Jean Harlow (born Harlean Harlow Carpenter; March 3, 1911 – June 7, 1937) was an American actor and sex symbol in the 1930s, the original Platinum Blonde of legend.
She was born in Kansas City, Missouri. In the 1920s, she and her mother moved to Hollywood, and Harlean, taking her mother's name, went into acting. After several bit parts in silent films, she had her breakout role in the 1930 World War I movie Hell's Angels, produced by Howard Hughes. In this film, she coined the famous line "Would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?" In 1931, she appeared in the classic gangster film The Public Enemy.
While critics disliked Harlow, audiences loved her; her movies were successful, even in the middle of The Great Depression. Her films pushed boundaries; in Red Dust, she portrays a floozy who gets the guy at the end, and in Red-Headed Woman she plays an ambitious Gold Digger who sleeps her way to the top and doesn't receive any punishment for it.
After the implementation of The Hays Code (which cracked down on sexuality, both in and out of films), she changed her image to a more mainstream, all-American type, but still remained a star. During the filming of her last movie, Saratoga, she fell ill, and was taken to a hospital. She died a few days later at the age of 26, from kidney failure (once rumored to be from the chemicals she used to dye her hair; now stated as a possible consequence of scarlet fever she had as a child).
She was an idol of Marilyn Monroe.
Films with pages on TV Tropes:
- Double Whoopee (1929) — short film starring Laurel and Hardy
- Why Be Good? (1929) (extra)
- Hell's Angels (1930) — Star-Making Role
- The Public Enemy (1931)
- The Secret Six (1931)
- Red Dust (1932)
- Red-Headed Woman (1932)
- Three Wise Girls (1932)
- Dinner at Eight (1933)
- Bombshell (1933)
- Hold Your Man (1933)
- The Girl from Missouri (1934)
- China Seas (1935)
- Reckless (1935)
- Libeled Lady (1936)
- Riffraff (1936)
- Suzy (1936)
- Wife vs. Secretary (1936)
- Personal Property (1937)
- Saratoga (1937)
Harlow's work provide examples of:
- Dumb Blonde: Her specialty. Barry Norman in his book The Hollywood Greats noted that she like Marilyn Monroe "had the gift of saying her lines as if she didn't understand them, maximimising the comic potential..."
- Dye Hard: Though she denied it, and was in fact naturally very fair — just not as fair as she appeared onscreen. Eventually, her hair actually had to be cropped short due to peroxide damage, meaning in some films she's actually wearing a wig. Some stories say that she bleached her pubic hair as well to maintain the illusion, but this is likely false.
- Fake Brit: As Helen in Hell's Angels. Not that she tries very hard.
- Fake Shemp: Harlow's sudden, shocking death from kidney failure came with Saratoga still unfinished. Louis B. Mayer and MGM considered throwing away all of her footage and re-shooting with a different actor, but after fans lobbied to see Harlow's last film, production continued. An actor named Mary Rees who looked like Harlow was used as her double in some scenes, with another actor doubling Harlow's distinctive voice. (Note the scene at the racetrack where Fake Jean Harlow holds a pair of binoculars to her face and another scene with Hattie McDaniel where Fake Jean is shot from behind while wearing a wide-brimmed hat.)
- He Also Did: She wrote a novel, Today is Tonight, which wasn't published until 1965.
- High-Class Gloves: She wore them in Dinner at Eight and The Public Enemy (1931).
- Leslie Nielsen Syndrome: As noted above, she was initially much more vampy. But once The Hays Code cracked down on sexual conduct in movies, her image became more of a Dumb Blonde in comedies.
- The Other Marty: When Howard Hughes decided to convert Hell's Angels to a talkie, this meant that the Norwegian actor playing Helen - Greta Nissen - had to be replaced. In came Jean Harlow.
- Playing with Character Type: While Kitty in Dinner at Eight is a Shameless Fanservice Girl, she's less a Good Bad Girl and more a Rich Bitch. Kitty is probably the nastiest character she ever played.
- Pop Culture Urban Legends:
- Her husband Paul Bern was found dead in his room, and a wild rumor was that Jean herself found him and the studio had it covered up.
- Then there were all the rumors about her death. One story held that all the hair dye used for that platinum blonde look ruined her kidneys—nope, not possible. Another story was that Harlow died because her mother was a Christian Scientist and so did not call a doctor when she got sick. Although Harlow's awful Stage Mom did apparently say this to a man from MGM in order to get him to go away, in fact she was getting round-the-clock care from doctors and nurses from soon after she went home sick from the studio. And it wouldn't have mattered anyway even if the rumor had been true, since in the 1930s kidney failure was a death sentence.
- Pretty in Mink: Some of her movies gave her glamorous furs, such as a fox-trimmed dress in Dinner At Eight, and an ermine-trimmed dress in Personal Property.
- Reality Subtext: The tension between her and Wallace Beery in Dinner at Eight was very real; he treated her horribly, viewing her as too inexperienced.
- Sexy Backless Outfit: After she says her famous line in Hell's Angels, it's shown that she's already wearing a backless dress. In Dinner at Eight, her character says, during a party conversation about sunbathing: "You know, my skin's terribly delicate and I don't dare expose it." Then she turns around, revealing her backless dress.
- Short-Lived, Big Impact: She died at the age of twenty-six after having only been in the film business for about nine years, three of which she worked entirely as an extra. Yet she was an iconic sex symbol and there was worldwide heartbreak when she died prematurely.
- Stage Name: Born Harlean Harlow Carpenter; Jean was her mother's name, and Harlow her maiden name.
- Those Two Actors: She appeared in six movies with Clark Gable, five with Lewis Stone, four with Una Merkel, and three with Wallace Beery.
- Vapor Wear: In Bombshell, a movie in which Harlow plays an actor, the studio specifically instructs her not to wear a bra. Harlow never wore any underwear, and some even say that she iced down her nipples before shooting a scene (which was one of many contributing factors for the Hays Code to crack down on immoral content in movies).
- Vocal Dissonance: Despite her glamorous looks, she had a nasal voice and lower class accent described by Melanie Griffith as sounding like a "truck stop waitress," often exploited for comic effect.
- What Could Have Been:
- MGM was hoping to cast Harlow in a series of movies focusing on the character of Maisie Ravier. Harlow's death led to that role being played by Ann Sothern.
- She was offered the leads in King Kong (1933) and Freaks but turned them down.
- She was meant to say a line in Red Dust when she's found bathing in the barrel - "don't you know, I'm La Flamme, the girl who drives men wild" - but she refused to say it