Friday, May 16, 2014

HARLOW 1965

There, there…just put it out of your mind. Just put it out of your mind Joseph E. Levine’s Harlow actually has anything whatsoever to do with the life and career of Jean Harlow, MGM star and Hollywood’s first “blonde bombshell.” Don’t worry your little head over anything even tangentially redolent of the 1930s seeping in to corrode the assertively mid-60s vibe and aesthetics of this lacquered, $2.5 million soap opera. Dispense with all hope of accuracy (from made-up names to fabricated events, Harlow is an absolute work of fiction); logic (Harlow looks exactly the same AFTER her Hollywood glamour makeover as she did when we first meet her as a struggling dress extra); physics (Harlow and her mother look to be roughly about the same age); or credibility (Red Buttons plays a near-mythical character: a “Hollywood agent from Mars” of such ludicrous selflessness and high morals, he makes the denizens of Hogwarts look plausible by comparison).

No, Harlow is a market-driven exercise in expediency and exploitation; a movie as artless and willfully artificial as a Dacron® polyester housecoat. Its purpose is neither to pay homage to its titular subject, nor say anything meaningful about fame, the film industry, or even recognizable human psychology. It is, pure and simple, an act of commerce. A product designed to capitalize on the popularity of Irving Shulman's sleazy 1964 bestseller, Harlow: an Intimate Biography, and a project divined as yet another bid in the campaign waged by producer Joseph E. Levine to sell protégé, Carroll Baker, to the public as successor to the Marilyn Monroe sex symbol throne (Monroe died in 1962).
I've found that by accepting Harlow for what it is – a slick, schlock titillation package with no bearing on Hollywood, history, or even reality as we know it – I am then free to get down to the important business at hand: joyfully reveling in Harlow as a campy, satin-covered, marvelously misguided, miscast, multi-million dollar mistake.
Carroll Baker as Jean Harlow
Red Buttons as Arthur Landau
Angels Lansbury as Mama Jean Bello
Peter Lawford as Paul Bern
Mike Connors as Jack Harrison
Martin Balsam as Everett Redman, head of Majestic Pictures
Leslie Nielsen as Richard Manley
Raf Vallone as Marino Bello
For those genuinely interested in the fascinating and brief life of Jean Harlow (she died at age 26 of uremic poisoning), there are several books available which provide a more fact-based overview of the actress’ career than Shulman’s largely discredited work of biographical fiction. The internet offers a wealth of information in the form of written profiles and video documentaries available on YouTube, but better yet, just check out any one of Jean Harlow's feature films (my favorite, Dinner at Eight) if you want to get a sense of Harlow’s unique brand of star quality, and to appreciate how more persuasive she was as a gifted light comedienne than sex goddess.
Look anywhere but to Joseph E. Levine’s expensive but cheap-looking rush job, filmed at a careless, breakneck speed in an (unsuccessful) attempt to beat a low-budget rival Harlow film to the boxoffice in 1965. (The 2011 book, Dueling Harlows by Tom Lisanti, details how Levine chopped months off of his own film’s pre-production schedule when made aware of an independent studio's plans to release a Harlow movie starring sound-alike actress Carol Lynley, and utilizing an inexpensive television-based technology [saddled with the William Castle-esque name of “Electronovision” ] requiring no more than an eight-day shooting schedule.)
According to Carroll Baker, filming on Harlow began without a completed script 
During filming, a feud erupted between Baker and Levine resulting in the termination of her six-picture deal with his Embassy Pictures,  culminating in her suing (and winning) for breach of contract. Levine's revenge was to have a shrill, witch of an character named Cheryl Barker- modeled to look just like Baker- appear in his film, The Oscar
Truth be told, when it comes to Joseph E. Levine’s Harlow, those unfamiliar with the actual life and personage of Jean Harlow will find themselves at a distinct advantage, for the film is such a wholesale work of inaccuracy, gossip, and time-tripping anachronisms, the less one knows (especially pertaining to the way people dressed and looked in the 20s and 30s) the better. But while Harlow is valueless as historical biography, it's fairly priceless as a laugh-out-loud comedy of the absurd. A shining, overlit example of that uniquely 60s brand of glossy, overwrought melodrama mixed with tentative sleaze; Harlow promised to salaciously blow the lid off the many myths surrounding the life of the silver screen goddess, yet little did audiences suspect that the film's taunting tagline: "What was Harlow really like?" was really a literal, non-rhetorical imploration posed by the screenwriter and producer to anyone within earshot. 
The best way to enjoy Harlow is to ignore its allusions to reality and perhaps see it as a show business parable, the second entry, if you will, in Joseph E. Levine’s unofficial “Hollywood as Cesspool” trilogy: The Carpetbaggers (1964), Harlow (1965), and The Oscar (1966).
In The Carpetbaggers, Carroll Baker played the Jean Harlow-inspired movie star, Rina Marlowe. In that film, Rina engages in a wild bedroom tussle with Jonas Cord (George Peppard), a character based on Howard Hughes. Harlow affords Baker a second, undisguised go at Jean Harlow in addition to a copycat bedroom scene in which she gets to wrestle around on a bed with another Howard Hughes-based character. This time in the form of Leslie Nielsen as movie mogul, Richard Manley (why some porn star hasn't taken the name of Dick Manley now, I'll never know). As evidence of Harlow's hurried production schedule, note the crewmember captured in the marbled glass in the second screencap above.  In her 1983 memoir, Baby Doll, Carroll Baker recounts tales of filming being so rushed on Harlow that there was no time for rehearsals, the script was being written as they went along, and, barring any major technical gaffes, the printing of first takes was the norm.
Body Talk
Baker seductively shimmies to composer Neal Hefti's song: Girl Talk, a marvelous (ragingly chauvinist) bit of 60s light-jazz that incongruously crops up in this scene taking place in the early 1930s. Although the song went on to become a pop standard of the day (but failed to garner Oscar attention), I've never been able to figure out just what this very modern song is doing in this period movie. But why look for logic? Later in this same montage sequence, Baker actually breaks into a spirited 1960s twist!

