Saturday, December 4, 2010

In Which I Finally See Jean Harlow On A Big Screen

I've been a Jean Harlow fan since I was a kid but I'd never seen her on a big screen until last night.

The AFI Silver Theatre is presenting a series on director Victor Fleming and I wanted to see (again) Red Dust (1932) and Bombshell (1933).

As the later film is one of my favorite films of all time, it was only natural that I hoof it over there after work.

Additionally, author Michael Sragow was going to be presenting the film. Sragow is the author of a new book on Victor Fleming.

Fleming also directed my grandfather's favorite film of all time -- Treasure Island (1934) -- and that is showing in a few weeks at the AFI Silver as well.

Red Dust (1932)

Fellow blogger and film fan YTSL is a big advocate of seeing a film in the theater and I tend to be the sort of guy who would prefer to wait for the DVD as I get annoyed/distracted by the other viewers in a theater.

Frankly, going to the theater in America is more and more an unpleasant exercise: people talk on cell phones, the prints look like crap even on the first day of a film's release, there are kids running amok, and so on.

That said, seeing Red Dust on a big screen, in a nice theater with an older audience, was a great experience.

Much has been written about Red Dust (1932) so I'll not recount the plot. It's a lively picture when Harlow is on the screen and a dead one when she's not.

I mean, really: who can believe the puppy dog eyes that Gable makes at Mary Astor when she shows up in the film? Is it simply a story of sexual power -- the fact that she's a nice girl -- that makes her such a prize to him?

Jean Harlow sashays -- there's no other word to use -- into the film like Mae West but a Mae West that you'd actually want to sleep with (I think I stole that line) and Gable seems a bit bored with her. She's playing the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold but, since the real actress was a sex symbol with a heart of gold, it's not much of a stretch.

Harlow -- even nearly 80 (!) years later -- is so ridiculously sexy here that I felt myself blushing a bit as I sat in a theater with a bunch of men and women old enough to be my grandparents.

(Of course, it was my grandfather that got me hooked on Harlow thanks to a TV showing of Dinner at Eight (1933) when I was a kid, but that's another story...)

Bombshell (1933)

I can remember where I was when I first watched Bombshell (1933): I was 12 and the title caught my eye in the TV guide. Actually, the version I saw was titled Blonde Bombshell and it was shown some spring afternoon in New Orleans.

I knew who Harlow was but I had probably only seen Dinner at Eight (1933) at the time.

That opening montage is pretty good as it sets up the Lola Burns character which is clearly modelled on the real Harlow (as well as Clara Bow, according to various sources).

But the moment when Harlow wakes up -- roused by the wonderful Louise Beavers -- and runs her fingers through that platinum hair is one burned forever in my memory.

It's really hard for me to write about how much of an impression Jean's performance in this film made on me as a kid. I feel like I'm 12 years old every time I watch this film.

Is that a bad thing?

Bombshell (1933) is a comedy but a cruel one. The satire is as much at the expense of Hollywood as it is at Jean's real life. The shots feel cheap sometimes -- as if it was just too easy to take the tawdry aspects of Jean's life and turn them into the bits and pieces of another film that exploited her starpower -- another film that also comments on the whole idea of exploiting starlets in the first place!

Still, Jean, like Lola Burns, isn't a dumb blonde -- that's something Marilyn would have to invent a few decades later -- and she's not having it.

Say what you want about the strengths and successes of Bombshell (1932), but, for me, it contains Jean Harlow's finest moments on film and provides her with enough opportunities to show her acting range to count as her best film in many ways.

And the moment where she puts her foot down -- flipping her golden hair all the while -- remains one of my favorite film moments ever -- right up there with William Holden's farewell speech in Stalag 17 (1953).

Unlike Red Dust (1932), the print of Bombshell (1933) that I saw at the AFI yesterday looked like crap! In fact, my favorite scene in the film -- which, by extension, is one of my favorite film scenes EVER! -- had a big splice right in the middle of Jean's rave-out!


Here's that clip without the splice right in the middle of it.