Harlow presents such a convincing picture of Hollywood abuse that I was astonished to discover that it was not entirely truthful where the title character was concerned.
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 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 (Carroll Baker) 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 rescued by agent Arthur Landau (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 geta 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 Jean (Angela Lansbury) and lazy stepfather Marino (Raf Vallone) and soon box office dynamite for studio chief Everett (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 (Peter Lawford) 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 based on the book by Arthur Landau and Irving Shulman.
In the title role Carroll Baker (Sylvia) has probably never been better, comedian Red Buttons (Stagecoach, 1966) excellent in a straight role while the smarmy Raf Vallone (Nevada Smith, 1966) is the stand-out among an excellent supporting cast that also includes Angela Lansbury (In the Cool of the Day, 1963), Peter Lawford (Sylvia), Leslie Nielsen (Beau Geste, 1966), Martin Balsam (Seven Days in May, 1964) and Mike Connors (Stagecoach, 1966).
Except that virtually none of the movie is true, I would have given it four stars for its portrayal of Hollywood but I have come to expect that biopics, while moving facts around for dramatic purposes, are required to be good more faithful to their subjects than this.