For this week’s foray into the Golden Age on the Silver Screen, I’m getting around to my first Jean Harlow review! 1965 seemed to be a special year for Harlow fans as not one, but two films about her life were released. From what I’ve read neither had critical acclaim, nor is either accurate, but supposedly this version is the better of the two. If that’s the case then I hate to finally watch the Carroll Baker version! This Harlow isn’t terrible, just boring and confusing. The characters are renamed, and just seem to follow Jean around from place to place. Carol Lynley, our Jean in this version, is pretty but spends too much time being mad. I’m sure neither film will capture the vivacity and fun of the true Jean Harlow, but from this first entry it just seems like all anyone remember is she was sexy.
Starting in Laurel and Hardy comedies, Jean Harlow (Lynley) struggles to gain fame, and respect in Hollywood. From her first leading role in Hell’s Angels, Harlow fights tooth and nail to rise above being the “bathtub girl” to being a successful leading lady. Along for the ride is her social-climbing mother (Ginger Rogers).
I mentioned above this was one of two Harlow films out in 1965, oddly enough both starring a woman named Carol/Carroll. This version didn’t have the budget, the star power, or the production values of the other; shot only in eight days with a bizarre film process called Electronvision. The actors only had three weeks of rehearsal which accounts for the performances, with Rogers only having a week or so after being the last-minute replacement for Judy Garland. Sadly, this was also Rogers’ last feature film, and I’m not quite sure it’s the best film to send her off with. The production values are also scattered with screenwriter Ken Tunburg being the lone credited screenwriter of Ben-Hur! And director Alex Segal stuck to doing television adaptations of classic literature after this. If it’s not obvious, this was not a success at the box office.
It’s rather hard to find considering the other version is on DVD so you have to give some leeway to the production values. I was surprised to read this was seen in theaters because it has all the looks and set design of a television show. The music is soap-opera style and the small screen is really emphasized in how close together the actors seem to be. It’s not bad, just weird. The Electronvision was meant to enhance film grain so it feels like you’re watching an old movie…or a really bad VHS copy. You could lean towards the former, especially since the film opens with a retread of the Laurel and Hardy sketch Jean started in. You have the silent film score with fast movements. I’m not quite sure it achieves the effect of setting up the characters. It took the characters talking for me to figure out who was who, but it worked alongside the film grain.
I sound like a broken record with this column but I’ll reiterate: this film is not accurate. The problem is that the script reduces Harlow’s struggles for fame only in regards to her sex appeal, and relationships with men. The first scene of Jean doing anything involves her breasts hanging out and the camera focused on her legs! From there you have directors, actors, and others all commenting on Jean’s refusal to wear a bra. The only two relationships mentioned are Jean’s ill-fated marriage to Paul Bern (Hurd Hatfield), and romance with William Mansfield (Efram Zimbalist Jr.). Mansfield is “based on” William Powell. If you’re not aware Jean was married before and after Bern. If you’ve read a biography on the original Blonde Bombshell you’d know she was a likable and hilarious woman, resilient and generous. Her sex appeal was never a major issue with her, and was universally adored by her co-stars, thus why her death was so shocking. Unfortunately, zero of that hits the screen. Here, Jean is in a constant state of annoyance with everyone and everything. Just talking to someone makes her angry for reasons unknown. It’s hard to believe, the way the script is written, that this Jean is universally liked at all. By the end you don’t understand why all these people would care about Jean being sick, because she’s never seen being nice to anyone. She’s cordial to people but that’s it.
Carol Lynley is beautiful as I mentioned when I reviewed her in The Pleasure Seekers. In terms of her portrayal of Jean, she does a good job of looking like her, but is just too polished in her acting and delivery. When she’s laid back, and allowed to be exuberant you can easily believe she’s Jean; however the film spends far too much time with her being angry so you just find her rude. Harlow had a grit, and a mild accent to her voice, but Lynley just sounds like any other girl with a blonde wig. She’s not in the worst category of acting I’ve seen in reviewing these movies. I just wasn’t blown away by her, and I’m fairly certain I’ll forget her performance by the time I see the next film. On the other side you have the incomparable Ginger Rogers here as Mama! It’s shocking to type such a legend’s name here although she does give a powerhouse performance; the best of the film. Sure it’s not the role she should have gone out with, but without her this film would be middling at best. Her Mama is not necessarily a stage mom from Hell. She loves her daughter, they have a sweet rapport and know each other well enough to pull the odd con at a lunch counter to get cheap lunch. It just helps that her daughter’s headed to stardom. Rogers is comfortable in the role, despite having such little rehearsal time, and shines when she’s supposed to be acting for the cameras within the film, or when she’s acting “within the best interests” of her daughter. She’s got an agenda sure, but she never devolves into the scheming cackler you’d expect. Interestingly, Rogers plays a stage mother living with her daughter just like her own mother did during her career!
The male characters are a jumble of names and faces, all because real names aren’t used. I’m assuming certain people were still alive when this film came out, so copyrights were an issue. It’s easy in some cases like renamed William Powell, William Mansfield. In other cases, unless you know every name associated with Jean Harlow, you’ll be confused on who people are, and why they’re so important in the story. I spent twenty minutes trying to figure out who the guy was who gave Harlow her screen test for Hell’s Angels; and I still haven’t figured it out! Efram Zimbalist Jr. is another strong performance within this film, even if his acting feels the most like a soap opera performance. His Mansfield is soft-spoken, and passionate around Jean. You can feel he truly loves her, and wants to see her succeed. The problem is the script, or the small shooting/budget, makes Mansfield come off like a complete stalker. He’s literally everywhere Harlow goes including her wedding to Paul Bern. I kept wondering, how does he know where she is at all times? How does he know to be conveniently waiting behind every door she enters? Then you have Hurd Hatfield playing Paul Bern. I haven’t seen Hatfield in anything since I saw The Picture of Dorian Gray, so nice to see you Mr. Hatfield! The film plays Bern up to be impotent and/or a homosexual, nothing startling if you’ve read a book on Harlow. He plays Bern with a fright, and vulnerability that his façade will constantly come crumbling down. He’s good, but a far cry from Zimbalist.
I think this version of Harlow is unmemorable. Rogers, Zimbalist, and Lynley (to an extent) are all good, but the short production time and weak script limit their performances to one-note characters. The lack of accuracy within Harlow’s life, and the removal of any personality to the character, makes the audience believe Jean Harlow was a blonde sex symbol who got lucky. I’ll be surprised to compare this to the Baker version because I can’t imagine Harlow as a person will be portrayed any differently.
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Since Harlow is not available on DVD the safest, and best, way to purchase it is through Mr. Brian Pinette of Rare Film Classics. Here’s a link to the Harlow film. Be sure to tell him Kristen at Journey’s in Classic Film sent you!
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.