Jean Harlow was a star for the age she lived in. She often seems compartmentalized by the early thirties. Her brief life embodied the Hollywood myth of meteoric rise – was it talent or studio grooming? Jean was one of the few whom could be identified by last name and you knew who you were talking about or going to see.
We can look up the archives of major studios seeking memos, script revisions, publicity photos, preview cards and piece together a story of a life and career. You can instead let the actor’s work speak though the surviving films we have. Jean Harlow was a personality that grew as she made films, climaxing in a superb performance in her last completed film PERSONAL PROPERTY (1937).
Many people point to DINNER AT EIGHT (1933) as a Harlow showcase, it does offer solid moments with Wallace Beery such as calling him “an old gas bag,” it was not a lead role. Studios (or rather production companies) do much the same as they have done for years – put two stars together for box office impact. HELL ANGELS (1930), PLATINUIM BLONDE (1931) , RED DUST (1932), RED HEADED WOMAN (1932), the mercurial BLONDE BOMBSHELL (1933), and LIBLED LADY(1936) are all accepted as Jean Harlow’s zenith. THE GIRL FROM MISSOURI (1934), and SUZY (1936) are other works for consideration that are off some people’s radar yet the performances are rich and understated.
WIFE VS SECRETARY (1936) is also another accomplished work as Jean goes toe to toe with Clark Gable as his “save the day” secretary. PERSONAL PROPERTY (1937) turned out to be her epitaph, stands out as a more complete film.
One site I looked at when researching this picture called it Jean Harlow’s penultimate appearance with Robert Taylor. The picture was directed by W.S (Woody) Van Dyke who was one of the work horse directors of Hollywood famous for his reluctance to do more than one take on a scene. You wonder how much of that was image as PERSONAL PROPERTY features some wonderful exchanges, no doubt to the actors on the firing line. Robert Taylor has never looked more dapper and unflappable in his moments early on with Harlow as they trade barbs and stories. Reginald Owen is a rock steady voice of reason to Taylor’s character as the deception begins in this society comedy. Una O’Connor, forever doomed to play maids and dressers, is her usual ‘heart of gold’ personality.
Jean Harlow never looked more vulnerable yet sure of herself on the screen then in this subtle, slightly screwball performance. She glides through the scenes with a purpose remaining in character of a woman who is putting on the ritz while hiding a secret.
The real backstory is interesting. After this picture was complete, both Taylor and Harlow left by train to do the publicity tour carrying with them only the clothes used in the movie. It was after her return from this trip that Jean began her decline into what would lead to her death. There is evidence in the film itself of this as there is a moment in a fireplace scene with Taylor when she turns her back, walks towards the fireplace and coughs. This was not something that happened before to the character and ‘One Take’ Woody Van Dyke left it in the finished print.
When Jean Harlow died in 1937, Louis B Mayer allowed the studio to stop work for silence in her memory. Rumours of the cause of her death ran the gamut from the effect of her hair dye (actual bleach) to kidney failure. Kidney dialysis treatment was years in the future so it is possible. One source said that it was a misdiagnosis by the original doctor involved which was kept silent by the physician who was called in for a second opinion out of ‘professional courtesy.’ The doctor was reported to have made a deathbed confession.
The other possibility that looms was that it was a botched medical procedure; a euphemism for abortion. Many were done unfortunately in the dark alley clinic, or in a proper hospital under a false reason such as exhaustion and kept silent for fear of the studio system’s moral indictment. Joan Blondell was said to have had at least seven such procedures in her life.
Many actors grew to fame playing themselves throughout their careers; however, Harlow was different. The directors she worked with must also be given credit despite some of the material she and other actors were given. The woman that everyone called “The Baby” left a vulnerable legacy that can be viewed when you catch PERSONAL PROPERTY (1937) which makes her moments in her last official film SARATOGA (1937) all the more sad.
For those that do not know Jean passed away before the pictures completion which is evident as a “Double” was used particularly in later scenes at racetrack. Harlow was very ill during the filming as one can see in her face. She is also framed differently to hide some effects of tbe uremic poisoning that would take her life. The difference is clear for all to see.
Jean Harlow could have gone on to be one of the screens best screwball comedians as she had a flair for whitty fast dialogue similar to Carole Lombard. I believe she would have been equally at home in dramatic roles such as those made famous by Canadian Norma Shearer.
Check out many of the biographies on Jean which are available with a grain of salt. Some tend to put emphasis on her relationship with her mother and the mystery of one time husband Paul Bern’s death but little is said about her fans which loved her. I suggest that fan connection came not all from the glamour but from underneath all of that was a vulnerable, everyday person you could relate to.