Harlow (1965) ****

In the light of the MeToo movement, this is a salutary tale of tawdry Hollywood. Such a convincing picture of Hollywood abuse was as true now as it is then. However, although presented as a biopic it is more pertinently viewed as a “reimagining” of the life of sex goddess Jean Harlow. While taking a few liberties with the truth where the main character is concerned, the rest of it could easily be realistic since we are now only to familiar with the excesses men in any kind of power in Hollywood believed they were entitled.

Jean Harlow was a hugely popular star in the 1930s before her untimely death at the age of 36. This film depicts her as a virgin (not true) who turns neurotic (not true) after her impotent husband commits suicide (debatable) on their wedding night (not true) leading to her go off the rails and die from pneumonia (not true).

But in terms of the Hollywood system a great deal rings true and if the Me Too movement had existed in the late 1920s and early 1930s the finger would be pointed at a huge number of men.

The film is at its best when dissecting the movie business. A five-minute opening sequence demonstrates its “factory” aspect as extras and bit players clock in, are given parts and shuffle through great barns to be clothed and made up, often to be discarded at the end of the process.

No sooner has this version of Jean Harlow been given a small part than she encounters the casting couch, operated by a lowly assistant director, who bluntly offers five days’ work instead of one if she submits to his advances. When she turns him down, work is hard to come by and she resorts to stealing lunch before being rescued by agent Red Buttons. After tiny parts that mostly consist of her losing her clothing, receiving pies or eggs in the face and displaying her wares in bathtubs, she gets a big break only for that producer to demand his pound of flesh – “I’ve already bought and paid for you.” Here, she has “the body of a woman and the emotions of a child” and ends up choosing the wrong suitor which leads to a calamitous outcome.

However, the pressures of stardom are well-presented: she is the breadwinner for her unemployed mother (Angela Lansbury) and lazy stepfather (Raf Vallone) and soon box office dynamite for a studio chief (Martin Balsam) who sees in her the opportunity to sell good clean sex. The negotiations/bribery/ blackmail involved in fixing salaries are also explored.

But the film earns negative points by mixing the real and the fictional. The agent and husband Paul Bern existed but most of the others are invented or amalgamations of different people. MGM is represented as “Majestic” and among her films there is no Red Dust (1932) or China Seas (1935) but lurid inventions like Sin City

Director Gordon Douglas was a versatile veteran, with over 90 films to his credit, from comedies Saps at Sea (1940) and Call Me Bwana (1963) to westerns The Iron Mistress (1952) and Rio Conchos (1964) and musicals Follow That Dream (1962) and dramas The Sins of Rachel Cade (1961) and Sylvia (1965) which also starred Baker. The opening scene apart, which is a seamless construction, he is adept at this kind of helter-skelter drama. John Michael Hayes (Rear Window, 1954) has produced a punchy script.

In the title role Carroll Baker has probably never been better, comedian Red Buttons excellent in a straight role while the smarmy Vallone is the stand-out among a supporting cast that also includes Peter Lawford, Leslie Nielsen and Mike Connors.

Despite the fact that virtually none of the movie is true, I have given it four stars for its realistic portrayal of Hollywood.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

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