Shot in eight days on a threadbare budget, in the same video-to-film process, “electronovision,” that had been used for Richard Burton’s dress-rehearsal Hamlet (Bill Colleran, John Gielgud, 1964), Alex Segal’s Harlow, from a script by Karl Tunberg (William Wyler’s Ben-Hur, 1959, don’t-you-know), succeeded in beating to exhibition by one month Joseph E. Levine’s much more expensive screen biography of Depression-era star Jean Harlow, the “blonde bombshell,” who died at age 26 of uremic poisoning. The second version bore the same title (Gordon Douglas, 1965) and, despite lavish production values, is, almost everyone agrees, the lesser film—although both are so superficial and wildly inaccurate that it hardly matters. But it does matter some. Whereas the Douglas version is lurid, the Segal version is merely tawdry.
Carol Lynley plays Jean Harlow, born Harlean Harlow Carpenter in Kansas City, Missouri, who arrived in Hollywood at age 16, accompanied by her mother, Jean Bello, whose ambition for her daughter’s success was legendary. In this, Mama Jean was very much like Lela Rogers, who accompanied her daughter, Ginger, to Hollywood—although Ginger Rogers had (much) more talent to push and be pushed, having already made a splash as the ingenue on Broadway in the Gershwins’ Girl Crazy, singing (in duets) “Embraceable You” and “But Not for Me.” (Making a bigger splash: Ethel Merman, who introduced her full-throated anthem, “I Got Rhythm.”) Days before shooting started, Judy Garland dropped out of Harlow and was replaced by Lela’s legendary Ginger, whose full-bodied performance as Mama Jean, both extravagant and penetrating, steals the show. One pivotal scene, which employs a huge staircase as a prop, finds Rogers nailing a staggering silent moment when Mama Jean decides to throw her vulnerable daughter to the wolves for the sake of her own marriage to a ne’er-do-well. Here, in a glimpse into the abyss of monstrous humanity, we are moved to confront the selfishness of a “stage mother.” But it’s almost unfair to single out even such a brilliant moment as this in a thoroughly remarkable, revelatory, lived-in performance such as Rogers seemingly effortlessly, seamlessly delivers.
It is to her credit that Lynley doesn’t get lost in the film; her Jean Harlow, sparkling with sensitive self-doubt, commands attention, even if it doesn’t quite electrify. (Here, I am comparing Lynley’s Harlow with the onscreen Harlow as well as Rogers.) Because William Powell refused to allow the makers of either version to use him as a character (he was the love of the actual Harlow’s life), he was dropped from the scenario of the Douglas film and called “William Mansfield” in the Segal film, where this character, an amalgam, also suggests Harlow’s most frequent co-star, Clark Gable. Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., is excrutiating in this role.
Since other names are changed as well, it is somewhat fun to try to guess who is meant to be whom. On the other hand, studio head Louis B. Mayer is given his own name and is, as played by Jack Kruschen (Jack Lemmon’s kindly next-door neighbor in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, 1960), an irredeemable louse.
The real Jean Harlow was very much loved by co-workers and set crews; she was by all accounts one of the nicest people in Hollywood. This film is as deficient at getting at this truth as it is at getting at the dimensions of her stardom. “Beautiful Jean Harlow Dead,” read a famous newspaper front-page headline. Onscreen, she is perhaps at her vulgar best in George Cukor’s Dinner at Eight (1933)—the same year that Ginger Rogers, in a costume of coins, sang “We’re in the Money,” in Mervyn LeRoy’s Gold-Diggers of 1933, and danced with Fred Astaire the “Carioca” in Flying Down to Rio.
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