Previously in films, the vamp usually had dark hair, while the "good" girl was blonde, but Jean Harlow added a new dimension: her platinum blonde hair was so unique and (for the 1930s) her gowns so low-cut that the expression "blonde bombshell" was coined to describe her. Born Harlean Carpenter in Kansas City, Missouri, on March 3, 1911 to a middle-class family, she ran away from home to get married at 16. After the marriage failed, she went to Hollywood and worked as an extra, eventually winning a small part in Moran of the Marines (1928). Other tiny roles followed, most notably in The Love Parade (1929).
Nothing came of her work until Howard Hughes got a glimpse of her. Hughes wanted her for Hell's Angels (1930). The film was a big hit, partly because of the remarkable aerial display in the movie and partly because Harlow was so sexy. Hughes had her under a long-term contract and proceeded to loan her to other studios for lead roles, notably to Warner Bros. for Public Enemy (1931) opposite James Cagney. She was also loaned to Columbia, where she starred in Frank Capra's Platinum Blonde (1931), a movie clearly titled to best take advantage of her peculiar hair color.
Hughes finally sold her contract to MGM for $60,000. She appeared in two MGM films (Three Wise Girls and Beast of the City) in 1932 without causing musch of a ripple until Red Dust (1932) with Clark Gable. The two stars ignited sexual fires, making the rather daring movie a blockbuster hit. Harlow and Gable were a hot team; they were paired together a total of five times in just six years, and all of their films drew big crowds. After Red Dust, Harlow was the Hollywood sex goddess, and, as such, she was a perfect foil for the purposefully stuffy cast in MGM's all-star film Dinner at Eight (1933), just as she was the perfect victim in the aptly titled Bombshell (1933).
She could play tough (Riff Raff, 1935) or she could play funny (Suzy, 1936). But no matter what she played, the slinky star had one hit after another. There was no reason to believe she might not have and extremely long career. Tragedy struck, however, when harlow was only 26 years old. She had been filming Saratoga (1937) when she fell ill and then suddenly died of kidney disease on June 7, 1937. The movie was finished with a double and went on to become a great hit precisely because it was the sexy star's last movie.
--SCOTT & BARBARA SIEGEL, from
The Encyclopedia of Hollywood.
A selection of Jean Harlow films.
Find Jean Harlow on eBay.com
A selection of Jean Harlow in books.
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