Hollywood on Hollywood on Harlow

Lola Burns (Jean Harlow) is the bombshell in Victor Fleming‘s pre-code comedy, Bombshell (1933).  Lola is an unspoiled, unsophisticated woman.  Sure, she lives a pampered life in a Beverly Hills mansion and is surrounded by adornments and assistants, but she’s as ordinary as the day is long.  Lola’s also a huge movie star at the top of her game, a movie star who’s having a banner year.  We can tell all that by the terrific montage that kicks off her story.  There are newspaper headlines, magazine covers, clips of the star in action, ads of products she endorses and fans – lots of fans daydreaming about their idol or about their dream woman – Lola Burns.

Bombshell Lola Burns
Bombshell Lola Burns

Despite her fame and fortune Lola Burns is sick to death of many things in her life.  First there’s the press who – in the person of E. J. “Space” Hanlon (Lee Tracy) – is on a constant quest to make up stories about her.  “It’s not what you like to read it’s what the public likes to read,” Hanlon tells Lola during one of their arguments.  The public be damned, however, because Lola longs for an ordinary life, to be perceived as a lady and not as the vamp she always plays on screen.  Lola usually doesn’t let her troubles get in the way of her work, however.  She is liked by everyone on the lot and we never see her having a temper tantrum at work.

Lola Burns has terrible taste in men, which is troublesome.  For instance, her love interests include divorced ex-lover Jim Brogan (Pat O’Brien) who she considers marrying.  There’s the Marquis de Binelli (Ivan Lebedeff), an international playboy-type who’s into Lola for money.  Then there’s snobbish Gifford Middleton (Franchot Tone) who woos Lola with the worst romantic dialogue in movie history.  As an aside – Tone is said to have hated the role and the words he had to speak and I don’t blame him.  Middleton says such doozies as, “Your hair is like a field of silver daisies. I’d like to run barefoot through your hair!” and “your mouth is like a gardenia open to the sun.”  Oh brother, where’s the shovel?!  Meanwhile poor Lola who’s desperate for love swoons under the Palm Springs moon at the attention, “Not even Norma Shearer or Helen Hayes in their nicest pictures were ever spoken to like that.”

Finally there’s Space Hanlon himself who is secretly in love with Lola.  She breaks down now and again and allows him to romance her, but his latest double cross always interferes.  In fact it’s Hanlon who thwarts all of Lola’s plans for a normal life – from destroying her chances of adopting a baby, to finding true love to perpetuating the fake on-screen persona she’s come to loathe.

Space with Lola in her dressing room
Space with Lola in her dressing room

Jean Harlow is in her element in Bombshell.  Tops at delivering rapid-fire lines at break-neck speed Harlow had unequaled sparring talent and the movie spotlights it at every turn.  I find the scenes during which Lola loses her cool the funniest because she spews insults like a truck driver while dressed to the nines in Adrian designs.  You gotta love the contrast and the fact she portrays both facets so seamlessly  – this is what makes Jean Harlow so enjoyable to watch.  Although Harlow brings some heart to the role of Lola Burns.  The scenes during which we see the Lola that is longing to be a mother or the Lola that is longing for love or even the Lola who defends her no good family – the quiet moments – are affecting and the reasons why my heart breaks a little each time I watch the movie.

Lee Tracy is also terrific as Hanlon.  He is as worthy a sparring partner as Harlow could ever have.  He plays the unscrupulous, unethical, one-man publicity machine to a hilt and makes Hanlon’s vile practices believable.  My only problem here is the number of times Hanlon shows up unexpectedly to harass Lola.  By a certain point I’ve had enough.  He constantly fools the good-hearted, trusting star whose occasional unbridled fury is unleashed thanks to the people who take advantage of her. One could only imagine what her life and career would have been like if she’d not been surrounded by leeches.  Speaking of leeches…