Screenwriter John Michael Hayes (The Carpetbaggers) deciding on the film’s point of view: “I can either write the story about a girl who slept with everybody to get to the top, or an innocent girl who fought off the wolves, kept her integrity intact, and made it to the top on her own merits. Which do you think?”           Baby Doll: An Autobiography- Carroll Baker -1983

Seriously?  Those were the only two options?

Hayes, opting for the latter, reduces the entire scope of Harlow’s screen legacy to the banal issue of “Will she?” or “Won’t she,” thereby making this already trite movie even more insipid than it need be. Presented as something akin to a human pressure cooker unable to keep the lid on her overflowing sex appeal; Harlow is introduced rebuffing the advances of a lecherous actor, and the film tirelessly keeps offering up variations on this theme well-nigh for the next two hours.
Made up to look more like 60s-era Marilyn Monroe than Jean Harlow, and carrying on throughout as if she were Ross Hunter-era Doris Day caught in a loop of The Constant Virgin; Baker sports a breathtaking number of flattering, form-fitting outfits, and some of the stiffest, ugliest wigs I've ever seen in a major motion picture. 
Jean Harlow and her agent, Arthur Landau, take in the rear-projection scenery
The real moral behind Harlow is that talent agents are the most trustworthy people in show business
The plot, such as it is, is summed up by the man who discovers Harlow, the only man who saw her as a talent and not a piece of tail - the saintly talent agent, Arthur Landau (whose portrayal as a paragon of virtue can be attributed to his being the main information source for Shulman’s book): “You’re the sweet beautiful girl next door, but on fire inside.”
And so the die is cast. Through a passive mother (Lansbury), a parasitic stepfather (Vallone), skirt-chasing moguls (Nielsen), matinee idols (Connors), and impotent husbands (Lawford), Harlow is made up of vignettes that keep hammering us over the head with the same message: The world’s most famous sex symbol had a lot of trouble with sex in real life. Zzzzzzzzzz.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Anyone familiar with my twisted taste in movies knows that every complaint fired at a film like Harlow is also a valentine. Bad movies are made all the time, but it's a certain kind of art to make a fascinatingly watchable bad movie, and for me, Harlow is a bad movie classic. It's so gonzo in its half-baked, "1930s as filtered through a 1960s prism" sensibilities, that it reminds me that they just don't make 'em like this anymore. I love every hair on Carroll Baker's ghastly Dynel wig.
The ever-dull Mike Connors (he'll always be "Touch" Connors to me) plays a Gable-like matinee idol
I love the vulgarity at the core of movies like this. I love the garish sets, the superficial overemphasis on glamour, the tin-eared dialog, broad-strokes acting, and thoroughly loopy disregard for period detail. Perhaps it's cruel and reveals a small spirit on my part, but I have a special place in my heart for grandiose flops like this (that's flop in the artistic sense. Harlow, while no blockbuster, did make money). Joseph E. Levine produced a number of my very favorite "good" films (The Graduate, Carnal Knowledge, The Lion in Winter), but as the saying goes, when he was bad, he was better. Harlow, along with  The Oscar, Where Love Has Gone (1964), and The Adventurers (1970) are the best of Levine's worst. Just brilliantly gauche, sex-obsessed behemoths that look like the kinds of films Ed Wood, Roger Corman, John Waters, or Paul Morrissey would come up with if they'd been given the budget.
In this scene, we're asked to believe that the rather mature-looking Carroll Baker is too young to sign a movie contract without her mother's signature.

