Thursday, 17 September 2020

Reflections on … Harlow (1965)

Make no mistake: as a truthful biopic, the infamous, ultra-trashy 1965 film Harlow is entirely misbegotten. But as a prime exemplar of the so-bad-it’s-fabulous camp classic, Harlow - directed by Gordon Douglas, adapted from Irving Shulman's scurrilous best-selling (and widely discredited) 1964 exposé Harlow: an Intimate Biography and starring Carroll Baker as doomed platinum blonde depression-era sex goddess Jean Harlow - belongs in the elite canon alongside Valley of the Dolls (1967), Diana Ross’ Mahogany (1974) and Mommie Dearest (1981). In fact, Harlow contains the essential components we demand in any film-making endeavor: emotions. Conflicts. Wigs!

Seen today, it’s fascinating how recklessly fast-and-loose the script plays with Jean Harlow's story, as if the facts are somehow insufficiently dramatic, tragic and action-packed enough. Harlow’s tumultuous, abbreviated life was marked by two scandals so shocking they’re still swirling with urban myths decades later. After just two months of marriage, her husband Paul Bern died of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound on 5 September 1932. Because MGM’s publicity department swept in to “manage” the situation before the police arrived, the precise circumstances – and Harlow’s role in them – remain one of Hollywood’s enduring mysteries. Harlow’s own abrupt death of uremic poisoning aged 26 on 7 June 1937 sparked further speculation. Was it caused by a botched abortion? Venereal disease? Were her mother’s anti-medicine Christian Science beliefs to blame? Or did the bleach used to maintain Harlow’s platinum blonde tresses cause “peroxide poisoning”?

/ A portrait of the real Jean Harlow (born Harlean Harlow Carpenter, 3 March 1911 - 7 June 1937) in 1933 /

Harlow the biopic displays almost zero curiosity about these aspects, instead opting to cram the bare bones of Harlow’s life into a hackneyed rise-and-fall show biz cautionary tale narrative imbued with the lurid sensibility of Jackie Susann’s Valley of the Dolls. (It’s astonishing how much Harlow anticipates the hysterical tone and sherbet-coloured look of the 1967 film adaptation of Dolls. When Harlow hits the skids and begins drinking heavily, for example, she suddenly becomes Neely O’Hara. Was Dolls' director Mark Robson carefully scrutinizing Harlow’s formula and taking notes?).

/ Actress Caroll Baker's extensive research for portraying Jean Harlow /

Harlow also makes no attempt to conjure the real Harlow’s unique brassy and hard-boiled comedic screen persona evident in her best films like Red-Headed Woman, Red Dust (both 1932) and Dinner at Eight (1933). Instead, Harlow – an archetype of brazenly overt and unapologetic pre-Code sensuality, who reportedly “iced” her nipples and eschewed underwear onscreen - is depicted as a victimized and misunderstood prig constantly fighting-off the casting couch advances of predatory film executives and determined to preserve her virtue. One jarring example: Harlow posits that the twenty-something actress was saving her virginity for her wedding night with Bern. But because the impotent Bern was incapable of “performing” on their catastrophic honeymoon, her virginity remained intact. In real life Harlow was married three times and Bern was her second husband – facts that Harlow gleefully erases.

Note also that Harlow was made without the cooperation of Harlow’s real studio MGM. (Her studio is called “Majestic” in the movie). Perhaps that explains why none of her actual films are cited. Instead, we keep seeing cinema marquees emblazoned with weirdly generic titles like Blonde Virgin, Sin City, Yukon Fever, Luscious Lady and Love Me Forever!

/ Baker as Harlow. Considering her wig was styled by the great Sydney Guilaroff, presumably it's meant to be crooked? /

Hilariously, the film also insists Harlow’s platinum blonde hair is all-natural. (While Harlow was genuinely blonde, she was also a peroxide pioneer to achieve that not-found-in-nature albino-silver shade). In any case, Carroll Baker sports a wig to portray Harlow. And what a wig! It may be styled by esteemed coiffeur-to-the-stars Sydney Guilaroff, but that ultra-fake acrylic-looking Dynel wig is so distracting it frequently upstages the actress sporting it. Interestingly, the makers of Harlow skip Harlow’s signature plucked-out half-moon eyebrows – maybe because they assumed sixties audiences would find them off-putting?

/ Intriguingly, if you do a deep Google Image search you'll eventually come across these pics of Baker as Harlow (presumably hair and make-up tests?) that suggest initially the makers of Harlow contemplated a more authentic look - and then decided against it / 

It must be said that at no point does Baker resemble Harlow that much.  In one glorious high camp moment, once she finally achieves mega-stardom, we see Harlow undergo an epic studio-sanctioned glamour make-over. The beautician’s chair is finally spun around for the big reveal – and the only change is that they’ve added a little black beauty mark under the corner of her mouth! Combine the outrageous immobile blonde bouffant wig, the heavy false eyelashes and the beauty spot, and Carroll Baker looks significantly more like sixties-era jazz chanteuse Peggy Lee than Jean Harlow.

