Harlow, Jean, Picture of a Beauty Queen – Andrew Cobby Writes
Andrew is the Grand Sheik of Billingham’s ‘You’re Darn Tootin’ tent, a valued member of the Beau Chumps tent and a regular and very accomplished contributor to our website. In his latest item, just after what would have been Jean Harlow’s 110th birthday Andrew takes a humorous and yet poignant looks at her connections with Stan and Ollie and her short life.
Links to each of the films Harlow appears in are highlighted, as well as several others. Please click on the title to be taken to our page As is my privilege as editor of this piece, I punctuate it with several pics of this beautiful but tragic lady with images splendidly coloured by Paul Mitchell. While we are on record as not being keen on the ‘Colorized’ films, some of the coloured stills that are emerging are stunning. MJ
Harlow, a biopic of Jean Harlow was shown recently on Talking Pictures in the UK. If you missed it don’t worry because you can be sure that they’ll be showing it again. And again. And again.
The film is directed by Gordon Douglas who was also responsible for Saps at Sea. He appears to have been a familiar face on the Hal Roach lot because he was in charge of some of the Our Gang series and was the assistant director for Babes in Toyland.
Harlow is a long old film, coming in at just over two hours. Ms Harlow died in 1937 at the age of 26 so, if she had been lucky enough to live out her ‘three score years and ten’, we could have been looking at a film the length of several Gone with the Winds.
Brevity is the soul of wit but it’s also the soul of Jean’s appearances with the boys. In Laurel and Hardy, as in life, she was here for a good time not a long time. Some may not have seen Jean with the boys as three of the films are silents. I never used to bother with their silent films but I have watched most of them over the last year or so and I can see that I’ve been missing out on a lot. (You can say that again! MJ)
If you are similarly averse to silent films you could do worse than start with those which feature Jean. Double Whoopee (above) has Stan and Ollie as hotel footman and doorman. Their garb is unfamiliar but the relationship between the two is instantly recognisable and there’s a joke with the hotel register that was reworked in Any Old Port. Ms Harlow is not essential to the plot but her fleeting presence, as a ‘Swanky Blonde’ according to IMDB, is one of the highlights. Jean ends up wearing half a dress but, relax, it’s all done in the best possible taste.
Sartorial issues also abound in Liberty but this time it’s the boys wearing each other’s trousers – and trying to restore each pair to its rightful owner. Don’t worry, it’s a lot funnier than I’ve made it sound and it ends with one of the best elevator gags you’ll ever see. Jean appears about four minutes in, as a smartly-dressed woman in a fox fur waiting to get into the taxi in which the boys are trying to get organised…
In the impressive Bacon Grabbers, Jean is Edgar Kennedy‘s wife who brings him the heart-breaking news that she has just paid for the radio that has recently been destroyed by a passing steamroller. Good old Edgar used to be a boxer before hitting Hollywood. I think he’d be the first to admit that he was punching well above his weight when he managed to get Jean for a life partner. I know opposites attract but they seem an odd couple. Perhaps I’m being naïve here, but I always wonder what they found to talk about. Anyway, Jean looks lovely.
Following her ‘blink and you’ll miss it in a framed photograph in Brats, Harlow’s final ‘appearance’ with the boys was as Jeanie Weenie in Beau Chumps or, if you’re American, Beau Hunks. You don’t have to appear in person to be memorable – just a photograph will do. Twice. It leads to a great joke as well when the leader of the Riff Raffs, Abul Kasim K’Horne (‘in person’) reveals himself to be as enamoured of Jeanie as everyone else is. ‘To my Sheikie Weekie from Jeanie Weenie’ has to be one of the sweetest inscriptions ever to break Ollie’s heart. Glitzy, ditzy Jeanie-Weenie, Ollie thinks that you’re a meanie.
Hal Roach declared this short to be his favourite because Jean Harlow appeared in it for nothing. This is a typically cynical quote from Mr Roach but, from what I’ve read, Ms Harlow was well-liked in the film world so I think her appearance could also be an indication of the affection in which she was held.
Just in passing, I’ve always thought that combining both titles of this film produces pleasing results – anyone for Beau Chunks or Beau Humps? (well, we won’t go into that! MJ)
Speaking of titles, Harlow is such a dreary one, isn’t it? ‘The Life and Times of Jeanie Weenie’ would have been much better.
Jean is played by Carroll Baker in this biopic. I am not familiar with Ms Baker’s work but she seems pleasant enough.
