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Friday, March 9, 2012

Gone Too Soon || Jean Harlow (1911 - 1937)

When I heard about Comet Over Hollywood's "Gone Too Soon" blogathon earlier this year, I couldn't wait to participate! With the criteria being a star who died before/or at fifty, I knew exactly who I was going to write about: Natalie Wood, of course. But when Jessica opened the door for entries, I was a little too late and discovered that Natalie had already been taken, as well as my second choice, the ever wonderful Carole Lombard.

Still wanting to participate, I decided I'd take a stab at Jean Harlow, who I barely knew anything about. Now that I think about it, perhaps it's good thing I chose someone that I didn't know much about, because I got to learn something and write about someone new. Right? ;)


- Clark Gable 


Like I said before, I honestly knew nothing about Jean Harlow before writing this post, save that she'd died young and was good friends with Clark Gable. The only movie of hers I'd seen was Libeled Lady (1936), and that too had been a few years before. But now that I've researched a bit about her, my goodness, her life and early death were quite interesting!

If you were to stop a random person on the street and ask them who first comes to their mind when conjuring up the image of a platinum blond, ivory skinned, red lipped beauty draped in fur and diamonds, they'd reply easily with "Marilyn Monroe." Marilyn, who came to a demise almost as tragic as Jean's, would glorify the "blonde bombshell" image and make it iconic. But it was, in fact, not her who created it but Jean Harlow, some twenty years before.

She was born Harlean Carpenter on March 3rd, 1911, in Kansas City, Missouri. Her childhood was overshadowed by a domineering mother, a greedy stepfather, and illness; suffering meningitis at the age of five and scarlet fever at fifteen. In her family, she was nicknamed the "Baby," and when she became a movie star, she was the "baby" of the MGM lot. Perhaps it was her dimples and playful personality, which made Jean's performances as femme fatales even appealing because there was that underlying, childlike quality to her - very much the type that Marilyn Monroe would exhibit in later years. 

Jean made a vision on the screen. She was the icon of everything that was beautiful or glamorous in the 1930's, a poster child for sensuality laced with comedy - a good example is the famous line she delivered in Howard Hughes' 1930 film, Hell's Angels: "Would you be shocked if I changed into something more comfortable?" This one line could sum up the majority of the image that was built up for her; a sex symbol downplayed by a girlish grin; the girl next door wrapped up in expensive furs and perfume.

Her career flourished in the 1930s, as she turned out films like Red Dust (1932), Dinner at Eight (1933), and Libeled Lady (1936). Her best friend, her 'brother', was Clark Gable, who she starred alongside a total of six times. They were so close they truly considered each other siblings and Clark was known to have been the only one who didn't  call her "Baby", instead addressing her by his own affectionate nickname of "sis."

In 1935, after two failed marriages and a husband who had committed suicide, Jean took up with fellow film star William Powell. Bill Powell, with his impish mustache and mischievous manner, was no stranger to dating beautiful blondes. He'd just had a very clean, neatly done divorce with Carole Lombard (whom he still consider a friend), the screwball queen who would soon begin an affair with Jean's best friend, Clark. (Ironically, Carole would die prematurely and tragically too). 

As Clark's quote about her would express, babylike Jean didn't want Hollywood, but to be a wife and mother of many children. When she found true love with Bill, this was what she wanted, right away - so much so she was eager marry him, quit her successful career, and settle down to have a family. But Bill wasn't ready. He had two divorces under his belt and didn't want children. They would become engaged, but marriage was slow coming and Jean was left waiting.

From 1936, her path took a turn for the worst. She became pregnant with William Powell's baby. She was pulled in the many directions, for she wanted to keep the baby but also knew that Bill didn't want a child. To make matters worse, the couple were still not yet married. Under pressure from her mother, she went ahead and got an abortion, never telling Bill of the child. This put on a toll on her emotionally and physically. Upon attending the Oscars of that year with Bill, Clark, and Carole Lombard she was so sick that Carole had to help her to the powder room to recover. In the early part of the next year, she suffered a bout of influenza. Even dental surgery to have two teeth removed that spring put a great strain on her, all of this setting the tone for her final months. Jean's failing health was like a train heading dangerously down the wrong track, but she kept pushing on.

She began the filming of Saratoga (1937) with her 'brother' Clark. By now, Jean began to gain weight despite the constant diets she was on to keep her trim figure. Her usually pearly complexion of skin had faded into a shade that was gray and sickly looking. On film she had lost her typical glow and radiance, and in reality her condition grew worse. But Jean was a trooper and not one to disappoint the many cast members who were working on the film - so she pushed on.