PERFORMANCES
While I lost my respect a long time ago for what it meant to be a "Method" actor when I learned that Edy Williams was once a student of Lee Strasberg (yes, THAT Edy Williams of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls), I've seen Oscar-nominee (Baby Doll) Carroll Baker in enough roles to know she can be pretty good under the right circumstances (Giant, Andy Warhol's Bad, Star 80). Harlow isn't one of those circumstances. By all accounts Baker was rushed into this film, exhausted, unwilling, and unprepared, and I'm afraid it shows. Her flat line readings are matched only by her unconvincing display of even the simplest emotions. Of course, given the lines she has to speak, I can't blame her for phoning it in.
Angela Lansbury is a standout in her all-too-brief scenes as Harlow's mother
As is so often the case with female-centric camp-fests like this, the male cast is a dull and sexless bunch. Peter Lawford looks like the walking embodiment of the word, "debauched," Raf Vallone has spark, Red Buttons might as well be wearing a sign saying "Nominate me for Best Supporting Actor, please," and Leslie Nielsen proves once again that when it comes to drama, he's a hell of a comic actor.Angela Lansbury, on the other hand, is so good it's as if she'd wandered in from a different movie.
As a fan of Hazel Aiken, the crass, New Jersey hit-woman Carroll Baker played in Andy Warhol's BAD (1977),  I have to say, Baker seems at her best delivering a sarcastic line of dialog. She only comes alive in Harlow in scenes requiring her to show her contempt for her stepfather, Marino Bello.

Harlow: Cheap, shoddy greaser!
Bello: Nobility runs in my veins.
Harlow: King liar, Prince loafer, Count ne’er do well, Baron loudmouth!

Bello: I’ll turn you over my lap and spank some respect into you!
Harlow: I’m too smart to get that close to your lap.

Bello: Perhaps your agent would find a part suitable for me…
Harlow: He only handles people.

Bello: Hey, sweetheart, your paycheck...?
Harlow: There isn't any.
Bello: But I have a horse running at 3 O'clock!
Harlow: Better tell him to walk.

Harlow plays fast and loose with history. Paul Bern (Lawford) is portrayed as Harlow's first and only husband.
 In truth, he was the second of three.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
They’re called clichés for a reason. Harlow traffics in so many over-familiar melodrama/soap opera tropes, even on first viewing you'll swear you've seen this film before.

