By Darryl & Tuezdae Littleton
Whenever you take on a big subject like history there’s going to be arguments. We took on the history of female comics and of course the debate becomes who qualifies to carry the title of comedienne. We tried to answer that question in our book, “Comediennes: Laugh Be a Lady”, but the discussion rages on. We’d like to address as many of these disagreements as possible. Today we’d like to address the question of Jean Harlow. Was she a comedienne?
Some claim Harlow was a comedienne due to a string of ‘comedies’ she filmed. Of the 33 movies she did only 9 were credited comedies. She also shot dramas, romantic-dramas, gangster flicks and an adventure. Twelve of Harlow’s films are as an uncredited extra. I hope the criteria for being a comedienne is not extra work. In that case Ben Stein is a comedienne. Harlow is credited with a lot of uncredited extra work. One’s even unconfirmed uncredited. Then when she did ‘act’ the critics wished she hadn’t. They conceded she had enough sex appeal to put butts in the seats and a sense of humor, but nobody used the word ‘actress’ and “Jean Harlow’ in the same sentence unless the word’ bad’ preceded either. But before casting Harlow off as a charismatic screen personality with friends on the other side of a casting office door, we’ll examine her for closer scrutiny.
Let’s start with her life. Things started off big for Harlow. She was born a whopping 9 lbs. She was born in the big city of Kansas City Missouri and grew up in a big mansion. Her parents had big money. She was born Harlean Harlow Carpenter. Her pops was a dentist, but her mother felt like she married Novocain and in 1922 she was granted a divorce and sole custody of Harlean. Without contest her father agreed to child support yet was rarely allowed to see Harlean. Nice to know that very little of that game has changed. However, Harlean was determined to see her father and arranged secret meetings.
Being in movies was Mother Jean’s idea. Since she’d been a child Mother Jean had always wanted to be a star. Obviously she never made it or we’d be talking about her and not her daughter, but yet we are. The sad fact is the mother’s name was Jean Harlow. So since she was a never-was, she made sure her named took center stage and firmly suggested Harlean take it as her professional moniker. This was after her feeble stab at golden goose. In 1923 they moved out west and young Mother Jean enrolled Harlean into the Hollywood School for Girls a private academy. At the same time Mother Jean was looking to live out her childhood dream of becoming a star. The 2 year attempt at stardom was shot down by Mother Jean’s age. She was already in her 30’s and considered a relic by Tinseltown standards. Then to heap even more misery upon Mother Jean’s narrow shoulders, Skip Harlow threatened to cut them off financially if they didn’t return to Kansas City.
The threats were heeded. They made a rapid return to Kansas City to chill their heels for a while, but Grandpa Harlow decided it was time to send new Jean off to a promising future and shipped her to school in Chicago. Old Jean Harlow soon followed and took her dreams of film stardom with her.
Harlow’s mother, affectionately known as “Mother Jean,” remarried a man named Marino Bello. They stayed in Chicago where Harlow attended high school as the gun-toting pervert of a step-father would climb up ladders to spy on his naked, sleeping stepdaughter. Besides this depravity, health issues started early on for Harlean, dating back to age five with her contracting meningitis, and then at age fifteen, battling with scarlet fever. Unfortunately, these ailments were only the beginning. When she became a film star several productions were held up due to her chronic health issues.
Too bad for Old Jean, New Jean had thoughts of motherhood and wifedom rolling around in her head. . The hazel-blue eyed 16yr old eloped with Charles McGrew III, who soon grew weary of Old jean’s domineering ways and moved New Jean out of Chicago and off to Beverly Hills. That commute was practically tailor made for Mother Jean who wasted little time in following her off-spring and husband out West. To no one’s surprise Harlow had no intention of becoming part of that world. New Jean was still uninterested in stepping into the limelight. However, after Mother failed to bring home any studio checks on her own, the new bride took work in films as an extra to appease her attention desperate mother.
Mother Jean was determined to live like a starlet, whether she was or not. She even offered herself on the casting couch for the pleasure of randy directors and producers to pave the way for Baby. Not that Baby was a child any more after losing her virginity when just 14. Young Jean was photographed nude at age 17 by Hollywood photographer Edward Bower Hesser in Griffith Park. The year was 1928.
Originally contracted with Hal Roach in 1928 for 5yrs this contract was simply torn up and discarded when young Harlow sincerely pleaded for help in saving her marriage. Then in 1929 Howard Hughes signed Harlow to a 5yr contract and she replaced an immigrant actress in “Hell’s Angel’s when the film had to be reshot as a talkie. She made an impression and was soon ascending the stardom staircase. Her contract was ultimately bought by MGM in 1932 at the insistence of husband Paul Bern, who’d gone around Louis B. Mayer and persuaded Irving Thalberg to sign the cultural phenom. Mayer bristled at Harlow’s reputation as a floozy. Thalberg wanted to take advantage of her growing fan base and all the girls who wanted to be platinum blondes like Jean. Harlow was later struck with scandal when Bern turned up dead. It was ruled a suicide, but many thought Harlow had killed him. Jean was known for often being drunk, debauched and drawn to middle-aged men who let her down in bed and beat her black and blue, instead of giving her the love she craved. Not knowing any of this but transfixed and shocked by her daring presence on screen, the public adored her.
Jean Harlow was known as a sex symbol. It was an image she cultivated. In one of her comedic roles, Stan Laurel, who was playing a doorman, was supposed to slam the taxi door shut, catching her ankle-length dress and ripping it off so she enters the hotel in just her slip. The gag was funny enough. But what was sensational was the revelation that Jean was a knickers-free zone. As the dress fell away, the powerful studio lights pierced through the slip and, to the delight of the crew, exposed the fact that it was not just the hair on her head that was bleached peroxide silver. Well, over 70years before Brittney Spear flashed frontal Harlow freely gave reporters a quick flash to show that she was, as she put it, ‘the same colour all over’.
That was happy, carefree Jean and then there was the Jean that epitomized the dark side of the Hollywood Babylon legend. Her talent may have been tiny, but she made up for it with masses of front – in every sense. Brassy and brazen, she consorted with gangsters, boxers, band-leaders and bisexuals and never, she maintained, ever wore panties or a bra, on or off screen. As far as being a comedienne, much of the comedy from Harlow came in the form of the ever moving beauty mark. The placement change constantly in an attempt to seem more alluring.
In May 1937, Jean Harlow became the very first film actress to grace the cover of Life magazine. That same year her final film, “Saratoga” became the highest grossing film of 1937 and set all-time house records, due almost entirely to Harlow’s untimely death. The Original Platinum Blonde Bombshell had passed on. Jean Harlow died as a result of kidney failure. This was a slow progressing disease that went undetected for years but was connected to the scarlet fever she had as a youth.
Well, she had a tragic life. That certainly qualifies her to be a comedienne. However, unlike other recognized comediennes of her era, Harlow wasn’t a creative writing, acting, producing machine like Mae West. She wasn’t known chiefly for her comedy roles such as Carole Lombard. Similar to Thelma Todd, Harlow was used for her sex appeal, but where Todd appeared numerous times with comedy giants, the Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton as well as Laurel & Hardy – Harlow made her laughs with John Barrymore, Clark Gable and Robert Taylor. She had stand-ins do her dancing and real singers do her singing. She hadn’t appeared on vaudeville or on radio and never performed on anything but a sound stage.
Was she a comedienne? Check out some of her movies such as Bombshell, Dinner at Eight, Wife VS Secretary or Platinum Blonde and decide for yourself.