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Old Hollywood never worried about factual accuracy in screen biographies of entertainers, as can be seen in the sanitized, fraudulent accounts of the lives of songwriters like Cole Porter and Lorenz Hart. When the movie town turned its cameras on itself, any resemblance to known celebrities was purely coincidental. It wasn't until the 1950s that fans questioned the biographical distortions in movies about Lon Chaney, as portrayed by James Cagney (The Man of a Thousand Faces) and Buster Keaton, impersonated by Donald O'Connor (The Buster Keaton Story).
A movie that takes a wrong turn at almost every opportunity is producer Joseph E. Levine's 1965 Harlow, directed by Gordon Douglas. Sizzling sex symbol Carroll Baker is a reasonably good physical fit for Jean Harlow, MGM's blonde bombshell of the early 1930s. Harlow created a new style in sexuality that went far beyond the image of a particular screen siren -- the girl with the natural figure (no underwear) became a new feminine ideal. Ms. Baker approximates Harlow's looks, but not her personality. The real-life actress was reportedly fun loving and made friends easily, while the Harlow in John Michael Hayes' screenplay is unhappy and isolated. Levine's Harlow now seems not a study of the famous Platinum Blonde, but a reaction to the untimely death of Marilyn Monroe. In 1965 Harlow had been gone for thirty years and was no longer part of the current culture.
The biopic misrepresents many basic facts about Jean Harlow's life, reducing an interesting personality to a single pat irony: the sweet innocent who embodies sensual passion but is frustrated in her love life. The movie opens a year or so after Jean Harlow has become a working actress, skipping her first marriage and seemingly pretending that she's still a virgin. Mama Jean (Angela Lansbury) and Jean's stepfather Marino Bello (Raf Vallone) are presented as leeches living on the actress's meager paychecks. The real Mama Jean was a positive help at this stage of her daughter's career.
The movie ignores important people in Harlow's life: Howard Hughes, Clark Gable and William Powell do not appear. No mention is made of Jean's landmark films Hell's Angels, The Public Enemy or Red Dust. In their place is a simplified, generic rags to riches story. Jean is helped by the loyal, ambitious agent Arthur Landau (Red Buttons). When the playboy producer Richard Manley (Leslie Nielsen) expects her to hop into his bed, Jean walks out on him. Her popularity enhanced by public appearance tours, Harlow signs with "Majestic" pictures. Mogul Everett Redman (Martin Balsam) corresponds to MGM's Louis B. Mayer, but the only other major personality using a real name is producer Paul Bern (Peter Lawford). Proud that she's never been to the casting couch and eager to become a 'real woman', Jean expresses her desire to marry. She chooses Paul Bern over handsome actor Jack Harrison (Mike Connors), only to discover on her wedding night that Bern has cruelly hidden from her the fact that he's completely impotent. Jean is furious. When Bern commits suicide, she goes off the deep end, drinking and sleeping around promiscuously.
The movie invents a wholly false version of Harlow's tragic death at age 26. Moreover, the real Jean Harlow was not known to be promiscuous and was engaged to actor William Powell when she was struck down by renal failure, a then-untreatable condition unrelated to her lifestyle. The film tells us that Harlow 'gave love away but never found any for herself' but reduces this equation to the cheapest sexual terms. In a scene offensive to Harlow's memory, the drunken actress tries to seduce her own stepfather.
Joseph E. Levine's string of exploitative 1960s dramas began with The Carpetbaggers, a quasi-biography of Howard Hughes that's a better-made tale of sin and glamour. Carroll Baker plays a much wilder role, as "Jonas Cord's" tormented wife. Compared to that film Harlow looks cheap. These were the days before Bonnie & Clyde made audiences aware of period accuracy in movies, and Harlow is a parade of glaring anachronisms, from Edith Head's costumes to hairstyles to simple details of all kinds. We see a long-playing phonograph twenty years too soon, and the 1920s studio buildings are outfitted with small window air-conditioners. Composer Neal Hefti contributes a jazzy, bouncy modern soundtrack that could easily fit into a 60s TV sitcom. It rings false in every scene. In her public appearances, some of Jean Harlow's dance moves resemble Chubby Checker's The Twist.
The movie makes no note of the transition between silent and sound films. Jean was so arresting in person that she didn't have to struggle to get the attention of the studios. On casual visits to Hollywood lots she was spotted more than once by enthusiastic executives. Jean is shown acting almost exclusively in Mack Sennett slapstick comedies, and she indeed did play bit parts in several Laurel & Hardy short subjects. Once she hits the big time we see Harlow posing for many glamour photos -- cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg's best work in the otherwise visually undistinguished film -- but no scenes show her working on a sound stage. We instead see Jean in her studio bungalow dressing room, with its very modern-looking kitchen. Perhaps the most inappropriate set is the bedroom in Leslie Nielsen's swank bachelor pad. Doors, curtains, lights, a fountain and a fake rain forest are all cued by remote control. Devoid of a single element that belongs in the late 1920s, the love nest seems more suitable for Hugh Hefner, or a superspy like Matt Helm or Derek Flint.
Screenwriter John Michael Hayes penned a string of Alfred Hitchcock's big 1950s hits, starting with Rear Window. This script ignores proper character development to concentrate on its theme of "the good girl cheated out of a sex life". Carroll Baker hasn't Harlow's soft, rounded face but certainly looks glamorous enough; and she certainly communicates the star's frustration. Red Buttons transcends his cliché role as the trustworthy agent, and Martin Balsam displays some gravity as the Mayer substitute. Almost everyone else makes little impact or seems to have wandered in from a TV movie. Mike Connors isn't charismatic enough to be a big star, while Peter Lawford's attempt to play a man with no sex function is woefully underdeveloped. Angela Lansbury and Raf Vallone contribute professional performances. Their parasitic characters never really change, but the movie eventually decides that they're benign influences anyway.
Competent director Gordon Douglas keeps the performance levels well matched but can do little with the thin, exploitative script. The main titles play over an extended montage of dress extras arriving on the lot and picking up their costumes, a drab sequence that pales before a similar one in Josef von Sternberg's The Last Command from 1927. The scenes are identical for content but couldn't be more different in execution. Further destroying any hint of period flavor, the end credits play over a ballad sung by 60s singer Bobby Vinton. Harlow was 'not recommended for children', but I can imagine that many adults exited theaters in confusion. Who is this Jean Harlow? Did she just pass away? Was she on Ed Sullivan last year?
Licensed from Paramount, Olive Films' DVD of Harlow is a good enhanced transfer with attractive colors and a clear soundtrack. Only a few viewers will be aware that a competing feature film also titled Harlow was released in the same year. Starring Carol Lynley, Efrem Zimbalist Jr. and Ginger Rogers, it was an early attempt to convert videotape to 35mm film in a process called "Electronovision". It didn't receive wide distribution.
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T'was Ever Thus.