly designed to showcase her magnetic sex appeal and strong screen presence, before transitioning to more developed roles and great fame under MGM. Harlow's enormous popularity and image were in distinct contrast to her personal life which unfortunately was full of disappointment, tragedy and ultimately her sudden death from renal failure at the age of 26.
Harlean's childhood was not one that was filled with poverty and unhappiness. Harlean, lived with her parents in a very large house in Kansas City that was her grandfathers second home. She was to be the only grandchild in the family and earned the nickname "The Baby" which would stay with her for the rest of her life. Being without any siblings, Harlean became extremely close to her mother, and Jean Carpenter, herself unhappy in her marriage, turned all her focus on her daughter. She was extremely protective and coddling to young Harlean, instilling in her a sense that Harlean and everything she had she owed to her mother which in turn inspired a deep devotion from daughter to mother, another aspect that would carry through to her adulthood. So coddled was Harlean that she did not know until the age of five, when she began to attend school at "Miss Barstow's Finishing School for Girls" in Kansas City, that her real name was really Harlean and not Baby.
With her daughter away at school, mother Jean became more frustrated with her unhappy marriage and ended up filing for divorce which was granted on September 29th 1922. She received sole custody of her daughter and Harlean would only see her father rarely again in her lifetime.
In 1923 with hopes of becoming an actress, Harleans mother Jean moved with Harlean to Hollywood, where the child briefly attended the "Hollywood School for Girls". However, with no good prospects coming in acting for mother Jean, and with their finances dwindling, they returned to Kansas City within two years.
In the summer of 1925, Harlean's grandfather sent her to a summer camp called "Camp Cha-Ton_Ka" in Michiganne, Michigan. It was during this summer that Harlean caught scarlet fever. From there, Harlean attended the "Ferry Hall School" in Lake Forest, Ill. Freshman were paired with a "big sister" from the senior class, and the fifteen year old Harlean was paired with a girl who introduced her to nineteen year old Charles "Chuck" McGrew, heir to a large fortune, in the fall of 1926. Harlean and Chuck fell in love and were married at the end of 1927 much to the annoyance of mother Jean, (who had earlier that year married herself to a man named Marino Bello), marriage would free Harlean from her control.
Shortly after the marriage, Chuck McGrew turned twenty-one and received part of his large inheritance and the couple moved to Los Angeles where Harlean thrived as a wealthy socialite and more importantly; away from her mother. In Los Angeles Harlean befriended Rosalie Roy, a young aspiring actress. Lacking a car. Roy asked Harlean to drive her to Fox Studios for an appointment she had. It was there, sitting in the car waiting for her friend, Harlean was noticed by some Fox executives. Approached by the executives, Harlean was given dictated letters of introduction to the Central Casting Bureau despite stating she was not interested. Remembering this story a few days later Rosalie Roy made a wager with Harlean that she did not have the nerve to go back and audition for roles. Unwilling to lose a wager and pressed by her mother, Harlean drove to Central Casting and signed in under her mothers name, Jean Harlow.
After several calls and turned down job offers from Central Casting, Harlean was pressured by her mother (who now also is living in Los Angeles), into accepting work. Harlean then appeared in her first film "Honor Bound", as an unbilled extra for seven dollars a day. This led to several other roles, and Harlean landed bit parts in silent films such as "Why is a Plumber?" (1927), "Moran of the Marines" (1928), "The Love Parade" (1929). She also had more substantial roles in Laurel & Hardy shorts "Double Whoopee" and the Clara Bow vehicle "The Saturday Night Kid", both in 1929. Under pressure from Harleans career ascent, she and Chuck separated in 1929 and Harlean moved in with her mother and Bello.
During the filming of "Weak but Willing" in 1929, she was spotted by James Hall, an actor in a than shooting Howard Hughes film called "Hells Angels". Hughes, re-shooting the film from silent to sound needed a new actress as the original actress Greta Nissen's Norse accent proved undesirable for a talkie. Harlean met briefly with Hughes and was hired on the spot. He signed her to a five year contract on October 24, 1929. It was during the shooting that she would meet MGM executive Paul Bern. "Hells Angels" premiered on May 27, 1930 at Graumanns Chinese Theater.
She was a sensation with audiences but critics were less impressed. The "New Yorker" called her "plain awful". "Variety" remarked "It doesn't matter what degree of talent she possesses....nobody ever starved possessing what she's got". In 1931 she was loaned out by Hughes Caddo Company to other studios. She began to get more and more attention when she appeared in "The Public Enemy" with James Cagney, "Goldie", "The Secret Six" with Clark Gable and Wallace Berry) and "Platinum Blonde" with Loretta Young. Though the films were ranged from moderate to smash hits, Harleans acting ability was damned by critics as awful and was mocked, with some saying she ruined any film she was in.
Concerned, Hughes sent her on a personal appearance of the East Coast in 1931. To the surprise of many, especially Harlow, herself, she pack every theater she was in. Despite critical disparagement and poor roles, Harlows popularity and following were large and growing to the extent that the tour was extended through early 1932. Many of her fans were dyeing their hair platinum to match hers. To capitalize on this craze, Hughes team organized a series of Platinum Blonde clubs across the nation with a prize of $10,000 to any beautician who could match Harlows shade.
