Today marks a very special day for all classic Hollywood fans, and I know that somewhere, Carole Lombard is delighted to honor the centenary of not only a friend, but someone she genuinely liked, respected and admired. We are, of course, referring to Jean Harlow (who replaces Carole in the avatar for this entry), arguably the top sex symbol of the 1930s, even if she sadly didn’t complete the decade. This marks my second contribution this week to the Jean Harlow Blogathon at the Kitty Packard Pictorial (http://kittypackard.wordpress.com/):
For someone who only lived slightly more than 26¼ years, Harlow accomplished a lot. And what makes it all the more remarkable is that Jean did it without a genuine zeal for the business. It’s entirely possible she might never have pursued a film career had she not followed up on Fox casting director Joe Egli’s suggestion in mid-1928 that she apply with Central Casting Egli was entranced with the 17-year-old’s beauty; over the next nine years, millions of moviegoers would follow suit.
(Harlow, born Harlean Carpenter, had lived in Los Angeles earlier in the 1920s with her mother, the original Jean Harlow, who unsuccessfully tried to break into films. As was the case with most youths of the 1920s, the daughter loved movies, and was particularly a fan of western star Buck Jones –- so there’s a good chance Harlean saw her future friend Lombard in a few of Jones' Fox westerns of 1925.)
It’s no secret that MGM stablemate Joan Crawford was one of the few people in the industry who didn’t like Jean. Perhaps Crawford, for whom stardom was the be-all and end-all, couldn’t understand Harlow, who certainly worked hard at her craft (critics, who derided Jean in the early 1930s, came around to her side by 1932 or ’33) but never let it consume her the way it did Joan -– had Harlow never achieved stardom, one could imagine her writing or doing something completely unrelated to film. (Lombard was sort of in between ‘20s pal Crawford and ‘30s buddy Harlow; while she certainly was driven to become a star actress, she enjoyed the movie business as a whole and became expert at many facets of it -– lighting, cinematography, publicity, etc. Had Carole lived longer, perhaps she would have become a producer once her acting career wound down.)
Yes, Jean’s sex appeal was considerable, although some elements of her style might not resonate with audiences three-quarters of a century after her fame. But those who worked on film crews met all sorts of sexy, attractive people. What made Harlow so popular, so beloved, in the film community was her genuine niceness and lack of pretense. As was the case with Lombard, people on the low end of the totem pole felt a kinship with her, a quality that transcended glamour. And unlike Marilyn Monroe, the de facto successor to Harlow a quarter-century later, Jean was ever the professional on the set (although, to be fair, Monroe had a far rougher upbringing and less education than the relatively well-off Harlow).
Today isn’t just Jean’s centennial birthday -– it also marks the opening of a special Harlow exhibit through Sept. 5 at the Hollywood Museum (located at the old Max Factor building where Jean dedicated the “blonde room” in 1935).
All sorts of Harlow memorabilia will be on display, including the famous 1932 mural Paul Bern commissioned depicting Jean and several other MGM stars as Elizabethan types. This will mark the first time it’s ever been on public view. Below is an image of the mural as it hung in the Harlow-Bern house.
And next Wednesday, Darrell Rooney and Mark A. Vieira, authors of the eagerly awaited “Harlow In Hollywood,” will hold a grand opening book signing from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m.
All this is a wonderful way to honor the memory of one of filmdom’s icons, a talented actress and a likable person who has been called “the most real of the sex symbols.” And deservedly so.
To close, some candid shots of "the Baby":