When screen legend Jean Harlow died more than three quarters of a century ago, she was just 26 years old and one of the most popular actors in Hollywood. We take a look back over the short but amazing career of the original platinum blonde.
Jean Harlow (Wikimedia Commons/MGM Studios)
Born Harlean Harlow Carpenter, Jean Harlow grew up in an upper middle-class family in Kansas City, Missouri. Her father was a dentist, her mother the daughter of a wealthy realtor. Mother Jean, however, was dissatisfied in the marriage, and filed for divorce when Harlow was 11 years old.
Her mother hoped to be an actress, and she moved with little Harlean to Hollywood. There Harlean met future luminaries Douglas Fairbanks and Joel McCrea, while attending school with the likes of Louis B. Mayer’s daughter. But there were few prospects for breaking into the movie business for a 34-year-old mother. After two years of failed attempts, and under threat of being disinherited by her father, Mother Jean left Hollywood and relocated with Harlean to Lake Forest, Illinois. Hollywood wasn’t done with young Harlean, however – and Harlean wasn’t done with Hollywood. At 16, she eloped with Charles McGrew, a wealthy 23-year-old heir and businessman, and moved to Beverly Hills.
Her entrance into the movie business is the stuff of classic Hollywood legend. Harlean was friends with an aspiring actress named Rosalie Roy. Roy had scheduled an audition at Central Casting but didn’t have a car, so Harlean offered to drive her. While waiting for her friend to finish, Harlean was spotted by a Fox executive, who asked if she wanted to be in pictures. She told him she wasn’t interested. But after some prodding from Roy – and her mother – she decided to give acting a try. For her screen name, she chose her mother’s maiden name – Jean Harlow.
A steady slew of jobs as an uncredited extra followed. Soon, she graduated to bit 'speaking' roles, appearing in silents like Moran of the Marines and The Unkissed Man. Hal Roach signed her to a five-year contract at $100 a week, but graciously ended it when Harlow complained acting was ruining her marriage.
But it was too late to save the marriage. She and Charles McGrew separated in 1929, allowing Harlow to continue working under a contract with Howard Hughes’ RKO Pictures. Hughes was re-shooting his film Hell’s Angels to take advantage of new sound technology and found himself suddenly needing to replace Greta Nissen, whose thick Norwegian accent was less than ideal for the talkies era. And so 18-year-old Harlow got her big break in a leading role.
Production did not go smoothly, with director James Whale having to shut down for three days to work with Harlow on her role and producer Hughes spending months tinkering with aerial combat scenes. The film was a big hit upon release, though Harlow didn’t receive especially kind reviews. Variety wryly commented, “It doesn't matter what degree of talent she possesses ... nobody ever starved possessing what she's got.” Fans around the country didn’t care what the critics thought, and began emulating Harlow’s hairstyle and manner. For 1931’s Platinum Blonde – a term reputedly coined by a Hughes publicist – the studio sponsored a nationwide contest with a prize of $10,000 to any hairdresser who could match Harlow’s shade.
Harlow starred in a few more successful films (notably opposite James Cagney in The Public Enemy) before Hughes sold her contract to MGM for $60,000. What seemed an unlikely match proved to be another turning point in her career. MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer wasn’t fond of Harlow – he preferred MGM actresses to project a wholesome, All-American image and Harlow’s persona was anything but. However, at the urging of producer Paul Bern – who, though 22 years her senior, would become Harlow’s second husband – Mayer relented, bringing her to MGM on her 21st birthday.
At MGM she discovered a hitherto latent comedic talent and was paired with classic leading men like Spencer Tracy and William Powell. Her onscreen partnership with Clark Gable lasted six films, and yielded classics like Red Dust and Hold Your Man. She became a bona fide superstar, with her salary increasing tenfold.
But while her career was at its apex, her personal life began to unravel. Her second husband committed suicide while Harlow was shooting Red Dust, just months into their marriage and days after Bern had introduced Harlow to his former common-law wife, Dorothy Millet. Millet would die the next day, drowning after leaping from a ship bound for Sacramento.
The circumstances were mysterious to say the least, and the ensuing scandal threatened to derail Harlow’s career, but MGM kept her out of the spotlight until the storm had passed. They would later have to intervene when Harlow began an affair with a married man, boxer Max Baer. Fearing her career couldn’t survive another scandal, they arranged for her to be hastily married to cinematographer Harold Rosson. The union was dissolved seven months later. She was also engaged at one point to actor William Powell, but they never married because he reportedly didn’t want children and Louis B. Mayer was opposed to the union.
Harlow's health began suffering as well. During the filming of Saratoga, she began complaining of nausea and fatigue. She was sent home from the set and her doctor was called back from vacation to attend to her. Believing she was suffering from a gall bladder infection or the flu, it was only when Harlow fell into a deep sleep and started experiencing respiratory problems that he realized it was something much more serious. By then, it was too late. Jean Harlow died of cerebral edema caused by kidney failure on June 7, 1937. She was just 26 years old.
Her death at such a young age shocked Hollywood and the movie-going public. Because of her reputation, rumors swirled – it was said she’d died of a botched abortion, from a venereal disease, of alcoholism, and, most ridiculously of all, from toxins in her hair dye. But however sensational Jean Harlow may have been life, the manner of her death was not. Even had doctors diagnosed kidney failure sooner, not much could have been done with antibiotics, dialysis or organ transplants still many years in the future.
Whatever fans may have believed about her death, they still wanted to see their favorite star on screen one last time and audiences flocked to Saratoga to get one last glimpse. And like so many who came after – from Marilyn Monroe to Jayne Mansfield – Harlow’s larger than life presence, blond ambition, and sudden early death have helped ensure her iconic place in pop culture memory.