Sunday, May 25, 2014

THE DEVIL IS IN THE DETAILS: Adapting "Rosemary's Baby" to the Big & Small Screen

Now that the green haze of tannis root has lifted and the public’s memory of NBC’s four-hour Miniseries Event “reimagining” of Rosemary’s Baby (May 11th and 15th, 2014) is as murky and nebulous as Rosemary’s own chocolate mousse-induced dream; the votes are all in (not very good), the results have been tallied (Rosemary en France a ratings disaster), and the line for I-Told-You-Sos starts to the right.

The idea of adapting Ira Levin’s 1967 novel Rosemary’s Baby and its much-reviled 1997 sequel Son of Rosemary into a TV-miniseries has been bouncing around Hollywood for years. In 2005, ABC Television acquired the rights and announced a Rosemary’s Baby miniseries for its Fall 2006 schedule. When that project failed to materialize, the network made a similar announcement (to similar result) in 2008. In each instance, fans of Polanski's film breathed a collective sigh of relief, attributing the abandonment of each project to an 11th-hour attack of common sense on the part of the producers. Or, at the very least, a dawning awareness of the fool’s journey involved in remaking a film widely regarded as a modern classic and one of Hollywood’s few faithfully rendered adaptations of a popular bestseller.
Your Worst Fears Realized
In the "reimagined" Rosemary's Baby, Satanism trailblazer Steven Marcato - seen here exuding more sleaze than menace- looks like a Eurotrash runway model with blue contacts. We're asked to believe he's managed to keep his evil past a secret for decades, in spite of the fact that he looks pretty much exactly like your standard issue, garden-variety, Sunday School image of the Devil. 

Having been taken down this road several times before, when I learned that NBC had actually made good on its lingering threat…I mean, promise…to turn Rosemary’s Baby into a four-hour telefilm, my natural curiosity trumped my innate cynicism. I knew I was going to watch the TV remake, even if only to satisfy my curiosity over what degree of hubris could possibly inspire the kind of delusional, presumptuous, thick-headed arrogance necessary for one to think they should try their hand at Levin’s modern gothic masterpiece. Especially when, in 1968, a young, pre-felony Roman Polanski fairly batted that particular Satanic ball well out of the park.

And that was just my curious side.

My cynical side suggested to me that the producers, in lieu of trying to arrive at a reasonably fresh approach to justify the need to retell a story already quite expertly told, merely went in search of a marketing hook. One such hook was the simple updating of the story. A lazy but valid pandering to those viewer factions devoted to never watching anything older than the age of their cellphones. The other hook was tried and true, "Strike while the iron is hot!" angle. The horror genre was experiencing something of a renaissance on TV. The popularity of the FX Network’s anthology series American Horror Story: Coven temporarily made witches relevant again, and NBC’s own blood-soaked Hannibal has shown there to be a viable market for network-suitable horror. With these two ratings hits on the charts, Rosemary’s Baby: the redux had at last surmounted its most significant remake obstacle: the ascertaining of a distinct ratings demographic to which to pitch its advertising.
Rosemary's Baby - 1968
Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, Stanley Blackmer
Directed by Roman Polanski
Rosemary's Baby - 2014
Zoe Saldana, Patrick J. Adams, Carole Bouquet, Jason Isaacs
Directed by Agnieszka Holland
Well, after much ballyhoo and yo-yoing anticipation on my part, Rosemary’s Baby: The Miniseries Event finally premiered. Two evenings, four hours and countless commercials later, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised it wasn't the unmitigated disaster it could have been (à la, the dreadful theatrical remakes of Carrie and Sparkle), but annoyed that the filmmakers hadn't been able to seize upon anything pertinent enough to the times we live in to either justify a remake or discourage comparisons to Roman Polanski’s incontestably masterful 1968 original. (Two excellent examples of “remakes” successfully distinguishing themselves from their originals are Kate Winslet’s HBO miniseries adaptation of Mildred Pierce [2011] and Martin Scorsese's brilliantly intense revisit to Cape Fear [1991].)

The original Rosemary’s Baby is more than just an ingeniously realized thriller; it’s a deceptively subtle commentary on the enduring nature of evil, the vulnerability of innocence, and the uncertain relevance of religion in the modern world. It's a film that concludes on a note of moral and psychological ambiguity, leaving you contemplating issues extending far beyond the parameters of Levin's story. By way of contrast, NBC’s version, with roughly 30 more minutes at its disposal, was so plot-driven and devoid of subtext, I found myself not even thinking about the broader “Is God Dead?” ramifications of what it means for the living son of Satan to be born into the world today (neither does the film), merely wondering about plot points that led nowhere (the whole Roman Castevet/Steven Marcato, eternal youth thing) and scratching my head over how a longer version of Rosemary's Baby managed to have less character development. The miniseries left me with nothing, not even a chalky undertaste.
Minnie & Roman
Roman & Margaux
In the original film, there's a perverse, contemporary wit in having the orchestrators of Satan's plan to overthrow 2000 years of Christian hegemony all look like harmless residents of the nearest nursing home. As much as I adore Carole Bouquet in the remake, the vision of evil this Roman and Minnie (Margaux) represent is as superficial and obvious as one of those Hammer Films from the 60s.

