In an age of great screen ladies at MGM Jean Harlow enjoyed the joke of playing a tarty society slattern, too lazy to bother with underwear beneath those silky, slinky, curve- caressing gowns. She was a broad in princess’s clothing, a tarnished angel, the original art-deco or platinum blonde.
It was necessary to cast her opposite tough guys – the moll James Cagney picks up oil’ the street in The Public Enemy, cute and sexy but also caustic and loyal to Clark Gable in Red Dust, a spoilt floozy married to Wallace Beery in Dinner at Eight – as only they wouldn’t put up with her nonsense (even though she would pout, dissolve into baby-talk or throw a tantrum).
She was primarily a comedienne whose gift to movies was not so much her skill with the common touch or her sexual frankness as her complete lack of concern – something the determinedly liberated heroines of today might envy.
Underneath it all Harlow was a likeable, happy-go-lucky girl – a sensible enough professional and a dabbler in novel-writing – who suffered a traumatic private life. The product of a broken home, she was sent to private schools before she herself entered into a brief, unhappy marriage at 16. She moved into films the following year at Paramount – having her dress ripped off by Laurel and Hardy in Double Whoopee – and became a star with Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels.
In 1932 she married MGM producer Paul Bern who shot himself two months later. A third marriage to cameraman Hal Rosson ended in divorce after six months. Harlow survived the scandals and the notoriety caused by her image of carnal indolence and remained a major star. But she was hurt by the end of her love affair with William Powell – her co-star in Reckless and Libelled Lady. She became ill and died of uremic poisoning.
“Baby” as Harlow was was known to friends like Cable, was just 26. Carroll Baker played her in the biopic Harlow (1965) but without sufficient spark.