The tortured, waking up in a strange bed in a sleazy room with a sleazy stranger, scene 
1. A downsliding (albeit, artfully posed), Harlow reacts in silent horror to the depths to which she's fallen
2. In Valley of the Dolls, a less artfully-posed Neely O'Hara's doesn't fare much better
 The self-disgusted, "I can't stand the sight of you!" cold cream on the mirror scene
1. Glass in hand, a boozy, bed-hopping Harlow has had her fill of herself
2. In Queen Bee, Joan Crawford finds even she can only tolerate just so much Joan Crawford

The firm and testy, "This is for your own good!" paternal intervention scene

1. Harlow's agent tells her she looks bloated, puffy, and older than her years
2. Neely's agent tells her she looks bloated, puffy, and older than her years
 The hitting rock bottom, "Been down so long it looks like up to me!" beach scene
1. A drunk and depressed Harlow throws herself a beach pity-party
2. In Valley of the Dolls, Anne Welles has her dolls with a little water (plus lots of seaweed and sand)

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
I was eight years old when Harlow was released, but remember absolutely nothing about the whole Jean Harlow mania that that erupted as a result of Schulman's sordid biography. A huge bestseller, I remember my mother had a copy of the book around the house, but knowing absolutely nothing about the actress myself, I paid it no mind. Had I known of the book's scandalous reputation, I'd have been all over it. According to the New York Times, in 1964, all four of the major studios had Harlow films in the works. When the smoke cleared, only Joseph E Levine's "authorized" version and producer William Sargent's black and white, Electronovision version were left standing.
Carol Lynley's Harlow opened just three months before Levine's version and flopped at the boxoffice (and at the cost of a mere $500,000, that isn't easy to do); Levine's heavily-promoted film opened to good boxoffice but scathing reviews.
Carroll Baker refused to see Harlow, only managing to catch it by mistake three years later when it was shown as the in-flight movie on a plane she was taking to Buenos Aires ("I was trapped! Actually, as I watched it, I was pleasantly surprised," Baker later wrote). Now who can ask for a better recommendation than that?
Suffering in Mink; my favorite subgenre of film
That's Hanna Landy (Rosemary's Baby) as Arthur Landau's wife, Beatrice.

BONUS MATERIAL
The complete, rarely-seen 1965 Carol Lynley "Electronovision" version of  Harlow is available on YouTube ! 
These things have a tendency to be removed without notice, so I urge the curious to check it out, pronto! A very different, less flattering take on Jean Harlow (she's pretty self possessed), Mama Jean (Ginger Rogers in her last film role is very good!), and it has a terrific Paul Bern (the husband who killed himself) in Hurd Hatfield (The Picture of Dorian Gray - 1945). No production values to speak of, but in several ways, an improvement over Joseph E. Levine's version.  See it HERE.

Hollywood Backstage: Footage from Paramount's Champagne Luncheon press party kicking of the first day of filming on Harlow. A chance to see just how miserable the exhausted Carroll Baker looked before embarking on this misguided effort. HERE

Oh, and can we take a second to talk about that other shameless pitch for a Best Song Oscar nomination, "Lonely Girl" which plays over the film's closing credits? I don't know if it's the song itself or Bobby Vinton's thin, reedy voice, but it all adds up to the musical equivalent of a cat scratching glazed pottery.


Copyright © Ken Anderson

22 comments:

  1. Marvellous extensive comments on this trash classic. I included it AND the other Harlow in a piece of mine a few years back:
    http://osullivan60.blogspot.co.uk/2010/06/60s-2-trash-classics.html
    It is just so insultingly bad on every level with a total disregard for the Harlow story that it is just laughable. Perhaps the two Harlow films should be a double bill for those long winter nights, as I am sure Grace of Monaco and Diana will be soon.

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    1. I loved the piece you wrote and the sentiments are the same: why go through all the trouble of calling this "Harlow" and then making up a story and deciding on a purely 1960s look? And yes, I'm sure the Diana and Grace bios will be the Harlow for the younger set. Thanks, Michael!

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  2. Michael beat me to the Diana and Grace references, but the funny thing is, while I could watch Harlow, The Carpetbaggers, or The Oscar (a particular favorite) again and again, I can't imagine watching either the Diana or Princess Grace biopics. Perhaps, as the late, great Roger Ebert observed, we have to wait for a movie to move from being dated to being history before we can truly see it in its own terms.