Rosemary’s Baby: The feature film, is a seminal horror classic, integral in moving the horror film from the B-movie bargain basement into the mainstream. Rosemary’s Baby: The miniseries, while respectful, ultimately proved itself an innocuous work of professional competency. By any qualitative standard that makes a movie resonate with me (character development, physiological sensitivity, narrative cohesion, use of cinema vocabulary, subtlety) there really is no comparing the two.
However, what does intrigue me is how these two films–so vastly different in approach, yet adapted from the same book–illuminate the intricacies involved in adapting a novel to film. Forty-six years have transpired between these disparate book-to-screen adaptations of Levin’s 1967 bestseller; and what is reflected in the artistic choices taken by the filmmakers says as much about how significantly movies have changed over the years as it does about our culture.

First off, let me address the word, “reimagined.”  There is no such thing. Like the Devil, reimagined is a corporate invention. “Reimagined” is “remake” with its negative connotations surgically removed after first passing through the obfuscating, verbal camouflage of legalese and marketing. Rosemary’s Baby on Ice?: now we're talking reimagined. Rosemary's Baby as Kabuki theater performed by The Muppets?: that's reimagined. Merely updating it, moving it to Paris, and throwing superfluous characters and elements from The Omen and 666 Park Avenue into the mix...that's a remake. A desperate, starved-for-ideas remake, but a remake, nonetheless. If you doubt it, imagine what would happen if every year they gave an Oscar or Emmy for Best Remake; the word "reimagined" would go the way of the word "rerun" (which we all know has transmogrified into "encore presentation").

(In the interest of brevity, Rosemary’s Baby and its remake will hereafter be referred to as RB1 and RB2, respectively.)

The Setting
The Manhattan setting of RB1 is a purposeful upending of traditional horror genre conventions. In lieu of a gothic tale of ancient evil set in a dark, abandoned castle somewhere in Europe, RB1 stages its horrors in broad daylight, in the middle of a crowded city, framed against the steel and glass backdrop of New York City, circa: 1966. A Western Age of Enlightenment where reason and logic have replaced fear and superstition. A world where science rules -“I want vitamins in pills, like everybody else.”; our welfare is entrusted to authority figures -“He’s very good. He was ‘Open End.’”; and religious faith has grown irrelevant -“I was brought up a Catholic. Now I don’t know.”
Contemporary culture’s disavowal of all things spiritual -“There are no witches, not really,” coupled with the credence granted surface appearances -“Honey, they’re old people, and they have a bunch of old friends….” is precisely how it is possible for an unimaginable evil to flourish, undetected, right under everyone’s noses. RB1 plays with our notions of safety by showing us how easy it is for evil to hide in plain sight.

Standing in for The Bramford, La Chimere: an exclusive Paris apartment building
If RB1 is a departure from gothic tradition, RB2 is more a reversion to type. It’s set in Paris, a city more than 10,000 years old, crammed with gargoyles and gothic structures. in short, exactly the kind of place you’d expect to find witches. Roman Castevet, cast as perhaps the least disarming person you've ever seen in your life, looks about as trustworthy as a Bond villain, and this Rosemary is required to ignore one blatant red flag after another while a virtual torrent of dead bodies piles up around her. Why? For no logical or character-based reason beyond the story demands it. And therein lies the problem with this remake. Superficial changes to location and character description are no substitute for understanding that Rosemary's Baby has always been more than just a "scary movie." Which is why it has endured. Without making this version be "about" anything other than the mindless tracing of the footsteps of its predecessor; character identification suffers, narrative coherence is lost, and RB2 becomes just another forgettable, plot-driven horror film with nothing to say about anything except, "Boo!"

