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|
|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.
|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."
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 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
|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.
|The always-wonderful Angela Lansbury is a standout|
in her all-too-brief scenes as Harlow's mother
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.
|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|
|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|
|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|
|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)|
THE STUFF OF DREAMS
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.
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.