The Films of Jean Harlow: Bombshell (1933)
Today’s film, the Victor Fleming directed Bombshell…is weird. It’s listed as a screwball comedy and while it’s comedic I never fully understood who I was meant to be laughing at. The whole film is a cruel joke on Harlow’s character as she tries to find meaning in her life, yet she’s surrounded by leeches and publicity hounds who only want to exploit her, and we’re supposed to find their antics funny? I know this is meant to be a parody of the life of Clara Bow but this movie is even more prescient now what with celebrities being hounded and analyzed 24/7. It was a great role for Harlow, one of her most iconic, but I just never felt it was a comedy.
Screen star Lola Burns (Harlow) is constantly in the media due to her convoluted relationships, and also because her publicity agent E.J. “Space” Hanlon (Lee Tracy) keeps putting out stories about her. When Lola decides to give up Hollywood and remove all the bad influences from her life, Hanlon will do whatever he has to in order to keep Lola.
You could probably cite Bombshell for being one of the first meta-films to look at the Hollywood world while making a Hollywood movie. The film is self-aware of movie-making and at one point Lola is filming a movie where she bathes in a rain barrel before Gable comes in (If you guessed Red Dust, you win my admiration). The movie looks at the confining nature of celebrity and as hard as Lola tries to get people to see beyond the headlines, she just doesn’t succeed. Harlow is spectacular in this movie taking all the elements from her previous films and combining them. She’s kind of a ditz, but not a walking idiot (sure she gets Alice in Wonderland and Cinderella confused) and she sticks to her guns. When she starts firing Hanlon and calling her family “leeches” you can tell it’s been building inside of her for a while. She’s not a bitch, she just knows what she wants.
We’re still in the early-30s and the pre-Code era although, much like Dinner at Eight, this isn’t as racy as Red Dust. In fact most of the risqué moments are in the first few minutes of the movie. Case in point when Lola’s maid comes in and says she had to use one of Lola’s hand-me-downs as a negligee because her other got torn (implying a night of amorous deeds). Lola coolly replies, “Your days off sure are brutal on your lingerie.” The lingerie jokes continue for a beat more when Lola’s press secretary says the dress Lola will wear will be “without a brassiere.”
The movie is important for Harlow fans as its title forever labeled Harlow as the “Blonde Bombshell,” a moniker Marilyn Monroe would get a few decades later. It’s also supposedly loosely based on the life of Harlow and Clara Bow. I’ve read a few biographies on each and while I found a few tidbits that could relate to Harlow, this film seemed to be pointedly making fun of Bow, as well as the numerous celebrities at the mercy of their publicity. Bombshell’s main plot revolves around Lola wanting a baby and while Harlow looked so sweet and genuine with a child in her arms, I couldn’t help but think of other celebrities who exploited children for personal gain. Joan Crawford’s “relationship” with her adopted children have been widely documented (and even the legality of the children themselves has been written about), and also Loretta Young (in another connection to Clarke Gable) adopted her own biological daughter to avoid scandal. It’s sad that Harlow never got the chance to have her own children because she definitely comes off like an angel with the babies.
The baby subplot is where the movie takes a turn into head scratching territory. Lola wants a baby and while you question whether she wants one in order to have someone to love her, there’s no denying she could be a great mother (see above and other women who were seen as great mothers). So of course Hanlon, recently fired, decides to screw Lola’s adoption dinner as revenge. When everything goes to hell and Lola’s left sobbing, Hanlon’s only reply is he didn’t know she felt so strongly about it. He just assumed it was what she “wanted this week.” This is a guy who has continually gone against her wishes, according to the movie, for her entire career. He mentions to reporters that no one wants to see the It Girl (a direct reference to Bow), “patting babies on the back” and how “it’s not in her contract.” So of course this is only to benefit the studio, not Lola? So again, who am I supposed to be rooting for here, this is a comedy right?
On top of that her family is a pack of leeches who only use her for her money and house. Her father, hilariously enough is played by Frank Morgan who you might know as the Wizard from The Wizard of Oz. Even funnier considering Billie Burke who played Glinda in Oz was in Harlow’s Dinner at Eight. Anyway, so after Lola has had it she flees to some type of mountain retreat. Of course, Hanlon follows her….because he’s obviously got problems. And if you didn’t think Lola was being hounded enough, there’s a guy who continually stalks Lola proclaiming she’s his wife. In face decades this would become a source of horror for celebrities, not humor.
The movie’s only an hour and a half and for some reason there seems to be so many disparate parts. We have the whole baby plot which takes up a lot of time, then the script shoehorns in a romance between Lola and Gifford Middleton (Franchot Tone, oddly enough a further connection to Joan Crawford). Lola says she likes Gifford because he’s “treated me like a lady for the first time in my life” yet no one wants Lola and Gifford to be together. I have to spoil things at bit for the ending so if you don’t want to know move ahead a bit.
SPOILERS So Lola goes to meet Gifford’s snotty parents who don’t accept her because she’s a movie star. Utterly broken, Lola decides to return to Hollywood with Hanlon when it’s revealed that Gifford and his family were actors, paid by Hanlon to drive Lola back to Hollywood! Of course, Lola isn’t aware of this and returns to Hollywood where everything I guess is better. By “better” Hanlon is nicer and her press secretary isn’t a bitch. Anyway, Hanlon immediately tries to get into Lola’s pants when she discovers the plot about Gifford. She goes to leave and Hanlon climbs into the car (WHAT IS WITH THIS GUY?!) and we discover even Lola’s weird-ass stalker was an actor and the movie ends with Hanlon and Lola squabbling….lovingingly? What the hell am I supposed to take away from this movie. That press agents go so mad with power they coerce their stars into staying with them through fear? I’m not so sure how closely this movie mimicked Bow’s relationship with her own agent but I didn’t know how to take this? Is Hanlon the hero? END SPOILERS
So Bombshell is a confusing movie and considering the script cites 2 writers and another uncredited, I have to wonder if the script faltered just a bit. It also doesn’t help this was an adaptation of a play that never got produced. The movie’s funny at times and Harlow’s performance is fantastic but I never knew what the hell was so funny? Lola’s life is in shambles, she has no one to trust, and that’s supposed to make me laugh? If someone can explain to me how this is labeled as a screwball comedy I’d be much obliged.
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Kristen Lopez View All
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.
I don’t think today’s audiences understand this movie. What are they expecting? A “happily ever after”?