Bad movies come in all shapes and sizes. Many are quite enjoyable in spite of (or, conversely, because of) their awfulness but, sometimes, bad movies just rub viewers the wrong way. Such was the case with the Joseph E. Levine Harlow. I positively loathed it. An alleged biopic of platinum blonde bombshell Jean Harlow (1911-37), the movie is so phony on so many levels that watching it was almost excruciating. You know you're in trouble when Red Buttons gives the closest thing to an authentic dramatic characterization.
Nevertheless, the curious will want to see it. I did, certainly, for decades. The movie was made under unusual circumstances. This Harlow, starring Carroll Baker, was a Joseph E. Levine-Prometheus (Baker's company) production in conjunction with distributor Paramount Pictures. At the same time another film, also called Harlow, was hastily produced by Theatro Film and distributed by Magna. It starred Carol Lynley. That film was shot on black and white videotape and converted to 35mm, a profoundly ugly process limited to just a few movies, most famously a filmed performance of Richard Burton's celebrated Hamlet (1964).
The Carol Lynley Harlow opened May 14, 1965 while the Carroll Baker version premiered just a few weeks later, on June 23rd. Critics hated both versions and the general consensus seems to have been that the Baker version is better-produced but less historically accurate while the Lynley film is cheap but sticks a bit closer to reality. The Lynley version doesn't seem to have ever been officially released to home video, though bootleg copies exist.
Olive Films, licensing the Baker version from Paramount, offers a strong Panavision transfer but with no extra features.
Despite its length (125 minutes), this Harlow superficially glides across Jean Harlow's personal and professional career, beginning around 1926-27, the late silent period, and ending with Harlow's death ten years later at the age of 26.
In the film, Jean Harlow (Carroll Baker) struggles to find work in Hollywood while her mother, Mama Jean (Angela Lansbury), a failed actress herself, lives at home with her lazy gigolo of a boyfriend (later husband), Marino Bello (Raf Vallone). Caught stealing food from a craft services table, Harlow is rescued by aspiring agent Arthur Landau (Red Buttons). He's convinced that she's got what it takes to become a huge star.
Her rise in films is slow, and for a long time she's on the receiving end of a lot of broad, physical slapstick. But that's enough for Landau to prepare a reel of footage to show millionaire producer Richard Manley (Leslie Nielsen), a character based on Howard Hughes, to give Harlow her first big break. For the next year or two, she's wasted in films that do nothing to further her career, but eventually she gets out of her contract with Manley and signs with Majestic Studios (read: MGM) and its head of production, Everett Redman (Martin Balsam, channeling Louis B. Mayer). As her mother and step-father leech off her growing fortune (while enjoying a healthy sex life that Harlow envies), the actress is busy and widely admired but lonely, though she has two suitors: movie star Jack Harrison (Mike Connors, suggesting William Powell) and screenwriter Paul Bern (Peter Lawford).
Harlow, Mama Jean, Bello, Landau, and Bern were real people. Everyone and everything else is fictionalized. Some, like the Richard Manley character, are clearly based on real-life historical figures, but only sketchily so. Manley, for instance, is rich and proud of his sexual conquests, but that's about it as far as similarities go, and Nielsen resembles Hughes not at all.
In reality, Howard Hughes signed Harlow to replace another actress for his gargantuan independent production of Hell's Angels (1930), Harlow's first success. That film was a World War I aviation adventure film but in Harlow Manley casts her in a generically successful movie with a fake title and fake co-stars on the marquee.
Part of Harlow's problem is that it makes almost no attempt to explain her appeal by referencing, recreating or even approximating classic scenes from her movies. Her big successes aren't even hinted at, with no mention of The Public Enemy, Red Dust, Dinner at Eight, Libeled Lady, etc., or any of her famous co-stars: James Cagney, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, William Powell, etc. Instead, she's a movie star existing in a kind of airless void.
What filmmaking is shown is painfully dishonest. Harlow begins in the late silent era, yet one of the first shots of the movie shows rehearsals for a Busby Berkeley-type musical number, the kind of thing that didn't exist at all until around 1932. When Harlow begins appearing in silent comedies (she did three Laurel & Hardy shorts, and was an extra in Chaplin's City Lights) her co-stars are Mack Sennett-types (including a Keystone Cop) nearly a decade out of date.
All this might be excused as trifling little anachronisms, but Harlow is almost aggressively stupid. In the silent moviemaking scenes, for instance, the filmmakers use microphones on boom mikes and the cameras are heavily blimped (to make less noise). For some strange reason, Hollywood movies of the 1960s were unusually bad at recreating earlier 20th century America; even successful and critically lauded films like Inside Daisy Clover (1965) and Funny Girl (1967) are full of anachronisms. But Harlow takes this to a new level of distraction. The art direction is particularly garish, with ‘30s Hollywood glamour reimagined in swingin' sixties terms, a Playboy magazine perspective. Manley's bedroom, for instance, is a scream, complete with mirrored ceiling above the bed, a jungle diorama adjunct, complete with rainy season downpour, and fully automated His and Hers wardrobes. It's more appropriate to 1965 Matt Helm than 1930 Howard Hughes.
Worst is Neal Hefti's absurdly modern, jazzy score, which fits Harlow about as well as a hip-hop soundtrack would on a film about Thomas Edison.
The movie does no better depicting Harlow's personal life. It completely omits Harlow's first marriage to Charles McGrew in 1927, instead portraying her as a good virgin who "saved herself" for her wedding night only to discover (and later amusingly recounted by a horrified Harlow to her agent) that second husband Paul Bern is impotent. Bern's impotency was a popular theory behind his alleged suicide soon after. (The movie avoids alternate, equally plausible theories that Bern was murdered and that MGM pushed for a suicide ruling in order to protect Harlow.) Harlow's third marriage, to cinematographer Harold Rosson (The Wizard of Oz, The Asphalt Jungle) and more lasting engagement to actor William Powell are also completely omitted from John Michael Hayes's script, possibly for legal reasons. (Rosson and Powell were still very much alive in 1965.)
Embassy and Paramount reteamed for the similarly soapy Hollywood melodrama The Oscar the following year. But where that film is a laugh riot (and boy-oh-boy I do hope Olive releases that one), with star Stephen Boyd getting my vote for the Worst-Ever Leading Performance in a Major Motion Picture, Harlow is merely dull. Baker does her best but neither she nor anyone else has anything beyond cardboard to play. Red Buttons comes off best as Harlow's devoted friend and manager. At least his actions and performance display a modicum of reality missing from everything else.
Video & Audio
Filmed in 2.35:1 Panavision, Harlow looks very good though I did notice some strange, distracting artifacting along edges, particularly during sudden onscreen movements. The mono audio, English only with no subtitle options, is also fine. No Extra Features.
Phony as the anachronistic modern currency seen throughout the film, Harlow is a dull, inauthentic mess of a movie, a big disappointment considering its cast, though for various reasons some parties may still want to check it out. Rent It.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.