Harlow (1965) ***

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. 

Beau Geste (1966) ***

Two brothers battle inhospitable terrain, warring tribes and a sadistic sergeant major in a  remake of the classic tale. The title translates as “noble and generous gesture” and is a pun on the name of hero Michael Geste (Guy Stockwell), an American hiding out in the French Foreign Legion in shame for being involved, innocently as it happens, in embezzlement. His attitude is markedly different to the “scum of the earth” who make up the battalion and his quick wit and refusal to kowtow make him a target for Sgt Major Dagineau (Telly Savalas), a former officer busted to the ranks.

Dagineau delights in imposing hardship and devising mental torture, making some recruits including Geste walk around blindfold at the top of a cliff. Geste’s resistance to his superior is almost suicidal and he even volunteers to take a whipping on behalf of his comrades. “It’s me he wants,” says Geste, “if not now the next time.” At another point he is buried up to his neck in the blazing sun.

Joined by his brother John (Doug McClure), the battalion sets out as a relief force for a remote fort but when commanding officer Lt De Ruse (Leslie Nielsen) is seriously wounded, the sergeant-major takes charge. Under siege from the Tuareg tribe, honor, treachery, mutiny, fighting skills and courage all come into play in a final section.

The action and the various episodes and confrontations are strong enough and Geste has a good line in witty retort, but blame the casting for the fact that it turns into Saturday afternoon matinee material. It was always going to be a stretch to match Gary Cooper, Ray Milland and Susan Hayward from the 1939 hit version.

Stagecoach, remade the same year, was able to rustle up a bona fide box office star in Ann-Margret (Viva Las Vegas, 1964) and a host of supporting players with considerable marquee appeal including Bing Crosby (Robin and the 7 Hoods, 1964), Robert Cummings (Promise Her Anything, 1965) and Van Heflin (Cry of Battle, 1963). Nobody in the cast of Beau Geste could compare. Apart from the Spanish-made Sword of Zorro (1963), Guy Stockwell usually came second or third in the credits, as did Doug McClure (Shenandoah, 1965) while Telly Savalas, despite or because of an Oscar nomination for The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), was viewed as a character actor.

But that was the point. Universal gambled on turning the latest graduates from its talent school into major box office commodities. The set pieces and the action are well handled and while there are excellent lines especially in the verbal duels between hero and villain, it’s not helped by the most interesting character being Dagineau, who, despite his failings, accepted his fall from grace, worked his way back up the career ladder, believing brutality the only way to control the soldiers, and in the end out of the two is the one who has the greater sense of honor, refusing to allow a lie to befoul the truth, rejecting the notion of when the legend becomes fact print the legend, And it’s a shame that the movie has to present his character in more black-and-white terms rather than invest more time in his background or accept his version of reality.   

Telly Savalas (The Scalphunters, 1968) steals the show with a performance of considerable subtlety. Guy Stockwell (Tobruk, 1967) is little more than a stalwart, the heroic hero, with little sense of the irony of his situation. Doug McClure (The King’s Pirate, 1967) presents as straighforward a matinee idol. If you only know Leslie Neilsen from his later spoof comedies like Airplane! (1980) you will be surprised to see him deliver a dramatic performance as the drunken commander who still insists, in an echo of El Cid, in rising from his sick bed to lead his troops. Normally this kind of macho movie – The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Dirty Dozen (1967) prime examples – throws up burgeoning talent who go on to make it big. It’s one of the disappointments here that this does not occur.

This was the second and final movie of Douglas Heyes (Kitten with a Whip, 1964).  

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