For the centenary of Jean Harlow’s birth (which occurs this Thursday), I tried to find a way to commemorate it -– especially since this will be part of a Harlow blogathon at “The Kitty Packard Pictorial,” a superb site on Harlow, classic Hollywood and popular culture (http://kittypackard.wordpress.com/).
At last count, 19 blogs are contributing Harlow-related material (or, as it's being called, "Blogging For Baby"). The blogathon is also designed to promote the fine new book that we've mentioned several times here before, "Harlow in Hollywood: The Blonde Bombshell in the Glamour Capital," by Darrell Rooney and Mark Vieira (http://www.angelcitypress.com/harl.html).
An entry linking Carole Lombard and Harlow isn’t easy. Although they were good friends and were beloved by casts and crews throughout filmland, no picture of them together was ever discovered until 2013 (https://carole-and-co.livejournal.com/628632.html). Carole’s first husband, William Powell, later had an intense, but ill-fated, romance with Harlow, and Lombard’s second husband, Clark Gable, was renowned for his steamy romantic films with Jean (although in real life, they were good friends, never lovers).
So, what’s a writer to do? Use imagination, that’s what. I’m going to create an alternate universe where Lombard stars in Harlow’s movies, and vice versa. How might these silver screen goddesses have fared in each other’s films?
Some ground rules:
* Our ”altered” period begins in 1930 (when both settled into the business) and ends in early 1937 (before Harlow died).
* We’re generally focusing on Jean and Carole’s acting work; their romances will be mentioned solely in passing.
So imagine you’re poring through one of the big Sunday newspapers on Feb. 28, 1937, with the Oscars a few days away, and you see this story in the entertainment section:
February 28, 1937
Blonde Beauty Buddies Cheer Each Other On
Jean, Carole Ascend In Film Firmament
HOLLYWOOD -– Do Jean Harlow and Carole Lombard have a mutual admiration society?
“You might say so,” Miss Lombard replied with a laugh as fellow blonde Miss Harlow nodded with approval. “Jean is such a sweet and charming lady.”
“The same can be said for Carole,” Jean said over lunch at the Brown Derby as customers passed by their booth and politely gave their regards to both.
Miss Harlow is now linked with William Powell, Carole’s ex-husband, and she doesn’t mind their romance a bit. “The two make a marvelous couple, and would make an even better husband and wife,” said Miss Lombard, now frequently seen in public with one of her regular M-G-M co-stars, Clark Gable.
Both actresses –- considered among the most luminous ladies in filmland -- are riding high in popularity. Miss Lombard, who’s been one of Metro’s most valuable properties for five years now, will soon star opposite Robert Taylor in the comedy “Personal Property.” Meanwhile, Paramount has high hopes for "Swing High, Swing Low," which will come out in about a month, co-starring Miss Harlow and Fred MacMurray in a musical where Jean actually sings a bit.
“Just a bit,” Jean said in self-deprecation.
“Don’t worry, hon, I’m not much of a golden throat either,” Carole added, laughing. “I guess she and I are the anti-Boswell Sisters.”
Both are looking forward to this week’s Academy Awards. Each have received nominations, Jean for best actress in “My Man Godfrey,” Carole for best supporting actress for her role as a bride perennially left at the altar in “Libeled Lady.”
“It’s good we’re not in the same category, though if we were we’d be ladylike about it,” Jean said, smiling.
Carole nodded approvingly. “You want to see us competitive? Come to the tennis court, where Baby rarely takes a set from me.”
“But on the golf course, it’s a horse of a different color,” Miss Harlow responded, referring to her mastery on the links.
The two blondes became friends in late 1931, when both were being considered for parts as gold-diggers in Samuel Goldwyn’s saucy comedy, “The Greeks Had A Word For Them.” Neither was cast, but it didn’t stop either’s progress in Hollywood.
Carole, about a year and a half older than Jean, reached stardom first, as Howard Hughes cast her as love interest Helen in his 1930 air epic “Hell’s Angels.” She admitted the role was “ridiculous -– and so was the dialogue,” but it catapulted her into the limelight after working with Mack Sennett in two-reel comedies.