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    1. I know what you mean about there just being something about those older films. Something having to do with the strange censorship of the times, the cheesy aesthetics in decor, the old-fashioned talents assembling them...
      I watched the dueling Liz Taylor biographies from a while back, and although Lindsay Lohan's was a laugh-riot from start to finish, it lacked the basic entertainment value to ever make me want to watch it again.
      The 60's knew how to make entertaining cheese. Thanks, 3-D!

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  3. Ken Anderson, you are on fire this month! One delicious cinematic treat after another, and always a calorie-free indulgence! A platinum blonde Carroll Baker swathed in satin is one of my favorite mid-60s icons, from both this film and the Carpetbaggers. And yes, her stalwart wig, scallopped and teased and sprayed to perfection, remains reassuringly rigid in spite of all the heavy-breathing melodrama and debauchery. Between all the hair and elaborate costumes and the kewpie-doll expression painted onto her face, who can blame Baker for underplaying? You or I could essay the same part with the right makeup and wardrobe team! And yet, Harlow and Rina Marlowe are iconic, because Miss Carroll Baker does have real star quality.

    Even though Baby Doll is a classic, I believe Baker's best roles came later, when she became a quirky character actress, in films like Watcher in the Woods with Bette Davis, The Game with Michael Douglas and Sean Penn; and of course, her unforgettably villainous Hazel Aiken in Andy Warhol's Bad.

    Rumor has it that Marilyn Monroe had been developing a Jean Harlow script with the help of Mama Jean Bello at the time of her death...I wonder if it would have been just as sudsy and insubstantial as this one...probably so.

    I have been dying to see the quickie Carol Lynley version of Harlow, but it seems to be lost forever...Ginger Rogers plays Mama Bello in that one. Have you ever seen it?

    Ken, thanks for keeping the glamour of this bygone era alive and well. Life is hard for all of us, but if we are able to slip a white fox stole around our shoulders, it does ease the suffering tremendously!! Keep on inspiring us with your Cinema Dreams and retro reveries!!

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    1. Hi Chris!
      Yes, these high-calorie, low-content movies are some of my favorites. Baker's wig is so...BIG...it really should have ha its own billing. Growing up, I associated Carroll Baker with this and the Carpetbaggers so closely, that I was rather surprised to later learn that she was considered an serious actress and that her sex symbol, Joseph E Levine years were something of a departure.
      Her memoirs really do detail what a mess the filming of "Harlow" was. Apparently a more serious, period-accurate "Harlow" story was being prepped by director Carol Reed to feature Baker (can only imagine all those Carols/Carrolls on the poster), but Levine jumped in and pushed things into motion so fast, saying to hell with accuracy, he just wanted Baker to look sexy.
      I tell you, a big chunk of cinema history is the story of horny men with money wanting to play Pygmalion with women they have obsessive crushes on (Hitchcock, Vadim, Preminger).
      I'd hear about the Monroe film, but the 60s being what they were (censorship, still-living individuals who could sue), I imagine it would have come out like all the rest. Even the best of them - "I'll Cry Tomorrow" "Love me or Leave Me" were mostly fabricated dramas.
      They used to screen that Carol Lynley version on The Late Late Show when I was a kid. I remember always being disappointed, because the TV Guide would always list the the sillier, more fun Carroll Baker version, and Lynley's more somber, black and white version would pop up.
      If you've never seen it, take a look at the "Bonus materials" section above and you can find a very decent copy has been posted on YouTube. You'll get a kick out of it, I'm sure, and be nicely surprised.
      I'm happy you enjoyed the post and I'd love to hear your thoughts on the "other" Harlow should you get a chance to see it. Thanks so much, Chris!

