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JEAN HARLOW

By Chantel Theunissen

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After just a decade of movie making her star was shot down - but it was enough time to make a legend out of the original screen goddess - Jean Harlow.

Jean Harlow was born Harlean Carpenter in Kansas City, Missouri, on March 3, 1911. The daughter of a successful dentist, she had a comfortable upbringing. But teenage rebellion got the better of her and when she was 16 when she ran away from home and eloped with a young Kansas businessman by the name of Charles McGrew.

The couple relocated to Los Angeles, where Jean's natural beauty and ease in front of the camera led to some work as an extra in movies. Jean soon caught the acting bug and over the next couple of years she was able to make a living on bit parts. However her marriage to McGrew was a disaster and they divorced after 2 years. Jean now threw all her energies into pursuing an acting career.

Color Still from Jean Harlow's last film Saratoga

After three frustrating years her hard work paid off. In 1930 she landed a dream role in a big budget movie called "Hell's Angels". The movie was a hit, and Jean became MGM's newest starlet - complete with her own $60,000 contract. Her 1931 flick "Platinum Blond" cemented her bankability. With her sassy attitude and voluptuous figure she became the ultimate object of desire for red blooded males across the globe. But the movie moguls ensured that the marketing spin on Jean created something more than the usual breed of cinema starlet; she became the first real screen goddess.

In 1931 MGM took a gamble and paired Jean with hunky heartthrob Clark Gable. The gamble worked. The duo were terrific together, creating an unforgettable onscreen chemistry. Millions were made for MGM and the fame of both actors' were elevated to extraordinary levels. Harlow and Gable did a total of 6 films together. During the filming of their second film "Red Dust" Jean received the news that her second husband of only a few weeks, Paul Bern, had apparently committed suicide. Many believe, however, that Bern's former partner Harlow Bern (ironically both his lovers had the same name)- who took her own life a few days after his death- murdered him.

1933 Jean Harlow Sarony Tobacco Card

1933 Jean Harlow Boy's Cinema MGM executives thought the tragedy might threaten production, so Louis B. Mayer rang another actress to prepare to take over Jean's role. But this proved unnecessary. Jean soldiered on and finished the movie which became an instant hit. This film not only increased her popularity within the general public, but also made a few critics - who had been more than ready to trash her previous roles - give grudging respect to the actress.

MGM now made films that were tailored to Jean's 'personality', meaning that she played a succession of women who had more beauty than brains. In "Hold Your Man" she played a character who was loosely based on herself, allowing her to indirectly poke fun at her family. At the end of 1933 she married Hal Rossen but it was a shaky relationship that only lasted 8 months.

In 1935 Jean & Clark Gable got together to do their sixth film together, "Saratoga". During the filming Jean was hospitalized and diagnosed with uremic poisoning. Ten days later she was dead. A shocked world was devastated at the inexplicable passing of the screen's brightest star. How could the world's sexiest woman be taken away at just 26 years of age? It wasn't until the 90's that it was revealed that she had suffered from a kidney disease since her teens. Saratoga was finished using Jean's double, Mary Dees and a lot of long angle shots.  Not surprisingly, it was the highest grossing film of 1937. In 1965 2 screen biographies of her life were made, neither of which did justice to the brief but stellar existence that was Jean Harlow.
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Chantel Theunissen is a freelance writer and film student from New Zealand.  This is her second submission to The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.

Other Jean Harlow Pages:

Denny Jackson's Jean Harlow Page -- The Blonde Bombshell!
A Tribute to Jean Harlow The original Blonde Bombshell would have been in her 90s today. Instead, she died tragically at the age of 26, after only a decade of movie appearances, leaving her fans wanting more.
Wife vs Secretary -- A mini-review of the 1936 film right here on this site as part of Cliff's DVD Collection.