Their lifespans combined totaled less than a century. But Carole Lombard, Jean Harlow and Marilyn Monroe remain three of Hollywood's most enduring female images. Just how enduring, however, is a matter of debate...especially considering that today marks the 46th anniversary of Monroe's death.
At the Jean Harlow Yahoo! group recently, there's been some discussion comparing Monroe's legacy to other icons. It was triggered by a news story in the Chicago Tribune regarding an exhibit, "Life As A Legend: Marilyn Monroe," that will be at the Chicago Cultural Center through Sept. 21. The Tribune critic's lead sentence said Monroe's "light burns as brightly as ever. Jean Harlow was more a vamp, Carole Lombard more an actress, and both died younger than Marilyn, who was 36. Yet they are remembered mainly by film buffs whereas she is known by just about anyone with ideas of sexiness and glamor."
This drew plenty of controversy among Harlow fans, some of whom didn't think the "vamp" description was accurate (I agree), others who frankly admitted they are tired of the Marilyn adulation. One wrote, "I'm sorry to be insensitive here, but I'm just a little tired of hearing about the Marilyn mythology. Can the CMG marketing juggernaut give us a little reprieve? I mean, how many famous people have their 46th angel day celebrated? 25th, 75th or 100th, but 46th!? Frankly, I wish the article would've had MORE to say about Carole Lombard and Jean Harlow, but of course, it's NEVER about them. They are only mentioned in passing to boost Marilyn even higher on her iconic pedestal." (CMG is the marketing company that holds the rights to the Monroe estate and image.)
During her lifetime, Monroe was occasionally compared to Harlow; in fact, in the late 1950s she posed as Jean for Life magazine:
Monroe-Lombard comparisons were far fewer, as Carole had been perceived more as a comedic actress than a pure sex symbol (although she definitely had sex appeal).
Do Harlow and Lombard deserve more recognition? Of course. However, so much American mass culture today has been shaped by baby boomers, who rarely recognize anything from before their time. (Think of Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start The Fire," which begins right after World War II.) It's hard for many Americans to imagine a society before suburbanization, before television -- and under those ground rules, Monroe makes the cut, Harlow and Lombard don't.
And it's not fair to blame Monroe for the marketing blitz she never lived to see; she herself admitted her image was an invention. She had acting talent and intelligence; unfortunately, the 1950s were generally not a time for actresses to show intelligence on screen, especially if their appeal largely rested on their "superstructure." If Marilyn had lived 20 years earlier, when actresses tended to get better scripts, her career might have been even more substantial.
I would appreciate your thoughts. Is Marilyn's image overplayed, compared to Carole's or Jean's? If so, why? And how do you feel about it? Let's get a good, intelligent debate on this.