/ Pictured: Miss Peggy Lee /

Baker also frequently looks gaunt and wan in Harlow, and so ravaged that it’s startling when Harlow’s mother must co-sign her studio contract because she’s meant to be a minor. (The film is studious to never specify what year it is or the characters’ ages). Certainly, Baker’s make-up, wig and lighting are surprisingly harsh and unflattering. But by all accounts, she was also stressed and miserable during the production (the script was still being cobbled-together during filming and Baker was feuding with producer Joseph E Levine). Her tension is tangible onscreen. Baker valiantly attempts to breathe some conviction into the material, considering Harlow is written as a one-note victim. (What counts for character development here: once Harlow becomes famous, she begins smoking with a long white cigarette holder).

/ A portrait of Baker around the time of Baby Doll (1956) /

Let’s pause here to contemplate Baker, a strange, distinctive (that weird, unmistakable drawling patrician voice!) and sensual feminine presence in mid-century cinema. How did Baker - a high-minded, risk-taking and serious Broadway actress steeped in the New York Actor’s Studio Method tradition – wind up typecast as a sexpot in so many vulgar melodramas? Certainly, her career started promisingly. After a breakthrough role opposite James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson in Giant (1956), Baker sparked an international furor as a thumb-sucking nymphette child bride in the controversial film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ Baby Doll (1956). The perverse Lolita-like image of Baker lounging in a playpen was as scandalous a depiction of wanton eroticism as anything Brigitte Bardot did in And God Created Woman (1956) – and that movie was French! 

And yet she subsequently wound-up starring in mostly tepidly received dross. (Although I treasure both Something Wild (1961) and Sylvia (1965)). Interestingly, the role of “Maggie the Cat” in the 1958 film version of Tennessee Williams’ play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was reportedly offered to Baker before Elizabeth Taylor. (Contract disputes with Warner Bros meant she couldn’t accept it). Maybe that part would have altered Baker’s trajectory?

/ Baker wore this understated ensemble (worthy of Jayne Mansfield!) to promote her "comeback" film The Carpetbaggers /

In any case, within a few years hit movie The Carpetbaggers (1964) gave Baker’s faltering career a major fillip. Under the guidance of that film’s producer Joseph E Levine, Baker was now marketed as “the next Monroe”. She even went so far as posing for a “nudie cutie” cheesecake pictorial in the December 1964 issue of Playboy magazine entitled “Baker in the Boudoir.” Baker had played a sexy Harlow type in The Carpetbaggers, so it made sense to cast her as Harlow herself when the Schulman biography got optioned. But as Penny Stallings concludes in her 1978 book Flesh and Fantasy: “the film and the hype were a disaster. There’d been all sorts of problems with the script and a rival production starring Carol Lynley, but the main problem was that Carroll’s PTA prettiness and clipped delivery just didn’t meld with her concocted image. She felt awkward in the role and her discomfort showed on screen. Perhaps even more to the point is the fact that cultural styles were rapidly metamorphosing when the film was released, and the public simply wasn’t in the market for a platinum blonde bombshell in 1965.”

/ "Baker in the Boudoir!" From Carroll Baker's December 1964 Playboy pictorial / 

Harlow was savaged by the critics, but it wasn’t a commercial flop. Nonetheless, it spelled the end of Baker’s career as a major American leading lady. In 1967 she moved to Rome, successfully re-inventing herself as the star of Italian giallo horror films before returning to US in 1977 as a gutsy middle-aged character actress (witness her vanity-free performance in the black comedy Andy Warhol’s BAD). But maybe author Ken Wlaschin is correct when he surmises “(Baker) is actually at her best in trashy movies.” Is there any higher praise for an actress? Baker is still with us at 89-years old. Let’s celebrate her as a cult icon now!

/ Baker's intriguing Italian filmography is ripe for discovery and should most definitely not be regarded as a "step down" for her. Her giallo films aren't easy to see: they sometimes crop up on YouTube, but usually sans English subtitles or dubbing! The only one I've seen to date is the extremely stylish Baba Yaga (aka Kiss Me, Kill Me) from 1973 (pictured). Baker is utterly magnetic as the enigmatic lesbian villainess. Read more about Baker's Italian era here.

/ Above: Carol Lynley as Jean Harlow /

(As per Stallings’ reference above: there was indeed a second overlapping biopic (also entitled Harlow!) under production at the same time. (Isn’t it bizarre to think Jean Harlow was such a hot property in the mid-sixties, almost three decades after her death?). It’s equally as bad as the Baker film, just in different ways. This version starred the pallid Carol Lynley and took a radically different interpretation of the Harlow story. A visibly low-budget effort shot in eight days in harsh grainy black-and-white (it looks like a William Castle quickie), it depicts Harlow as a sarcastic, tantrum-throwing bee-yatch as opposed to Baker’s sinned-against victim. It offers a more factually accurate account of Harlow’s life, and is notable for being Ginger Roger’s last major film role (she plays Harlow’s mercenary mother). A true oddity, you can watch it on YouTube. Keep your expectations low!).

