Harlean Carpenter, later christened and groomed for stardom as "Jean Harlow", wasn’t the silver screen’s first goddess of wanton carnal desire, nor would she be the last. Even sixty-plus years after her career was cut short and the curtains of screen "decency" were permanently pegged back, however, she still remains one of its most brazen. While the era’s other good-girl-gone-irrevocably-bad Mae West flaunted her sexuality for innuendo-laden laughs, Harlow’s persona took the promise of libidinous fulfillment seriously even in her later comic roles. Worshipped in darkened theatres thanks to her frankness, she managed to embody both the Madonna and the whore masks simultaneously, a feat no actress has so successfully accomplished before or since. Watching the starlet’s blatant come-hither stares and voluptuous curves readily on display still seems shocking even in today’s permissive environment.
The woman who set the standard for female sex symbols gets the Golden Age bio treatment in Harlow: The Blonde Bombshell, a quickie look at the movie star’s short and rather unhappy life. All the basic facts are touched upon: married and divorced by age eighteen, posing nude and acting in features by nineteen, a screen goddess by twenty, an icon and widow by twenty-three, dead by twenty-six. Naturally, the emphasis is on stardom and glamour over actual biography here. Luckily for us Harlow-ites who want a bit more, there’s also a sizable amount of the platinum blonde’s work to flesh out the superficial portraiture.
The clips of her screen output remind us why she’s still considered a libertine, and a movie star, even today. The scenes from her first big success, Hell’s Angels (1930), and her later vehicle Red-Headed Woman (1932) find the actress bumping, grinding, lifting her skirt, and enjoying a slap across the face a tad too much; she was asking boys to come up and see her sometime without need to utter a word. Her body language suggests pleasure ’round every curve and corner, even when she entered her "clean" phase with The Girl from Missouri (1934). Her work with Gable in films like Red Dust (1932) and Hold Your Man (1933) comes off like a primal mating ritual, with Gable’s swarthy earthiness the perfect match for Harlow’s hussy. The snippets also demonstrate her maturity as an actress and comedienne as well, with the later clips finding her as comfortable with a comic pause or dramatic line as she is with her physique. You get the feeling her best work was still ahead of her.
The documentary shines when it let’s the screen goddess herself do the talking. Being that The Blonde Bombshell is a Hollywood-ized look at Harlow that’s aimed squarely at classic film fanatics and collectors of movie memorabilia, one shouldn’t expect a deep exploration of the actress’s life. The Freudian aspects of Jean’s mother pimping her out to Hollywood, the toll her public persona took on her private life, the psychological effects of being the woman everyone wanted while remaining locked in a tumultuous love life…these aspects are grazed over, but never fully examined. It may have seemed like potentially good synergy to have fellow misunderstood blonde Sharon Stone narrate, though it seems no one took into account her preference for being perpetually stuck in first gear. Cliche-riden lines like "In 1929, the talkies were becoming a sensation!" or "Here was a bold new actress who captured audiences sent reeling by the stock market crash!" sound positively dead-on-arrival thanks to Stone’s wooden delivery. Turner documentaries have run the gamut from penetrating profiles of the bygone era (see their When The Lion Roars series on MGM for a prime example) to pleasantly superficial biographies, but with a complex subject like Harlow in their crosshairs, you’d hope for a bit more than a second-rate actress reading third-rate platitudes off a teleprompter.
Still, The Blonde Bombshell is a decent enough orientation to Jean Harlow’s brief and tragic life, and as the documentary is kicking off a month-long tribute to the actress, it’s as good a start as any. It ought to satisfy those who just want to find out more about a true Hollywood legend or who need an introductory course in screen sassiness…say, Jean Harlow 101, the beginner’s class. Those who are looking for intermediate to advanced Harlowism, however, are advised to just skip straight to the films.
– David Fear