Apprised of this, Paul Bern (now Harlows lover and soon to be husband), spoke to Louis B. Mayer about buying out Harlow's contract from Hughes and signing her to MGM. Mayer would have none of it. MGM's leading ladies were just that.....ladies (or at least they were presented that way). And Harlow's silver screen image was that of a floozy, which was abhorrent to Mayer. Bern then began urging good friend Irving Thalberg, production head of MGM to sign Harlow. Noting Harlow's pre-existing popularity and established image. After initial reticence, Thalberg agreed and on March 3, 1932, Harlow's 21st Birthday, Bern called with the news that MGM had bought Harlows contract from Hughes for $30,000.
MGM is where Harlow would become a superstar. She was given superior roles to show off not only her beauty, but what turned out to be a genuine talent for comedy. In 1931 she had starring roles in "Red Headed Woman" and "Red Dust". These films showed her to be much more at ease in front of the camera and highlighted her skills as a comedienne. Harlow and Gable worked well together and co-starred in six films. She was also paired multiple times with Spencer Tracy and William Powell.
Evolving tastes and the additional grooming that MGM was noted for, changed Harlow from a brassy, exotic, platinum blonde to the more mainstreamed, all-american type preferred by studio boss Mayer. The screen Harlow at the end of her life was quite different from the Harlow of 1930.
It was during the making of "Red Dust" that Harlows second husband, Paul Bern was found dead at their home. Creating a scandal that reverberates even to this day. Initially, the Hollywood community whispered that Harlow had killed Bern though that was just a rumor and Berns death was officially ruled as a suicide. Harlow kept silent about the whole thing and survived the ordeal, and even became more popular than ever.
After Berns death, she began an indiscreet affair with boxer Max Baer. Despite being separated from his wife Dorothy Dunbar, at the time of their affair, Dunbar threatened divorce proceedings , naming Harlow as the defendant for alienation of affection. MGM diffused the situation by arranging a marriage between Harlow and cinematographer Harold Rosson. Still feeling the shocks of Berns mysterious death the studio didn't want another Harlow scandal on its hands. Rosson and Harlow were friends and Rosson went along with the plan. They quietly divorced seven months later.
After the box office hits of "Hold Your Man" and "Red Dust" MGM realized that it had a goldmine on its hands in the teaming of Harlow and Gable. They then paired them in two more films "China Seas" with Wallace Berry and Rosalind Russell and "Wife vs. Secretary" with Myrna Loy and James Stewart.
By the middle of the 1930's, Harlow was one of the biggest stars in America and the foremost star at MGM. She was still a young woman with her star continuously growing, while the popularity of other female stars at MGM such as Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, and Norma Shearer were already on the wane. Her movies continued to make huge profits at the box office even during the middle of the depression. Some credit Harlow films with keeping MGM profitable while other studios went into bankruptcy.
Following the end of her third marriage, Harlow met fellow MGM star William Powell and quickly fell in love. Reputably, the couple was engaged for two years but differences kept them from marrying quickly. The main issue being that she wanted to have children and he did not. Harlow also said that Louis B. Mayer would never allow them to wed. Powell was rumored to have expressed extreme regret after her passing at not having married her sooner, in spite of their difficulties.
Although no records exist, it is rumored that in the early part of 1937, Harlow fell ill with influenza. If so, even after she recovered, the attack would have weakened her body against the onslaught of a more serious illness that was just beginning to take hold. Kidney disease. In retrospective analysis, Harlow's kidney's may have been slowly failing during the ten years since she contacted scarlet fever while in her early teens.
In the days before kidney dialysis and transplants, this condition was usually fatal. In addition, Jean needed to have her wisdom teeth extracted, and choose to have all four removed during the same procedure. Requiring general anaesthesia and hospitalization. This may have have worsened her already frail health.
In the spring of 1937, Harlow began filming "Saratoga" with Clark Gable. It was to be her final film. Off screen, Jean perspired heavily and than began coming late to shootings. On May 29, 1937, Harlow collapsed on the set and was rushed to the hospital, where she was diagnosed with uremic poisoning. She was cared for at home for the next eight days and was given constant attention despite her mothers Christian Science beliefs. Nonetheless, her condition worsened. On June 6th, she was rushed to the hospital. She died the following morning at 11:35 am. Jean was only 26.
Harlow is entombed at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. In a private room in the Great Mausoleum. Her crypt bears only the inscription "Our Baby".
She was buried in the negligee that she had worn just weeks before while filming a scene from "Saratoga". It was reported that a single white gardenia with an unsigned note attached that read "Good Night, My Dearest Darling" was placed in her hands. It is assumed that both were from William Powell, who also paid for her final resting place, the $25,000, 9x10 private room lined with multicolored imported marble. Located in the "Sanctuary of Benediction".
Many myths have surrounded about Harlow's death, and it was not until the early 1990's that her long sealed medical records were uncovered. Legend had it that Harlow's mother, a follower of the Christian Science religion had prevented doctors from attending to her dying daughter, but this myth has been extinguished as records prove Harlow received constant medical care.