She had her ups and downs for a little over a year, making a few programmers along with supporting roles in hits such as “The Public Enemy” (“What actress wouldn’t want to work with James Cagney?” Miss Lombard said) and “Platinum Blonde.” In the latter, she dyed her hair to that color to play the title heiress, “and some in the industry thought I was copying Jean.” Carole then sighed, saying she still wistfully remembered Robert Williams, who died not long after its release.
At the time, Miss Harlow was a relatively obscure player at Paramount, which had signed her to a contract at the suggestion of Clara Bow after Jean had a small role in “The Saturday Night Kid.”
“Clara did a lot to encourage my career,” Miss Harlow said. “I’m sad that she’s no longer in the business, but I’m happy for her in that she seems happier the few times I see her.”
However, Miss Harlow’s rise was slow and steady. With Paramount’s stable of starlets, she gained experience on lower-tier features, such as Buddy Rogers’ “Safety In Numbers” in 1930 and the Gary Cooper vehicle “I Take This Woman” the following year. “Coop was great to work with, and I had a ball riding a horse!” Jean said of that film; they worked again three years later in “Now And Forever,” with everyone’s favorite moppet, Shirley Temple.
“Shirley deserves her fame and praise,” Jean said. “For her youth, she has remarkable composure and poise on the set.”
The year 1932 was a good year for both blondes’ careers. Carole was signed by M-G-M after a good supporting turn in “The Beast Of The City,” getting her breakthrough role in “Red-Headed Woman,” where the normally blonde Miss Lombard won wows for not only her new hair shade, but her mastery of comedy.
“People only viewed me through the prism of sex -– I said prism, not prison, though it might as well have been,” Miss Lombard said, eliciting a laugh from Miss Harlow. “Okay, so I have sex appeal. Big deal. Making people laugh –- now that’s an achievement!”
“That’s true,” Jean added. “People who don’t know us think we’re obsessed with glamour, but that really isn’t the case. Yes, we’re very dedicated to our work, and we take it seriously. We follow what goes on in the business, just as anyone does in their trade. But we keep up with world events, do plenty of reading and so on. Being glamorous doesn’t mean being stupid.”
Carole followed up “Red-Headed Woman” with the torrid “Red Dust,” vying for Gable’s manly charms with Mary Astor, a distant relative of hers. “I have such fun on screen with Clark,” she said. They’ve subsequently teamed up a number of times -– “Hold Your Man,” “China Seas,” “Wife Versus Secretary” (“Watch out for that James Stewart, he’s going places,” Miss Lombard said) and they’ll soon be together again in “Saratoga.”
In ’32, Miss Harlow also worked with Gable, when Metro loaned him out to Paramount for “No Man Of Her Own.” Asked about Clark, Jean said, “Sure I’d like to work with him again.” She also gained success on a loanout of her own, visiting Columbia and winning praise for “Virtue.”
Still, Jean appeared stifled at Paramount, seemingly unable to gain a distinctive screen personality, whereas in contrast Carole was riding high at Metro with the delightful “Dinner At Eight” and the satiric “Bombshell.”
“You can’t imagine how many guys have said they wanted to run barefoot through my hair,” Carole said, citing a line from the latter film and chuckling.
But Miss Harlow finally found her stride in 1934, again at Columbia. Playing a salesgirl turned petulant star in “Twentieth Century,” she was every bit as hilarious as John Barrymore, whose praise for her was effusive. On the other hand, Jean finally got the M-G-M treatment that fall in “The Gay Bride,” and while she looked beautiful, it didn’t provide the boost she expected.
That wouldn’t come until 1935, when Paramount gave her a romantic comedy worthy of her talent -- “Hands Across The Table,” directed by Mitchell Leisen and co-starring MacMurray. “It was fun playing a manicurist digging for gold and learning bigger lessons,” Miss Harlow said.