One day on set (May the 29th), a scene called for Clark to pick her up and throw her onto a couch. But when Clark picked up his friend he was faced with a great struggle. He noticed more closely the gray hue of her bloated face, her heavy breathing, and the sweat lacing her brow. He gently laid her down on the couch and called for the director to cut. Despite the protests of the star that she could go on, the studio doctor insisted she be sent to a medical center.

But her "Mama Jean" 's religion did not believe in doctors, so instead of being sent to a hospital, she brought Jean home and cared for her herself, alongside some nurses, for a week. 

For seven days, the movie queen rested in bed amongst tangled silk bedsheets, her limp peroxide blonde hair fanning the pillow she lay upon. Jean did not improve. She desperately tried to spend this 'resting period' getting through the beginning of Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind, but she was too frail to turn the pages. When her mother finally allowed to be submitted into Good Samaritan hospital on the eighth day of her grave illness, following episodes of vomiting and delirium, Jean reminded her nursemaid to pack her copy of Gone With the Wind so she could finish it while she was there. The nursemaid shook her head, "She'll never finish it," and this prediction was to come true.

At the hospital, her mother only let Clark Gable and William Powell visit her, both greatly disturbed by the appearance of the woman they both loved so much. Up until this point the reason of her illness was believed to have been an inflamed gallbladder, but when Clark leaned into kiss her he smelled what he thought was urine on her breath. He told this to the doctors and it was quickly discovered that Jean was suffering from urine poisoning, or what is known today as acute kidney injury. 

What had been happening to Jean that over the years her kidneys had been failing, and it was leading up to a great  illness like what she was experiencing. The reason she was becoming so heavy was because her body was being filled with toxins. All of this might have been repercussions of the scarlet fever she'd fared when she was fifteen. But in 1937, it was hard to treat kidney failure, and even though for years afterwards rumors would swirl that it was her mother's fault, for not taking her to the hospital sooner, she really could not have been helped. Kidney failure was just untreatable in this time.

Her state of kidney disease was so advanced, Jean could only excrete waste through the forms of breath and sweat. Her situation, which had been downplayed before this, became immediately an emergency as the hospital became besides themselves with ways to treat her. They shaved her bottle blonde hair away in desperation, for they thought some fluid might be able to drained from her head. But there was nothing that could be done for Jean. She lapsed into a coma and not much later, on June 3rd, 1937, at about 11:37 A.M she passed away. She was twenty-six.

It was a sad and tragic end to a star who had shone so brightly. Even though she had been ignoring her constant illness, fatigues, sunburn, etc. which were all symptoms of this disease, the capacity of medical knowledge at the time was not enough to treat her kidney failure. This was a time before dialysis.

News of the death of "Baby" spread fast throughout MGM. Spencer Tracy wrote somberly in his diary, "Jean Harlow died today. Grand gal." When the word was released to the general public, the cause of death given was uremia, which was what was stated in the official doctor's records. Throughout the years, rumors and suspicion would plague Jean's 'mysterious' death, though it wasn't all that mysterious at all. It was indeed a sad and haunting way for the movie star to pass, but the reasons were pretty clear cut. That terrible bout of scarlet fever she'd suffered at the age of fifteen had weakened her kidneys and her fate had become sealed from that point on. Still, people came up with their own reasons for her death - alcoholism, a botched abortion, or even that the peroxide MGM used to keep her hair that famous blonde shade had poisoned her. When the medical records were released the public in the 1990s, the reasons for Jean's death became quite obvious and the issue was put to rest. Though people may continue to say she might have been 'saved' had she not waited so long for proper medical care, it is untrue. In 1937, nothing could have saved her.

MGM planned a lavish funeral for her, and William Powell secured a glamorous crypt for at Forest Lawn. She was buried in one of the sexy gowns she'd worn in Libeled Lady (1936), and it is said a single white gardenia was slipped inside the casket, with a note from William Powell in her hands that read, "Goodnight, my dearest darling." The inscription on her gravestone is simple: "Our Baby."

With her early, tragic death, "Harlow" became an icon. Though her trademark bombshell looks would be overshadowed by Marilyn Monroe's rendition of the style in later years, for the earlier part of the 20th century it was Jean who claimed this iconic status. She was remembered as a wisp of a glamorous figure, suddenly there and suddenly not; some even like to claim her ghost haunts the old home she shared with her third husband, Paul Bern, who committed suicide. (I don't go for that whole, Classic Hollywood and ghosts thing, it's not the way I'd like to remember them; I think of them as family, which fills me with warm feelings, and not with spooky ones; you know?). In the 1960s, a film of her life was created, with Carroll Baker playing her.

Clark Gable, who likely knew her better than anyone, was very right when he said she never wanted to be famous; only to be happy. Jean Harlow would most likely have been satisfied still being "Harlean Carpenter" and living in some middle class home someplace, being a housewife with plenty of kids and going to the movie matinee on occasion - dreaming of being the leading lady of that film only for about two hours, then happily returning to her world and knowing that was where she belonged. 