The Time
RB1 was released at a time when the Catholic Church was in a state of reformation. Pope Paul VI (his 1965 new York visit is referenced in the film) took strides to modernize the church’s image, while simultaneously, Christian theologian Paul van Buren was making headlines with his “God is Dead” theories. Into this atmosphere came a horror film whose premise was viewed by many to be a bastardization of the allegory of the Christ child. A reversal of the New Testament Christian myth complete with a divine father figure, a chosen vessel, and a birth–signifying the dawning of a new era–attended by adoring followers.
In Levin's fantasy, Satan, Rosemary (significantly, a lapsed Catholic) and the birth of the anti-Christ, all signaled the dawning of a new Dark Age for the world. A bleak period all too imaginable given the climate of the times (gun violence, political assassinations, urban riots, the Vietnam War). In the socially-conscious world of the 60s, Rosemary's Baby as a quasi-religious horror parable had an eerie urgency that struck a chord with the public.
No such social urgency occurs in RB2. To an almost hermetic degree, the real life horrors of today fail to intrude upon the cliche horrors on display in RB2. Just going from my own idea of what a contemporary embodiment of Satan on earth would be like, I envision him as one of those conservative, ultra-right wing, billionaires using his vast fortune to convince middle class people that the problems of the world are the fault of the poor. He would use his money to help perpetuate fear, oppress the powerless, accelerate global warming, and subtly promote war, gun violence, and international terrorism. That sounds evil to me. A story proposing Rosemary's pregnancy unleashing this kind of evil into the world, I would find compelling, to say the least.
How is ultimate evil embodied in RB2? The best this movie can come up with is that Satan is like Charlie Sheen crossed with Jack the Ripper. He’s a wealthy whoremonger who hangs around in sex clubs. That’s the entirety of this this movie’s idea of evil, folks. more douche on the planet would hardly be noticed, and as depicted here, Satan comes off like one of those eligible contestants on The Bachelor.
Polanski knew the only way RB1 would work was to ground it firmly in a recognizable reality. RB2 goes ludicrously in the opposite direction and situates itself within a reality known only to television. The world inhabited by the Parisian Castevets is of the elite rich (are we supposed to be impressed, or repulsed?); racism is non-existent (the film is either unaware or purposely ignores the implications of what it means to present a solitary black woman at the center of a horror narrative in which she is ceaselessly exploited by a league of white people); and Catholicism plays no part (can't risk offending anyone, for ratings sake). It's a world so artificially realized that some viewers actually thought this Rosemary’s Baby had a happy ending (!!).

The Characters
Had Roman Polanski been as enamored of Levin’s spawn-of-Satan plotline as those who’ve unofficially cribbed from it over the years (The Stranger Within, The Devil Within Her, It’s Alive, The Devil’s Advocate, The Astronaut’s Wife), Rosemary’s Baby might have turned out as undistinguished a thriller as the above-listed. In choosing to place the emphasis on character, Polanski puts the supernatural, genre-dictated aspects of the plot in service of the motivations, interactions, and relationships of the principals of the story. This approach perhaps produces a horror film too slow and bloodless for today’s ADHD mode of moviemaking, but mercifully spares us the sort of leaps in logic and character inconsistencies which plague RB2’s more action-driven adaptation. 
I've never seen Zoe Saldana in a film before, yet without actually becoming Rosemary for me (or any human being I've ever known, the script has her behaving so erratically), I think she is very good. She's written and portrayed in such a blank matter (so little is provided in the way of narrative thrust for her character, when things start to go horribly wrong, there's no risk placed on any of her goals because she has none).
Saldana is not given much assist with the epically inexpressive Patrick J. Adams, whose sole, all-purpose expression (noodly wimp) supports a Guy Woodhouse that makes absolutely no psychological sense. He's not ambitious enough to be convincingly evil, and seems too slow-witted to be wily. On the plus side, Adams is so unrelentingly awful, his work has the potential of making folks look more kindly upon the subtleties of John Cassavetes' underappreciated performance.

RB2's saving grace and sole element of inspired casting and character is Carole Bouquet's Margaux Castevet. I absolutely love the changes in the character, how she's written, and how she's played. Mysterious, maternal, malevolent, VERY's the only part of RB2 to which I'd give an unqualified thumbs up.
Mrs. Castevet, you're trying to seduce me. Aren't you?

I've been crazy about Rosemary's Baby since it scared the crap out of me as a child in 1968. It has always seemed to me such an ideal, perfectly realized film...I never seriously thought anyone would really attempt remaking it. Well, they finally did, and after seeing it, I would be lying if I said I didn't feel a slight sense of vindication in my belief that Polanski's film is precisely Levin's novel, ingeniously adapted, and should be left alone. With Hollywood hooked on so many remakes and continually returning to the well of past successes, a great deal of our culture today seems on a fast track course of mediocrity.
Example: Had NBC's Rosemary Baby proved a ratings hit, I'm almost positive it would have spawned a series. But who really ever needed to know what happened after Rosemary's child was born? Isn't it more rewarding to have our individual imaginations fill in whatever grim or happy future we envision for The AntiChrist?  The notion of a TV series is just another indication that TV too often panders to the literal-minded who are made uneasy by ambiguity. Those who require every detail and consequence S-P-E-L-L-E-D  O-U-T.
A genuine, bonafide classic motion picture is a rare thing. When it occurs, maybe we should just let it be and just enjoy it, dated material and all. It has value. Even if only to remind ourselves that excellence, not imitation, is something we should all strive for.

