Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Jean Harlow Collection: Bombshell (1933)

Even though I've been trying to save money lately, I had to splurge when I saw this.

The Jean Harlow Collection was put out as part of the Warner Archive Collection and I got mine there with free shipping for $49.99 or so.

( has it cheaper now so check out that first link.)

It's oddly labelled 100th Anniversary or something. Jean's 100th birthday would have been March 3, 2011 so, yeah, it's a bit late.

Still, with 7 films in this set making their debut on DVD, could this fan not buy this? Have you seen this blog's header?

The 7 films come in normal DVD cases and the set also includes 7 Harlow glamour stills in an envelope.

I had to start with Bombshell (1933), even though I watched it on a big screen about a year ago.

I'll try not to repeat myself but I've gotta say: I still love this film!

Containing what is clearly Jean's best performance, Bombshell (1933) is a cynical look at the machinations of the Hollywood studio system and publicity machine in 1933. Despite that cynicism, Jean's Lola Burns remains an unsullied character. It's her very crassness that keeps her honest in the film as she's pawed by PR men, greedy family members, and the press.

Watching Jean turn on the charm when Lola is first approached by a Photoplay reporter gives you a clue to the film's angle: Lola is a nice, but brash, girl at heart and that smarmy sexpot on the nation's movie screens in the world of Bombshell (1933) is just a fabrication.

Lee Tracy's Space Hanlon is the fast-talking magazine guy in charge of Lola Burns. And while he's funny, he's not entirely working in Lola's best interests. Given that she's a product to be marketed, is it any wonder he's a phony too?

Louise Beavers as Lola's maid is the voice of reason in the household; when she not only borrows Lola's nightgown but gives a mouthful of backtalk to Una Merkel's secretary, it's clear that the maid and Lola are on the same wavelength. The two are the only characters in the film who seem connected to reality, their cynicism keeping them grounded as the rest of the film's world is populated by the greedy and the fake and the phony.

I wrote a paper in college once that elaborated on the role of the domestics in some of Jean's films. Frequently, the maid would be the one who could talk as a sexual equal with Jean. The maids were almost partners in these adventures where the Una Merkel-types were the enemies of both the white lead and the black supporting player.

It's telling that when Lola finally calls out her abusers, the only ones she cites as being on her side are the maid and the pets. I don't think that the coupling of the domestic helper and the dogs was some intentional racial insult. The larger point is that everyone else is out for him- or herself in this film.

That slight connection to the African-American experience seen here in a few brief moments -- notably Jean's first scene in Bombshell (1933) -- is something that I think Mae West did first, from what little I've read and learned. But as Jean was a sort of subtler refinement of Mae's street-level sexuality, it's not entirely a steal on Jean's part as a performer.

Still, Lola's brashness is not enough to safeguard her from more tricks from Space Hanlon -- though she sees through them a bit -- nor is it enough to prevent her turning soft and wanting a baby all thanks to some press-woman's influence.

The scene seems dated now but the best way to approach it is that Lola is living an empty life. She knows it's an empty life and she's looking for meaning. When she gazes longingly at a painting of a mother horse and colt, it's ridiculous, sure, but it was 1933 and what worked as a signifier of motherhood then seems a bit silly now.

It's not so much that Lola is looking to be a mom but that she's looking for a way out. The scenes in this section border on corny and there's something sad about watching Jean play a role that echoed her own real life and poked fun at the sort of domestic bliss she was never able to enjoy.

To her credit as an actress, the audience clearly sympathizes with her as she plans out a life as a mother. It's sweet stuff, really, even if the screenwriters could have intended the scenes to play as examples of how empty-headed and frivolous Lola was.

When Lola finally snaps and tells off the "leeches" in her life as her domestic dreams evaporate around her, it's a thing of beauty and force. Even 32 years after I first watched this film, the scene still thrills and moves me and it's one of my very favorite film moments, up there with Emily Lloyd's tea-room throwdown in Wish You Were Here (1987) and William Holden's farewell to the troops in Stalag 17 (1953).

Jean's Lola springs from sadness and despair to awareness and anger in the space of a few moments. Not only that, but Jean has to deliver what is some dense dialogue. Every time I watch this scene I marvel at her performance. This is quite possibly her finest moment on film and it's telling that it's a scene that I cannot imagine anyone else playing. The mix of vulnerability and street smarts was so uniquely Jean that a viewer is saddened again that we're left with so few films in Jean's filmography and even fewer as good as Bombshell (1933).

The barebones DVD contains the Spanish (?) trailer and no other extras. The print looks pretty good -- no major glitches -- but appeared a tiny grainy on my big TV screen.

Still, with Bombshell (1933) finally on DVD, I'm a very contented fan.

I'll try to review the other 6 titles in The Jean Harlow Collection in the next few weeks.