Living in the mansion in Beverly Hills with Lola are her alcoholic father Pops Burns (Frank Morgan), her gambling brother Junior Burns (Ted Healey) who brings along his girlfriend, Nellie (Isabel Jewell).  In addition you have the lot of required players who ensure a movie star stays looking like a movie star.  Oh…and…three Old English sheepdogs, two maids, a butler named Winters who replaced Summers and Lola’s assistant/secretary Mac (Una Merkel).  Everyone is out to use Lola Burns – with the exception of the Sheepdogs perhaps.  When Lola needs to use one of her cars someone else is using it.  Her father is adept at only two things – getting drunk and interfering in Lola’s career.  Her assistant can’t be bothered with assisting and on and on.  Only Loretta, the maid played by Louise Beavers, is honest about the situation and lets us all know up front that she thinks none of these people deserve the high horse they think they’re riding.

Pops Burns answers all of Lola's interview questions posed by the woman from Photoplay
When the woman from Photoplay interviews Lola it’s Pops Burns who answers the questions

Before she disappears into the Palm Springs desert Lola too lets the entire lot of money-grubbing blood-suckers have a piece of her mind in one of my favorite scenes in the movie, “I’m tired of being the golden goose.  Instead of a bombshell I’m a glorified chump.”  One wonders if Jean Harlow herself felt that way.

Lola and the leeches at her mansion's grand staircase
Lola and the leeches at her mansion’s grand staircase

Blonde bombshell Jean Harlow was an unspoiled, unsophisticated woman.  By all accounts Jean was as down-to Earth as they came.  To my knowledge not one story has ever been written indicating that Jean Harlow was a temperamental star.  “She was fun, unpretentious, and invariably thoughtful of other people.” (Eyman, Lion of Hollywood)  Harlow’s professional gift was her ability to take that salt-of-the-Earth quality and mix it with power, humor, sex and glamour.  Her “movie star” persona, which by most accounts mirrored her own, was made for the silver screen.  All these years after her untimely death at 26 and Harlow’s image still evokes the glamor of the golden age and in many ways epitomizes the era during which she was at the top.

Harlean Harlow Carpenter was born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1911.  She became “Jean Harlow” when she first stepped foot in a movie studio signing her mother’s name as her own.  Harlow’s mother, Jean, had dreams of becoming a movie star herself and some say forced the career on her daughter when the time came.  There’s little doubt that Mother Jean, as she was referred to, was Baby Jean’s biggest fan, but she was also a meddling mother who had no qualms about being supported by her daughter.  When Mama Jean married Marino Bello who I believe never worked a day in his life Baby Jean supported him too.  At the height of her popularity Jean Harlow was plagued by financial problems due in large part to her family.  According to Irving Shulman’s Harlow (1962) Jean’s salary alone maintained a housekeeping staff of about ten to accommodate her mother and step father.  Further, Mother Jean spent time each day writing to Jean’s agent and MGM brass with instructions about how to run her daughter’s career.

Aside from those familial problems Jean Harlow also had romance troubles.  She had three failed marriages by the time she was in her early twenties.  There’s no need to get into the gory details because the facts alone paint the picture of a woman who longed for love or safety or both.  Like Lola Burns perhaps.

There’s also no need to discuss Harlow’s entire filmography, but it’s worth mentioning that the speed with which she became a superstar is astounding.  Harlow had little more than walk-on roles in silent movies before she was noticed – albeit for displaying her body – in Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels (1930).  From there Harlow developed into a genuine comedian who could fling zingers like nobody’s business while becoming one of the greatest sex symbols the screen has ever seen.  By 1933 Jean Harlow was a superstar with that year promising to be a banner one.

Jean Harlow starred in three movies released in 1933.  Two of those were top ten box office with the third becoming a sensation in its own right.  One of those movies, George Cukor’s Dinner at Eight, went far in convincing people that Harlow could act.  She did much more in that picture than merely look pretty against the likes of Dressler and Barrymore.  1933 was also the year when Harlow’s hand and footprints were immortalized in cement in the courtyard of Grauman’s Chinese Theater.  That event took place the day before the premiere of Bombshell.

