The story of Jean Harlow is inescapably intermingled with Hollywood legend. The story goes like this: Harlean (her real first name) was accompanying a friend to central casting when studio executives became interested in her instead. She put them off, only to return to central casting several days later on a friendly bet and was hired to play bit parts for Hal Roach, then Howard Hughes and finally Irving Thalberg at MGM where she became an “overnight” sensation and massive superstar at the tender age of 20.
The world’s first “platinum blonde” couldn’t get a break, either from real life or the critics that panned her acting ability in the early years of her career. Jean (she borrowed her mother’s name for the silver screen) seemed always ill regardless of the radiant presence she had on film. She was married three times, most notoriously to Paul Bern, an MGM producer who was found shot-dead in their Hollywood home when Jean was only 21. The resulting scandal (his death was officially a suicide) made Jean even more popular with her adoring fans. Her true love was fellow movie star William Powell but the two never married.
On screen, Jean was glamorous, sexy and most of all funny. Her comedic timing and attitude were a goldmine to MGM and she single-handedly kept the studio out of bankruptcy in the early 1930’s. Jean played opposite Clarke Gable six times. My favorites are Red-Headed Woman and Hold Your Man. She played opposite a fetus-young Jimmy Stewart in Wife Vs. Secretary, whose concept is so dated that it’s impossible to like the movie even though it features one of my all-time favorite actresses – the imitable Myrna Loy.
Jean was only 26 when she became dreadfully ill on the set of Saratoga. A victim of medical malpractice, Jean was misdiagnosed several times and suffered horribly before succumbing to kidney failure. Her grieving fans were outraged when MGM studios tried to replace her with another actress to complete her last film Saratoga. Instead, they hired several body doubles to be shot from behind and even an actress to mimic Jean’s voice to complete the film “starring” Jean Harlow. Ironically, the critics have labeled it her finest work.
Jean was supposed to be MGM’s next Greta Garbo but she didn’t live long enough to inherit Garbo’s throne. She was a funny, spirited personality more than an actress. Her legacy is her films opposite Gable and the indelible impression she made on depression-era America. She never took herself or the industry that made her famous too seriously. She died way too young, which made her a Hollywood legend and a legacy that wouldn’t be seen again until another tragic blonde came along to fill her shoes…her names was Jean, too. Norma Jean aka Marilyn Monroe.