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    2. Ken, thanks so much - ask and you shall receive (can't believe I missed that all-important link!!)
      Wow, just watched the Carol Lynley version and it is indeed miles better than Harlow. script and performance-wise! Yes, it looks like a TV soap opera, very very low-budget (though fledgling designer Nolan Miller of Dynasty did the costumes, wow!), but Lynley is brassy and strong and conflicted as Harlow, and Ginger Rogers is wonderful as Mama Jean...Barry Sullivan is perfect as Marino Bello...The story has a feeling of authenticity to it, though I would love to REALLY know what happened to Paul Bern that night...Thanks a million for this first-time viewing of a film I've only read about since I was a kid!!

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    3. Glad you got to see it! That YouTube is the obscure film fan's dream.
      I agree with you about the vitality of the Carol Lynley version, plus its more sincere attempt to duplicate a 30s look. Such a fascinating comparison of two wildly divergent films on (ostensibly) the same subject.
      Always enjoy talking films with you, Chris!

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  4. I'm so glad I discovered this movie website. I save reading your posts for the dreariest part of my day and I am instantly uplifted into a buoyant and giddy mood. Smiling and giggling and sometimes laughing aloud in my isolated cubicle here on the 16th floor of... (Oh no, Better not be that specific.) And however transitory that mood shift may be -- as I am usually forced to return to dreary work -- it's all worth it. Never seen HARLOW, but now that I've just received a crash course in the guilty pleasures of indulging in good trashy movies I'm tempted to go out and rent it tonight. It'll definitely be added to the Netflix queue if I can't find it at Specialty Video.

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    1. Hi John
      I must say that your comment certainly was an uplifting part of MY day! Very flattering and gratifying to think that something essentially written for oneself (this blog) could not only elicit a smile or laugh, but (best of all) inspire you to intentionally seek out a film of dubious merit.

      I am the one who should saying I'm glad you found my website (and I hope you don't mind my posting a link to your terrific "Pretty Sinister Books" site among my favorites. You recently posted the dust jacket to the book "You'll Like my Mother" which had been adapted into one of my favorite childhood scary movies ). Thank you very much, John!

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  5. I always find it hilarious when a period piece makes no effort to actually look or feel like the periods they're set in. Those made in the 60's and 70's are particularly strong offenders.

    I wish I could find a video of her actually performing "Girl Talk." It's so sixties-ed out that I can't even imagine how strange it would be shoehorned into a 1930's set film.

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    1. Hi Tom
      I know what you mean. When I see a big-budget period movie made by seasoned professionals (people old enough to have actually been alive during the period being depicted), I'm flabbergasted at the willful disregard for even the most cursory details of period accuracy. As you point out, it was almost an accepted practice with films.
      When researching this post, I tried to find something about composer, Neal Hefti, that could possibly explain why he came up with such a VERY 60s score for a movie about "Harlow". Girl Talk is a wonderful song, but it has absolutely nothing to to do with the film. I though, as many composers do, he had previously-written compositions lying around and just sold it to Levine. To think it was composed exclusive FOR this movie is nuts!
      I guess the weird concession is that the song's lyrics (apropos of absolutely nothing in the film) are never heard in the movie, and the tune is relegated exclusively in the background.

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  6. Hi Ken,

    You watched this in the proper spirit to appreciate the absurdities put forth by this train wreck. All I could think when I watched was poor Jean Harlow! To have her memory degraded in this way is so sad. As you said the less you know about the real Jean before watching the less offensive it is. What gets me is that they took someone whose life was interesting and unfortunately scandal ridden and made things up out of whole cloth while ignoring or falsifying the actual events. The whole Paul Bern/Dorothy Millette murder-suicide-studio coverup for the sake of Jean's career episode has enough drama for it's own film.

    Marilyn Monroe, a great admirer of Harlow-she even sought out the woman who had been Jean's hairdresser and employed her for years performing the same service for her, had wanted to to do a bio of her but when offered a script similar to this turned it down saying "I hope they don't do that to me when I'm dead". Unfortunately she didn't get her wish and her dignity and memory has often been trashed as badly as Jean's is here.

