We've written about Jean in the past, of how she was one of the few to successfully blend sex appeal and likability. (Marilyn Monroe had similar qualities, but Harlow had an on-screen toughness and resiliency Monroe's characters lacked -- one reason Depression-era audiences identified with and adored Jean.) Like Lombard, Harlow enjoyed her stardom but never took it too seriously, making her popular with film crews. She left us at age 26 -- leaving us a lot of "what ifs" -- but did plenty of living (and plenty of films), leaving a lasting legacy.
This Saturday night, Turner Classic Movies in the U.S. is presenting a five-pack of Harlow movies, all from the pre-Code era. Two are expressly Harlow vehicles, one has her as part of an all-star ensemble, and the other two feature her in early supporting roles. They're all worth watching (although, to be honest, in some of them Jean isn't the prime reason why).
Here's the schedule (all times Eastern):
* 8 p.m. -- "Dinner At Eight" (1933). MGM had registered critical and audience acclaim for its all-star film of 1932, "Grand Hotel." This was in the same vein, albeit far more comedic, as Jean (playing the gold-digging wife of magnate Wallace Beery) shares the spotlight with Marie Dressler (their exchange at the film's end is a classic), John and Lionel Barrymore, Billie Burke and others in this film adaptation of a George S. Kaufman-Edna Ferber play. (The man in the above picture who's not in costume is director George Cukor.)
* 10 p.m. -- "Bombshell" (1933). Many consider this Harlow's best vehicle, a clever satire of Hollywood, with Jean portraying a besieged film star. That's the great character actor Frank Morgan standing next to Harlow; others in the cast include Lee Tracy as a fast-talking press agent and Franchot Tone. Victor Fleming directed this gem, reminding us that he worked on many fine films besides those two he made in 1939 (one of which featured Morgan in the title role).
* 11:45 p.m. -- "Platinum Blonde" (1931). The Harlow image we're familiar with was honed at MGM, but before then she worked at a number of studios. One was Columbia, where she played the title character in this romantic comedy directed by Frank Capra. Jean hailed from upper-class stock, and early in her career she was often cast in such roles -- though she really wasn't very good at it. The man with her in the photo, Robert Williams, gives an excellent performance as a wisecracking reporter who marries heiress Harlow, and is a "what if" of his own. Only days after this film -- a likely breakout role -- was released, Williams died of peritonitis. He was only 34. Had he lived, Williams likely would have become a notable star, as he fit the new '30s male acting style perfectly. Loretta Young, still in her teens and astonishingly beautiful, also has a supporting role.
* 1:30 a.m. -- "Hold Your Man" (1933). Harlow and Clark Gable made several films together; history has never quite pinned down whether they were intimate in real life, but on-screen, they were pure sensual dynamite (watch "Red Dust" for proof). This is a good romance between a pair of tough cookies.
* 3 a.m. -- "The Public Enemy" (1931). You don't think of this as a Harlow film, but she's in it, playing one of gangster James Cagney's molls (this film did for Cagney what "Platinum Blonde" would have done for Williams had he lived). Jean wasn't quite settled into her persona yet, and her inane dialogue doesn't help matters, but it's one of the few bad things about this otherwise splendid film directed by William Wellman (who later worked with Lombard in "Nothing Sacred"). And let's not forget what Cagney does with a grapefruit (something that unfortunately defined Mae Clarke's fine career for all the wrong reasons). This was the only film Harlow made at Warners; had they signed her to a long-term contract, her career might have been considerably different...and what would have happened to Joan Blondell?
So sit back and enjoy Jean's unique screen magic. You'll be glad you did.