It’s hard to imagine that Ms Harlow would have only been in her late teens when she appeared with the boys. Perhaps she had her pushy mother to thank for this. I don’t know if she really was pushy but this seems to be a common theme when it comes to young starlets.
The mother is played by Angela Lansbury, despite Ms Lansbury being only six years older than Carroll Baker. She suffered a similar fate in Blue Hawaii, in which she played Elvis’s mother, but the age gap in Honolulu was a slightly more respectable nine and a bit years. Rock-a-hula baby, where d’ya get those eyes?
The mother comes with that other staple character; the wastrel stepfather, eager to exploit young Jean for all she’s worth. In the end he doesn’t turn out to be all that bad – yes, he’s happy to spend her money but he doesn’t wish to take advantage of her in that way.
The same can’t be said of sleazy film producer Paul Manley. Don’t worry if you haven’t heard of Mr Manley because he didn’t exist. From what I can gather, very few real-life characters found their way into the script. Stan and Ollie don’t feature but then neither do frequent co-star Clark Gable or the love of her life William Powell.
Jean doesn’t need Mr Manley’s questionable help anyway because she has her trusty agent Arthur Landau by her side. Played by the splendidly-named Red Buttons, Landau comes across as caring, earnest and just a little too good to be true. But that might be just me.
I know actors are actors and that we should expect them to play all sorts of different roles but Mr Manley is played by Leslie Neilsen, aka Frank Drebin of Police Squad! and Naked Gun fame. Because of this I can’t really accept Mr Neilsen as a serious actor. Whenever he was on-screen, I was always expecting to hear a whoopie cushion followed by some crude quick-fire gags. Let’s just say that, for this reason, his attempted seduction of Jean isn’t the most convincing scene in the film. Impressive pad, though.
The film is set in the interwar years but the cars suggest the 1940s, the bright Technicolor gives it a 1950s feel, the soundtrack at the end is sung by early 1960s crooner Bobby Vinton and the graphics at one stage resemble the credits for the Batman TV series. There is a scene near the start of the film, presumably in the 1920s, where Jean is lining up with other hopefuls for work at the studio and all the young ladies seem to be wearing clothes from a later period. Anyone who has seen me walking the dog will tell you that I am no fashion guru so I could well be wrong on this last point.
Probably the most persuasive scene in the film occurs when Jean is reduced to tears after giving a particularly poor performance. Her mother consoles her with the words “But the dresses were beautiful”. If you view Harlow with this advice in mind, you can’t go too far wrong. Forget about whether it’s accurate or not and concentrate on the beautiful costumes (gowns designed by Edith Head, no less), the fancy cars and the opulent sets.
Of course, we all know how it ends. This gives Angela Lansbury the chance to produce some top-drawer emoting as Jean expires in a hospital bed. Ms Lansbury deserved her Damehood for this scene alone.
Wikipedia gives the cause of death as kidney failure. In the final scene, her agent Arthur Landau puts it less realistically: “She died of life. She gave it all to everyone else and there wasn’t enough left for her.” Mr Landau is one of the few real-life characters in the film but whether he ever said anything as hokey as this is debatable.
The years haven’t been kind to poor Jean. She seems to have been replaced as everyone’s favourite blonde bombshell by Marilyn Monroe and, in the UK at least, her films are rarely shown on TV. I have to confess that I haven’t seen a film of hers that doesn’t feature Stan and Ollie.
Ms Monroe seems to have mastered the trick of becoming timeless which is something Jean Harlow couldn’t manage. It’s as if Monroe is in Technicolor while Jean is in black and white.
But, in spite of this, it’s still a Laurel and Hardy world and I like to view Jean as an important part of it. Marilyn Monroe may be for all time but was she able to make Edgar Kennedy pinch himself at having such a lovely wife in Bacon Grabbers? Or prompt Ollie to sing of her as the ideal of his dreams? Or drive regiments of lovelorn men into the arms of the Foreign Legion? No, beautiful as she was, Ms Monroe couldn’t do any of these things – but Jeanie Weenie could.
Our thanks to Andrew for another incisive article: Beau Humps indeed! In case you thought we’d forgotten, here’s the moment Ms Harlow surprised Stan.
We hope you enjoyed Andrew’s thoughts on the lovely Ms. Harlow. If you have any thoughts or questions please leave them in the box below; We’d love to hear from you and your remarks will receive a response on this page.