Last year, Jean and Carole gained greater stature, each through working with the dapper Mr. Powell. Miss Lombard enjoyed portraying the luckless Gladys Simpson in “Libeled Lady,” noting that “working with Bill, Myrna (Loy) and Spencer (Tracy) is a pleasure and a challenge simultaneously. You have to keep up with them, but the good news is that they make it so easy.”
“Even when your ex reeled you in?” Jean replied jokingly, referring to a scene where Carole’s character is hooked by Powell’s fishing rod while in a hotel suite. (If that doesn’t make sense, you haven’t seen the movie.)
“True comedy requires pain,” Carole replied sarcastically. “By the way, you were wonderful as Irene Bullock in ‘Godfrey.’”
“Given the popularity of this thing called screwball, I was tempted to play her as a flighty sort, but that really isn’t me,” Miss Harlow said. “So instead, I emphasized her blend of sweetness and naivete. With all those fine actors in the cast, it worked.”
“We’ve both achieved a lot,” Carole said. “Who knows, if things had gone slightly differently somewhere along the line, we might be in each other’s shoes.”
Would Misses Lombard and Harlow like to appear in a movie together?
“I’d love it!” Carole said. “Trouble is, most pictures that aren’t adventures or westerns, whether they be comedies or dramas, cast a guy and a girl as the leads -– ‘Libeled Lady’ was the exception to the rule. When two women are the leads, it’s usually one of those two-reel comedies, the kind Thelma Todd made, rest her soul.”
Jean concurred. “I’m sure some writer out there -– Ben Hecht, Norman Krasna, somebody -– could create a script that would make Carole and I distinctive and different characters,” she said. “Would a studio be interested in that type of property? I don’t know. But someday, I would enjoy making a movie with her, though it’d probably be at Metro -– L.B. considers Carole too valuable to loan out.”
With that, they extended their arms over the table and shook hands.
While it’s highly unlikely film history would have proceeded precisely this way, you could make the case for Lombard traveling Harlow’s career route and vice versa. Jean did have a small role in “The Saturday Night Kid” (another Jean of later fame, Miss Arthur, also had a supporting part). Had a Paramount executive seen something in Harlow and signed her to a significant contract, she might well have spent her next several years based on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood rather than Washington Boulevard in Culver City.
As for Carole, she did have a brief, discreet relationship with Howard Hughes in 1929; had Harlow been unavailable, would he have cast Lombard in the sound version of “Hell’s Angels”? It might well have happened. Darwin Porter makes a case for this in his 2005 Hughes bio “Howard Hughes, Hell’s Angel,” but his purported dialogue, which naturally can’t be corroborated, paints a portrait of Lombard that doesn’t mesh with what we know about her at that age. (For more on Porter’s book and his rather spurious account, see http://community.livejournal.com/carole_and_co/57165.html.)
In short, it’s not hard to imagine a Paramount Harlow, as well as a Lombard who somehow finds her way to MGM (perhaps not through Paul Bern). In this alternate universe, I’ve tried to avoid shoehorning Jean’s personality into Carole’s films, and vice versa, although a Harlow left to fend for herself at Paramount during its financial struggles in the early thirties might have become somewhat different than the Harlow we’re familiar with.
Conversely, just because Lombard’s lone film at Metro was the lackluster “The Gay Bride” doesn’t mean she couldn’t have succeeded there as a studio star rather than a hired hand. Irving Thalberg probably would have made sure she received good scripts, and without a Harlow on hand, an MGM Lombard might have been cast in those sexy comedies, as well as other properties tailored to her talents.
It’s a fascinating “what if” to ponder.
Oh, and three other things to note:
* Harlow and Lombard apparently really were among the candidates for “The Greeks Had A Word For Them,” according to contemporary accounts.
* The Lombard-Cagney comment is sort of ironic. In real life, Carole had a chance to work with him, but refused a loanout to Warners to make "Taxi!" (Loretta Young got the female lead), a decision Lombard long regretted.
* That one-and-a-half year age difference between Carole and Jean was an intentional error. At the time, studio publicists had Lombard born in 1909, not 1908.
Incidentally, I hope you like this week's Lombard header image, showing Carole in a pensive mood.