According to one MGM writer, "The day 'the baby' died there wasn't one sound in the commissary for three hours... not one goddamn sound."

"I'm not a great actress, and I never thought I was. But I happen to have something the public likes."


After all this researching I've done on Jean, I'm really happy I chose her for this blogathon. I learned so much about her; and if you'll remember, I chose her as one of the ten actresses I wanted to see more of in 2012, and now I'm definitely apt to see her movies. I sympathize with her story so much after reading about her. I feel particularly sad knowing she was about Lucy's age when she died.

Also, all the information I gathered for this post about her was what I learned online, so if you're a real hardcore Jean fan and know tons of information on her, feel free to correct me ;) I apologize for any discrepancies there may be with her health diagnosis, I tried my best! :) OH, also, if anyone wants to suggest any Jean movies as well as any biographies about her, please comment letting me know! I'm really eager to find out more about her and see some of her films. I'm especially looking for her books about her.

I hope you liked my contribution and be sure and check out Comet over Hollywood for the rest of the entries! There are sure to be many great posts and I can't wait to read them! :) And a special thank you to Jessica for arranging this blogathon to pay tribute to the many stars we lost way too soon.


StanwyckFan said...

Rianna, that was gorgeous. And, for the record, you need to stop making me cry with your writing. Really, darling, it's too,too beautiful. <3 RIP Baby.


You got Jean Harlow and knew nothing about her? You've written an amazing post! She is one of my favorite actresses and I would never have done better! I didn't even know that she had an abortion.
If you want to know more about her, a good idea may be watching "Dinner at Eight", where she shows her comic skills. I've already watched "Public Enemy", where she is just sexy and makes James Cagney mistreat May Clarke (with a grapefruit) and also "China Seas", where she wants Clark Gable to love her again.
I wish you learn to love Jean, too!
I'm also at the blogathon, I've written about someone quite new to me: Olive Thomas.

Dawn said...

I really loved reading your Jean Harlow, contribution. She is one of my favorite actresses. I think the classic film Red Dust, was my first film of hers that I saw..

FlickChick said...

A very sweet post about a real sweetheart of an actress. My favorite Jean Performance is in "Dinner at Eight" closely followed by "Red Dust." One thing she was right about - she sure had something the public loved - and still loves to this day.

The Gal Herself said...

What a lovely post! I was a fan of Harlow with Gable and had read a lot about her short, scandalous marriage to Paul Bern, but I didn't know about aborting William Powell's child. Such a tragedy! She deserved a better biopic than the one with Caroll Baker. Hopefully one will be made someday.

My blogathon post:

KimWilson said...

Nice profile. Someone should have slapped her mother!

Kristen said...

Excellent write-up! I'm currently reviewing the films of Jean Harlow for her birthday and it's sad that fans of Marilyn Monroe don't see the connections between her and Harlow. Harlow always played such a strong character and her life was filled with nothing but heartache (a harsh upbringing, the suicide of her husband). The best thing I live about Harlow is her relationship with William Powell. You can see in the films they made together how much love they had for each other and even though they were separated, he was with her when she died. The movies aren't all great, but she's great in them. Excellent!

Irene Palfy said...

Love this post, Rianna! It's great! Two of my favourite Harlow films are HOLD YOUR MAN (1933) or LIBELED LADY (1936).. -though I like most (if not ALL) of her films I saw till now.. Have a great weekend - and it's great that you joined this blogathon.

Anonymous said...

I like that you quoted Spencer Tracy, who called her a "Grand Gal". She truly was. Loved, absolutely loved, her in "Dinner at Eight".

Rianna said...

Natalie: Awww you are really too sweet:) Thank you so, so, much dear.

Le: Wow, thank you so much, this means a lot especially because you say you're a big fan of Jean's! I was really nervous that I hadn't portrayed Jean's personality correctly, or I had botched her health diagnosis... so I'm glad you like it. ;) Thanks so much for all the film suggestions! I haven't seen any of them and can't wait to check them out. :)

Dawn: Thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed it! I really want to see "Red Dust" as I've seen "Mogambo", but I can never find it anywhere! ;)

FlickChick: Thank you so much! She really does seem like a sweetheart and I can't wait to some of her films.

The Gal Herself: Her life seems so interesting; I really want to read a biography on her now. When researching for this I was trying to focus on her death but tidbits about her marriage to Paul Bern kept filtering in and now I'm especially curious about it. Thanks for your comment! :)

KimWilson: It's so sad. And technically it's not her mother's fault, because they couldn't have helped her even if they had gotten her to the hospital quicker, but I too am frustrated by her lack of urgency to help her sick daughter.