    You're right that everybody except Angela Lansbury is either bland or terrible. I think in her case she's just too much of a professional to ever phone in a performance although I don't think her part of Mama Jean is very close to the actual woman. From what I've read while she was devoted to Jean she was also a spendthrift who had married a lout and thought nothing of pouring through her daughter's money while Jean literally worked herself to death, appearing in an incredible 23 starring features in an eight year period.

    You are so right that Carroll Baker is all wrong in the lead. I laughed when I watched that promo you included with the disengaged Miss Baker and the over eager narrator said that she was the only actress who could play the part. Of course that was studio hyperbole but while she's certainly was a beautiful woman she had neither the allure nor the charisma of the original Jean. Other than her measurements being the same as Harlow's they were different in pretty much every other particular. Like you I think Carroll Baker is a decent actress but better in her character work, to me she was the best thing in the dreary Ironweed and I loved her in both But Not for Me and How the West Was Won but despite all out efforts she didn't have the stuff to be a sex symbol.

    It's a real pity that with two films about Jean that they are both such utter disasters. The other Harlow is even worse! The surprising thing is that even though the Carol Lynley film is clearly a cheapjack affair and Lynley gives a rotten performance they managed to get her look much closer to the real Jean than the more lavish production. However that's the only thing it achieved, Ginger Roger's Mama Jean is a frowsy mess of big sixties hair and cheap clothes. And if anyone should have been aware of 30's styles it was Ginger! If I recall properly no one else had appropriate styling either. As you pointed out the complete disregard for any kind of period detail was endemic of all such productions at the time. It's astonishing that it was so generally accepted.

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  7. Actually there is a film that apparently shows a close approximation of Harlow's life, and a far better one it is, and stars the lady herself, Bombshell. She must have been aware of the parallels to her own life and was either an extremely good sport, something that I've read was so, or it's an odd document of passive aggressiveness years before the term came in to use.

    She is sensational in it as well as Dinner at Eight but I favor Red Dust and Libeled Lady over those films. It's interesting to see how MGM in the last two years of her life was reworking her image away from the glorious hussy of her early films to a more refined ladylike one that would have served her well into the forties had she survived. Nothing that factual would have ever been allowed to intrude on the total muckraking fiction of "Harlow" though.

    I don't think anything could induce me to watch this shiny junk again but I did enjoy your wry and bemused overview of this clunker. Loved your cliche collage!

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    1. Hi Joel
      Indeed, everything about this is a head-scratcher. Whenever I read about movie bios being made (particularly in the 60s) I encounter the same things: 1. The makers want to exploit the contemporary beauty of its female star and are reluctant to have her look appropriately "period"
      2. The legal side of things (libel lawsuits, rights permission [MGM prohibited Levine from using any of the names of Harlow's real films]) hamstring any legitimate efforts a screenwriter makes to get at the truth.

      Those from Harlow's life still alive wanted to be portrayed like Red Buttons' agent (blameless saints) or they failed to give permission for either their likeness or name. Add to this a crass producer determined to film as quickly as possible and "Harlow" seemed doomed from the start.
      Even Baker grappled with being sued or put on probation rather than appear in the film. It should have been shelved or postponed fora year, but Levine wouldn't hear of it. A mess!
      You're right about the weird self-exploitation of "Bombshell"... she IS essentially playing her life in that one.

      Hollywood is forever shoehorning actresses and pop stars into the mold of Harlow or Marilyn chiefly based on the quality of their dye jobs (Madonna, Gwen Stefani) we never seem to learn that the superficial physical trappings are the least of what made those women fascinating screen personas.
      Thanks, Joel. And glad you checked out that "Harlow" promo clip. Such a lot of ballyhoo, and everyone looks so stressed out!

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    2. Joel, Bombshell is indeed a great picture with its wry view of Hollywood and Harlow at her brassy best. I particularly love the self-reflexive scene on the movie set where the actress has to perform in a rain barrel--an obvious reference to Harlow's blockbuster hit Red Dust with Gable...and she does it all with rolling eyes and tongue planted firmly in cheek.