/ Above: Carol Lynley in the rival biopic Harlow (1965) /

What I adore about Harlow: Gordon Douglas’ lazily old-fashioned, almost indifferent direction. His motto appears to be, when in doubt, cut to a montage! He also regularly employs newspaper headlines to explain what’s happening.  There’s great pleasure in watching the “all-star cast” flailing: Red Buttons as Arthur Landau, Harlow’s saintly-beyond-belief manager. Mike Connors as suave Jack Harrison (a cynical matinee idol who seems to be based on Clark Gable?). Angela Lansbury as Harlow’s weak-willed mother (note: Lansbury was only six years older than Baker) and Italian actor Raf Vallone as Marino Bello, Harlow’s parasitic lounge lizard stepfather. Puffy Peter Lawford as Harlow’s ill-fated husband Paul Bern (one of the few occurrences where a character is named after the real-life person). Did anyone exude jaded hungover sleaziness onscreen quite like Lawford? He really phones it in. Bern is introduced and killed-off so abruptly we can only shrug when he dies. Leslie Nielsen as cigar-smoking, silk dressing gown-wearing film mogul Richard Manley (apparently based on Howard Hughes) and Martin Balsam as studio head Everett Redman (Louis B Meyer).

/ Angela Lansbury (as Harlow's ineffectual but well-meaning mother) and Raf Vallone (as her stepfather) /

/ Saintly manager Arthur Landau (Red Buttons, centre) eavesdrops while leading man Jack Harrison (Mike Connors, a vision in beige suede) flirts with starlet Harlow /

/ Jack Harrison and Jean Harlow arriving at a premiere /

Harlow was a big-budget film and the lush production values are up there on the screen. The sensation that envelopes you watching it feels glossy, ridiculous and sumptuous. In fact, the sets – complete with banks of floral arrangements, candelabras and grand pianos - are all so garish (Harlow’s all-mauve dressing room! Richard Manley’s baroque mansion!) it feels like every scene is unfolding in some rococo brothel. But even with all that money, there is no sense of period and no attempt to replicate the Art Deco decor associated with Jean Harlow. The vibe throughout is ultra-sixties atomic-era rather than remotely 1930s. The soundtrack, for example, emphasizes the then voguish sounds of Latin exotica and bossa nova. There’s a justifiably notorious moment when Harlow appears to break into the twist – seemingly inventing the dance craze a good thirty years early! (To her credit, old pro Edith Head designs some spectacular slinky bias-cut gowns for Baker that successfully emulate the ones Harlow wore).

/ Jean Harlow pouting through the pain in her luxe dressing room (a real tart's boudoir!) /

And the dialogue. The dialogue! Everyone speaks in cliched show biz platitudes. Some representative samples: “You have the body of a woman and the emotions of a child!” Landau exclaims to Harlow. “She’s the girl you want to marry – and have for your mistress!” is how Everett Redman summarizes Harlow’s allure. “There’s nothing lonelier than a bedroom with only one person in it,” Harlow laments to her mother. She also admits, “I was looking at my body in the mirror to see what’s so different about it that makes the public go crazy over it!” Once Harlow has ascended to stardom, Jack Harrison snarls, “Welcome to the velvet prison!” Harlow’s dying words to her mother from beneath her oxygen tent: “Mamma! I’m going to be a good girl … a good girl!” Landau gets the last word: “She didn’t die of pneumonia. She died of life!” (Harlow didn’t die of either pneumonia or “life” – she died of uremia). 

Just when you think Harlow couldn’t get any worse, in one final flourish of bad taste, we’re treated to a slideshow of glamour shots of Baker as Harlow overlaid with the tear-jerkin' musical accompaniment of sappy ballad “Lonely Girl” by Bobby “Blue Velvet” Vinton! 

(You can view Harlow on Amazon Prime. Read further analysis of Harlow here). 


  1. This was so much fun to read! I will forever remember the descriptive quote from that critic describing Baker's "PTA prettiness" and your own comments about that blond wig!There are many spots where I found myself laughing, especially in those moments where you serve up samples of dialogue or go into detail about the over-sumptuous sets. It does indeed turn out that Baker in her Giallo years is an example of a star finally meeting the level of material appropriate to her talents, and like you said, to say so is not a put-down. She's great once she stopped trying to be whatever it was Hollywood wanted to make her into. Thanks, Graham!

  2. Well, I've loved Carroll Bakers "HARLOW" film since I was 12, just ordered it from Amazon, can't wait & this is 56 years later.....guess I love it very much! Harlow & Baker are my favorites!;) Harlow just had her 110 birthday 3/3/1911, love you Jean, (love you to Carroll). <3 xxx

  3. This film is responsible for some of my all-time favorite movie stills. You did such an in-depth look. Just stunning and so much fun. I adore trashy films. So glad they continue to make them... Thank you for this stunning post. I will be reading it more than once, for sure.

  4. One of my all time favorite films and soundtracks !