Harlow’s face was everywhere…there were newspaper headlines, magazine covers, clips of the star in action, ads of products she endorsed and fans – lots of fans who daydreamed about their idol or about their dream woman – Jean Harlow.

Bombshell is said to have been intended as a parody of Clara Bow’s life and career, but the parallels to Harlow’s life are undeniable.  The fact that Harlow essentially plays her “star” self in the movie makes this movie loom large in what was sadly an all-too-short career.  Add to that the fact that Bombshell can be seen as a precursor to such films as Sunset Blvd. (1950) and The Bad and the Beautiful for its behind-the-scenes look at Hollywood machinations.  That’s why I chose to spotlight this particular movie for this fall’s Hollywood on Hollywood blogathon hosted by the CMBA.

Bombshell is not a scathing indictment of the medium it portrays like Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. or Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd, but it manages a fairly accurate depiction of the dark underbelly of the star system in its glory days.  If you remove the outlandish from Bombshell you get to ugly truths about how the film industry owned lives.  It’s true, for instance, that publicity men and women could make or break careers and that they were often in cahoots with the studios.  It’s true that many stars were forced to act in the same kinds of movies over and over again because they made money.  It’s true that fame came with upsetting annoyances.  It’s true that the person often mattered less than the image.  It’s true that there were families that exploited and cheated stars and who lived off their fame.  All of that makes Bombshell a standout Hollywood on Hollywood movie, but in the end it’s not why we watch it.  We watch it because it exploits the Hollywood systems and players for maximum laughs.  And we watch it because it’s Hollywood on Hollywood on Harlow, a beloved star whose every on-screen performance we relish.

Visit the Classic Movie Blog Association to read about Hollywood on Hollywood, silver screen stories that hold a mirror on themselves.

jh

16 thoughts

  1. One of my favorite movies of the 1930’s and my favorite Harlow movie. When the fight breaks out in Lola’s house and Pops is yelling “This is Medieval!!” I’m done. The TCM Film Festival needs to show this one. It’s a riot!

    1. It’s terrific. I love the semi-whispered quips. You just can’t find people who can do dialogue like this today – or an audience to appreciate it. Except us. 🙂

  2. I love that we get to watch Jean become the fine actress she did by watching her filmography and, in many ways, we get the inside scoop on the darling girl with “Bombshell”. You very eloquently state why she is such a special star to so many to this very day. Jean’s way with a zinger is timeless. The first time I showed her to my daughter, she asked why there wasn’t anyone like her around today. She admitted there are lots of sarcastic comediennes, but no one with the style of Jean Harlow.

  3. Great post! This was spot on: “I find the scenes during which Lola loses her cool the funniest because she spews insults like a truck driver while dressed to the nines in Adrian designs. You gotta love the contrast and the fact she portrays both facets so seamlessly – this is what makes Jean Harlow so enjoyable to watch.” She was so great at melding those two sides. Loved the magazine covers and biographical stuff, too!

  4. One of my favorite Harlow performances and Lee Tracy too. Didn’t know that the film was intended as parody of Ms. Bow. Interesting. Great job!!!

  5. Did you notice that you repeated a whole paragraph? The paragraph under “Lola and the Leeches” is the same as the one under “Space and Lola.” That wasn’t intentional, was it?

  6. Love this film – I think this is Harlow’s best. You have to feel sorry for poor Lola, but, hey, it’s not everybody whose hair is described as a field of silver daisies! Her family is a hoot, Perfect write up and choice for the blogathon.

  7. Harlow fascinates me, and I enjoy watching her in many of her films. I enjoyed your profile of this one, as it’s one I haven’t yet seen. Lee Tracy is quite fun, too, but as you implied, a little of him goes a long way! I do look forward to seeing it soon.

  8. “Bombshell” is probably my favorite Harlow movie. You did the film justice with a wonderfully engaging and entertaining piece. I love your writing.My post could use a shot of Aurora! 🙂

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