One of MGM’s brightest stars of the 1930s, Jean Harlow died of uremic poisoning in 1937. At the time, the 26-year-old actress had been playing opposite Clark Gable in what turned out to be her last film, Saratoga.
Perhaps because she died so young, Harlow has remained a well-known film personality from that era. Her MGM vehicles – Dinner at Eight, Bombshell, China Seas, Wife vs. Secretary, Libeled Lady – are often shown on Turner Classic Movies; David Stenn has written a well-regarded biography; and now comes Mark Vieira and Darrell Rooney’s Harlow in Hollywood: The Blonde Bombshell in the Glamour Capital 1928-1937 (Angel City Press, 2011).
Celebrating Jean Harlow’s centenary (she was born on March 3, 1911), Harlow in Hollywood is a both a written and a (stunning) visual chronicle of Jean Harlow’s career, as Vieira and Rooney cover Harlow’s ascendancy from movie extra and bit player in the late 1920s to her years at MGM, the biggest of all Hollywood studios at that time. Also discussed are Harlow’s relationship with Howard Hughes and her marriage to producer Paul Bern, who committed suicide two months after their wedding – leaving behind a cryptic note – in September 1932.
At MGM, Harlow worked with top directors – George Cukor, Jack Conway, Victor Fleming – while her co-stars included nearly every major performer at the studio. In addition to Gable, she played opposite William Powell, Myrna Loy, Spencer Tracy, Franchot Tone, Robert Taylor, Marie Dressler, Wallace Beery, and even Cary Grant in his only MGM movie of the ’30s.
Author and photographer Mark Vieira, among whose previous books are Hurrell’s Hollywood Portraits, Greta Garbo: A Cinematic Legacy, and Hollywood Dreams Made Real: Irving Thalberg and the Rise of M-G-M, has kindly agreed to answer a few questions (via e-mail) about Jean Harlow and Harlow in Hollywood. See below.
Jean Harlow in her mother’s living room (top); Harlow in Hollywood authors Mark Vieira and Darrell Rooney (middle); Cafe Trocadero 1935: Edith Gwynne Wilkerson (wife of Trocadero owner Billy Wilkerson), Jean Harlow, William Powell, William Haines’ lover Jimmy Shields (standing), Anderson Lawler, unidentified man (standing), Haines, Edith’s sister Marge (bottom)
How did the Jean Harlow book project come about?
Darrell Rooney, besides being a respected director of animated movies, has a huge collection of Jean Harlow memorabilia. Eight years ago I suggested that he and I collaborate on a book like the one I had done on Greta Garbo. We wanted to build on the research that David Stenn had done for Bombshell, his 1993 Harlow bio, but we wanted to tell Harlow’s story with photographs and newly uncovered correspondence. We also wanted to document how she became such a skilled comedienne in such a short time.
Harlow in Hollywood is part picture book, part biography. How did you and fellow writer Darrell Rooney decide on the book format/focus? How would you describe that focus?
We decided that we wanted to include lots of pictures, lots of production histories, and lots of direct quotes; in other words, the focus would be that of a “narrative career bio.” A sympathetic publisher (Paddy Calistro and Scott McAuley’s Angel City Press) and a savvy designer (Hilary Lentini) made this possible.
As a professional photographer, how do you see Jean Harlow as a “photographic subject”? Is there a particular Harlow picture – or pictures – that you admire?
Harlow would be the ideal portrait subject: a perfectly symmetrical face, yet one with unusual features (her nose and chin). She was also patient, playful and imaginative.
Jean Harlow the individual vs. Jean Harlow the Blonde Bombshell. How much did the two have in common?
The private Harlow was soft-spoken, well-read, and generous, a far cry from the brassy gold diggers she portrayed. Yet, she invested those characterizations with gentleness and warmth.
Jean Harlow, National Air Race director Cliff Henderson (top); Jean Harlow, Lee Tracy directed by Victor Fleming (Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz) on the set of Bombshell; cinematographer Harold Rosson, with whom Harlow was briefly married, is at the camera (middle); Jean Harlow by the pool of her Beverly Glen home (bottom)
What are your impressions of Jean Harlow as an actress? Do you have a favorite movie and/or performance?
Harlow only became an actress under the expert tutelage of MGM drama coaches. I think she’s really great in both China Seas and Wife vs. Secretary.
Jean Harlow and Paul Bern. What brought those two together?
Harlow needed a father figure to guide her. Bern needed a rescue project. Neither person expected the consequences.
What about Jean Harlow and William Powell? How did their relationship develop?
Both Harlow and Powell were on the rebound. They were ideally suited to each other, coming from the same part of the Midwest. He had authority and warmth. She was sexy without being tawdry.
There were other major female stars at MGM in the 1930s, e.g., Norma Shearer, Greta Garbo, Jeanette MacDonald, Myrna Loy, Joan Crawford, Luise Rainer, Helen Hayes. Where did Jean Harlow fit in both in terms of popularity and movie roles?
Harlow was hugely popular, and she had her own unique image. That was MGM’s strategy. Its stars were not interchangeable. Shearer was not going to steal a dancing-lady role from Crawford. Paramount made the mistake of trying to make every other actress look like Marlene Dietrich. The studio also tried to create another Dietrich: Isa Miranda. MGM never tried to duplicate what worked. One Garbo or Harlow was enough.
What would have happened to Jean Harlow’s career at MGM had she not died in 1937? Were there any special plans for her?
Harlow was scheduled to be loaned out to 20th Century Fox for Henry King’s In Old Chicago. [Alice Faye eventually played the female lead opposite Tyrone Power.] After that, she was going to play Crystal Allen in Hunt Stromberg’s The Women. [Joan Crawford got that role.] Darrell and I believe that she would have gone on to become a bigger star in the 1940s, primarily in comedy, and most likely at Paramount or Warners.
Boris Karloff & Jean Harlow book signings
Update: Boris Karloff’s daughter Sara Karloff, and authors Mark Vieira and Darrell Rooney will be at Larry Edmunds Bookshop signing books later this month. Karloff will be signing copies of Stephen Jacobs’ authorized Boris Karloff biography, Boris Karloff: More Than a Monster. Vieira and Rooney will sign their own Harlow in Hollywood, a photo book/biography of 1930s MGM star Jean Harlow.
Karloff will be present on Friday, April 22, at 7:30 p.m. That evening, Larry Edmunds will also screen “This Is Your Life Boris Karloff” and clips of Karloff in color as “the Monster.”
Vieira and Rooney will be at Larry Edmunds on Tuesday, April 26, at 7 p.m.
Larry Edmunds is located at 6644 on Hollywood Blvd. More info at larryedmunds.com.