Kristen: It is sad that Marilyn fans can't see the connection between the two; the are quite similar. I plan on seeing "Wife vs. Secretary" tonight, so it'll be my first Powell/Harlow film. I think she was finally happy in her life, with Bill Powell, and then she had to get sick and pass away so quickly. It's such a terrible shame. Thanks for your comment! :)

Irene: Thank you, Irene! :) I've seen Libeled Lady but I'll have to check Hold Your Man out. You have a great weekend, too!

Anon: Thanks, she definitely seems like she was a wonderful person who suffered too much in her life. I really have to check out "Dinner at Eight" now! :)

Anonymous said...

I knew a lot about Jean Harlow and your post is spot on-great job! :)

KC said...

I don't think that the story about Harlow's mom keeping her away from the hospital was true (that might have been refuted in the David Stenn biography), but everything else seems to be spot on! This must have been so much work for you since you are new to Harlow. Great job. Harlow's acting improved so much during the time she worked. She went from wooden and almost laughable to hilarious and deeply touching within a couple of years. That makes me wonder if she was actually close to her peak and ending her career anyway so she could pursue the family life she wanted. The Stenn biography and one by Eve Golden are both good resources. I also recommend Bombshell and Red Dust for viewing. She's hilarious in both flicks.

Page said...

Your write up on Jean was perfect! I wouldn't change or add a thing. So much has been written about Jean and her life, a lot of idle gossip and untruths that your bio was refreshing and wonderfully done!

My granny died of the same thing as Jean. I hope Jean didn't suffer as much as she did. Jean was stricken ill at a time when diagnosis and treatment was either rare or just lacking. Sadly for Jean!

She really was a wonderful actress and one I would loved to have seen carry on for many years! She had so many wonderful performances left to give us.

A fantastic contribution to the Blogathon and one Jean herself would enjoy.

Rianna said...

Thanks so much!!! :)

Rianna said...

Thanks so much, I'm so glad, I thought I'd botched a lot up ;) I'll have to check out your recommandations. I really want to see both Bombshell and Red Dust, but I can't find either of them anywhere... oh well, I guess I can wait until TCM shows them next. :) Thanks again for your suggestions and kind words!

Rianna said...

Oh wow, thanks so much, that's very kind of you!! I'm real glad you liked it. :)

Oh, that's terrible. When I was researching I just kept feeling worse and worse for Jean because uremic poisoning sounds terrible; and as you said, Jean was just untreatable at the time. So sad :(

I'm really starting to enjoy her as an actress and hope to see more of her. :) "one Jean herself would enjoy" - this really put a big smile on my face. Thank you!!

Anonymous said...

I do have one question though: Why would her mother force her to get an abortion if she didn't believe in getting medical help because she was a Christian Scientist? It doesn't add up. The problem is all of the conflicting accounts. We may never know the truth.

tjo1976 said...

Just one correction I would of death was June 7th, not June 3rd (I have a thing about dates and numbers) but otherwise well done. I admit I didn't know much about her either until recently. It's a sad story though. I didn't know that Marilyn Monroe modeled herself after Harlow either. Good to know...

Anonymous said...

Did husband commit suicide or was he killed by his estranged common law wife? She committed suicide the following day by jumping in a river. Why would he have committed suicide after just marrying the love of his life? And the Mayer covered the whole thing up...set up the suicide scene to protect Jean and to keep her filming schedule.

Flyingboye said...

as; tjo1976 said.
June 7... i have thing about numbers and dates too

Phillip Mendoza said...

I knew nothing of Jean until 3 years ago I had a ghostly encounter with her and Carole Lombard and Thelma Todd. Sounds crazy i know but now i enjoy movies of the golden age.

Phillip Mendoza said...

Platinum Blonde stands as my favorite Harlow movie.

cc said...

Such a shame her life ended too soon. William Powell was a class act, so I believe they were destined to be happy had she lived.

cc said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Southern_Magnolia said...

Jean Harlow's mother & step-mother sponged off of Jean's earnings. While she was hard at work, Jean would come home to a party in full swing paid for by her own funds who her mother controlled. If Jean lost her star status and could not work due to a baby out of wedlock (even though I believe Bill Powell would have married her if he knew about the pregnancy), the gravy train would have rolled to a stop and Momma-Jean might see her gigolo husband leave her for good.

Southern_Magnolia said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Southern_Magnolia said...

I agree.

Southern_Magnolia said...

I agree.

Southern_Magnolia said...


Anonymous said...

Hi Everyone: Free Kindle book The Girl From Missouri the autobiography of Jean Harlow July 9-13, 2017.

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Unknown said...

😢 beautiful

Star 7 said...

The Girl From Missouri available in paperback. JH autobiography. Enjoy

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