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  8. I've seen this rare movie! It was so hard to find all these years. I found it last year on spanish dvd along with "Where Love Has Gone". I couldn't believe my luck. This type of forgotten film "classic" seems to be the last to be released on video. Why don't the film companies realise that there is a market for camp films like these? Perhaps it is a very small market?

    Carroll Baker is not considered to have been a big movie star even though movie producers in the 1950s and 60s tried to make her happen. Just this alone makes me want to see any Carroll Baker film. (I'm still searching for "Sylvia"). I enjoyed "Harlow" because of her. I think she was the best thing in it. She did what she could in a film that was trying to be daring while not being able show any sexuality or nudity. I too love these expensive/cheap looking mid sixties morality tales!

    I also managed to get my hands on the long sought after "The Oscar" (which is even better). It is fascinating to watch Jean Hale inpersonate Carroll Baker in Jean Harlow drag. Did you notice that the same set with the ring shaped room (a bedroom in Harlow) was used again? It looked too James Bondish to have been something from the 1930s.

    Thank you Ken for writing about "Harlow" and all the fascinating background information about the making of it! More people need to see it. If you like "Valley of the Dolls" then you can appreciate the fun aspects in "Harlow". Thank goodness for Joseph E. Levine!
    -Wille

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    1. Hi Wille
      Very glad to hear that this is a film you've seen and liked. It's a pity that so many of these old, camp clunkers (beloved by so many) are so widely ignored by those who do the deciding which films are released on DVD.
      Part of the problem here in the US is copyright related, but another problem is that studios hire marketing people to be in charge of what DVDs are released, not film fans.
      I knew someone who worked for Universal, and she not only had a very sketchy knowledge of old films, but intimated that if she were to recommend too many titles for DVD that didn't perform well financially, she would likely lose her job. Thus, we get all these middle of the road genre films on DVD, and gems like this are harder to come by (or they get the bare bones treatment).
      I agree that Carroll Baker is very watchable in this (and The carpetbaggers, which i think you'd like). She always struck me as being uncomfortable with the sex symbol stuff. She got better when she dropped Levine. However, for fans of good-bad cinema, Levine is a master.
      i have to look at "The Oscar" again soon to take note of that James Bondian set. I thinkI have to write about Where Love Has Gone soon...another Levine movie with a terrible sense of period detail.
      Thanks, Wille!

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  9. Thanks for your appreciation of this delight from my teenage years - I still adore the opening titles sequence (and doesn't Hefti's score reach pop-culture sublimity?) Again: thanks for your thoughtful and fascinating post.

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    1. That's very kind of you, Iain! I have this soundtrack on my iPod and yes, Hefti's music is so wonderfully 60's lounge. All these years I've been expecting to learn that it was a score he had written for another film, and Joseph E Levin just bought it because he was in a rush to get the film made. It's the oddest music for a movie about Harlow, but wonderful for a Rat Pack film.
      And I'm glad you mentioned the classy opening sequence."The Day of the Locust" practically borrowed the whole studio-waking-up thing for it's opening. thank you for stopping by again!

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  10. Both films were dismal failures. Judy Garland was right to bolt from playing Mama Jean. Ginger Rogers should have also, but she was in the middle of a sort of comeback., and she looked better than Carol Lynley who played her daughter Jean Harlow. Both actresses Carroll Baker, and Lynley were lovely of face which the real Harlow was not so much, but lacked the bodies to be a convincing sex symbol, something the real Harlow did have - sex appeal. Both stars, especially Baker look more like Marilyn Monroe than Harlow with their 60's hairstyles. Monroe had turned down playing Harlow saying, "I hope they don't do that do me after I am gone". Mama Jean died in 1958 so it would not be possible for Marilyn to be discussing a film with her in 1962.

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    1. There was talk (and publicity) surrounding Monroe making a film of Harlow's life as far back as the early 1950s (there exists a completed script in the Marilyn Monroe archives titled "Jean Harlow" dated 1957) Monroe discussed working on this film with Mama Jean sometime in 1955 or 1956...well before the death of Jean Harlow's mother.
      But indeed, she soured on the idea after the publication of Irving Shulman's salacious book on Harlow in 1962.

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