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Shooting star

A new coffee-table book and a UCLA film series highlight the all-too-brief career of screen siren Jean Harlow.

August 02, 2011|Kenneth Turan | Film Critic

"I want to be gay, I want to be free," the stunning young woman says, vivacious, casually amoral, all but blistering the screen. "Life is short and I want to live it while I'm alive."

The actress is Jean Harlow, and the bitter irony is that she lived only eight years past that moment of dialogue in Howard Hughes' legendary "Hell's Angels," dying of kidney failure at age 26 in 1937. Yet in that short span of time Hollywood's original platinum blond created an impressive body of work that is shockingly little seen today.

For though most people know Harlow's name, knowledge of her career and of specific films beyond iconic items like "Dinner at Eight" is not as widespread as it should be.

Because this year marks the centenary of her birth, opportunities for catching up are thick on the ground. An elegant coffee-table book, Darrell Rooney and Mark A. Vieira's "Harlow in Hollywood," has just been published by Angel City Press, the Hollywood Museum is presenting an exhibit about her career, and best of all, a new UCLA Film & Television Archive series starting Friday at the Hammer Museum in Westwood lets us see the work.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, August 03, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Jean Harlow: An article about Jean Harlow in the Aug. 2 Calendar section said that her film "Platinum Blonde" was released in 1930. It was released in 1931.

As its name suggests, "Harlow Before the Code" screens nine of the features the actress made before the draconian Production Code put a crimp in the kind of unapologetic sexuality she was so good at projecting. Though these films cover only the short span from 1930-33, they are exciting as a group as well as individually because they enable us to watch Harlow develop as an actress and a comedienne.

Friday night's opening program starts with one of Harlow's silent shorts, the classic Leo McCarey-written Laurel & Hardy "Double Whoopee" (1929), in which the actress, with less than two minutes of screen time, is not called on to do anything but look stunning. Mission accomplished.

"Hell's Angels" completes that night. It's best remembered today not for Harlow's vivid performance ("Would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?" is her most famous line) but for the overall extravagance of a production that cost a then-record $4 million and exposed an estimated 560 hours of film. Producer-director Hughes acquired about 40 aircraft -- and crashed a few of them -- for this story of U.S. pilots in Britain's World War I Royal Flying Corps.

Harlow wouldn't have even gotten the role of a free-spirited young woman involved with two brothers if Hughes hadn't made the midstream decision to turn this into a sound film and jettison the performance of Norwegian actress Greta Nissen. Introduced (and not for the last time) falling out of her dress, Harlow even at this early stage of her career already conveyed the relaxed and natural sexuality that became her trademark.

Though the actress was undeniably incandescent on screen, Hollywood didn't quite know what to do with her at first. In the surprisingly effective "Three Wise Girls," newly restored by Sony, she plays a virtuous small-town girl who moves to New York and tries to survive in a sexual jungle ruled by married men.

In "Platinum Blonde" (1930), on the other hand, she plays a wealthy temptress who tries to turn our hero, salt of the earth reporter Stew Smith (Robert Williams), into the 1930s version of a boy toy.

The film is notable as the first collaboration between director Frank Capra and writer Robert Riskin and as the first and last starring role for the singular Williams, who died of a burst appendix mere days after the film opened.

With "Red-Headed Woman" (1932), written by the formidable Anita Loos, the actress and her film roles started to hit their stride as Harlow's gift for wised-up comic dialogue became evident. Playing the ultimate gold-digger who insisted, with good reason, "when I kiss them, they stay kissed for a long time," Harlow's Lil "Red" Andrews always leaves men wanting more. Look for future heartthrob Charles Boyer in his first significant American role.

Harlow met her ideal costar when she teamed with Clark Gable for what turned out to be a string of six pictures. UCLA is showing two of them, one celebrated, one little seen. The rarer feature is "Hold Your Man" (1933), which starts with a Depression-era meet-cute between a con man and a good-time girl and ends with the pulling out of melodramatic stops that are almost beyond imagining.

The best-known Harlow-Gable collaboration is "Red Dust" (1932), set on an Indochina rubber plantation where Harlow's working girl hooks up with Gable's plantation owner before genteel Mary Astor spoils her fun. The repartee is fast and furious, with Harlow, who introduces herself as "Pollyanna, the glad girl" getting most of the good lines. Variety reported at the time that the film was "deemed too hot for Nazified Germany."

My personal favorite of the Harlow films (sadly paired with the forgettable "Goldie") is the crackling "Bombshell" (1933), a splendid satire of Hollywood moviemaking in general and protagonist Lola Burns' sex symbol persona in particular. Costarring with fast-talking Lee Tracy, Harlow was never funnier spoofing herself and Clara Bow, the original "It" girl. Not available on DVD, this is one not to miss.



'Harlow Before the Code'

Where: Billy Wilder Theater at the Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood

When: Screenings at 7:30 p.m. unless noted

Fri.: "Double Whoopee," "Hell's Angels"

Sat: "Hold Your Man," "Red-Headed Woman"

Mon: "Platinum Blonde"

Aug. 14 at 7 p.m.: "Iron Man," "Red Dust"

Aug. 26: "Goldie," "Bombshell"

Aug. 27: "Three Wise Girls"

Information: (310) 206-8013

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