Look What's Happened to Rosemary's Baby, the ill-advised 1976 TV-movie sequel to Rosemary's Baby, is available on YouTube. Has to be seen to be believed. It stars Patty Duke as Rosemary, George Maharis as Guy Woodhouse, Ruth Gordon (shame on you), Ray Milland standing in for passed-away Sidney Blackmer, and Tina The Movie Star.

"You're trying to get me to be his mother."
"Aren't you his mother?"

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Friday, May 16, 2014


There, there…just put it out of your mind. Just put it out of your mind that Joseph E. Levine's Harlow will actually have anything whatsoever to do with the life and career of Jean Harlow, the 1930s MGM star and Hollywood's first "blonde bombshell." Don't worry your little head over anything even tangentially redolent of the '30s 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. Don't look for logic—Jean Harlow looks exactly the same AFTER her Hollywood glamour makeover as she did when we first meet her as a struggling dress extra. Don't pay any attention to physics—Harlow and her mother appear to be roughly about the same age. And don't search for credibility—Red Buttons plays a near-mythical character: a "Hollywood agent from Mars" of such ludicrous selfless, principled devotion and honesty he makes the denizens of Hogwarts look plausible by comparison.

The question you'll be asking yourself as the movie's end credits roll   

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 to 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).

Over the years, 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 that 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 appreciate how she was more persuasive as a gifted light comedienne than a 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. An act that led to her suing the producer (and winning) for breach of contract. Levine's revenge was to have a shrill witch of a character named Cheryl Barker--modeled to look just like Baker--appear in his film next 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. The movie is a wholesale work of inaccuracy, gossip, and time-tripping anachronisms; the less one knows (especially pertaining to how 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. The movie 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 by 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.
It shows! It shows!
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) decides on Harlow'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 needed to be. Presented as something akin to a human pressure cooker unable to keep the lid on her own overflowing sex appeal, Jean 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 Harlow, and carrying on throughout as though she were Ross Hunter-era Doris Day caught in a loop of The Constant Virgin; Baker sports an astonishing number of flattering, form-fitting costumes, 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 sees 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). He tells the wannabe star, "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.

Anyone familiar with my twisted taste in movies knows that every complaint fired at a film like Harlow is actually a valentine. Bad movies are made all the time, but it's a special kind of art to make a  watchable lousy 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; 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 dialogue, the 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.

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). Baker puts great stock in her Method training, and indeed, the Oscar-nominated actress (Baby Doll) can be pretty effective 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.
The always-wonderful 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 only shines when she has sarcastic dialogue to deliver. Perhaps working off her feelings about producer Levine, Baker only comes alive (the same can be said for the screenplay) when Harlow requires her character to display 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.

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, Patty Duke's less artfully-posed Neely O'Hara 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!" avuncular agent 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 swallows her dolls with a bit of water (not to mention lots of seaweed and sand)

I was eight years old when Harlow was released, but I remember absolutely nothing about the whole Jean Harlow mania that erupted due to Schulman's sordid biography. A huge bestseller; I remember my mother had a copy of the book around the house, but, being unfamiliar with the actress, 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. Only Joseph E Levine's "authorized" version and producer William Sargent's B&W Electronovision version were left standing when the smoke cleared.
Carol Lynley's Harlow opened 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.
For her part, 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 (Hutch's gal-pal in Rosemary's Baby) as Arthur Landau's wife, Beatrice.

The rarely-seen 1965 Carol Lynley "Electronovision" version of  Harlow 
In this film, Lynley offers a very different, less flattering take on Jean Harlow (she's pretty self-possessed), it has Ginger Rogers as Mama Jean (in her last film role, and very good!). Hurd Hadfield (The Picture of Dorian Gray - 1945) is splendid as Harlow's husband Paul Bern. No production values to speak of, but in several ways, an improvement over Joseph E. Levine's version.

These early publicity shots show Baker in more period-appropriate makeup, suggesting that there was perhaps a time in the pre-production phase when authenticity was sought in the costuming and makeup. Had the film been shot in B & W (the way we see Jean Harlow in our minds), I think Carroll Baker would have looked great. But by evidence of that color photo, the period look was possibly scrapped because it was so harsh and unflattering. 

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  2009 - 2014