they knew men, and how

by Megan Abbott

When I was, I’m guessing, about seven years old, I was entranced by 1930s movies, as viewed on Bill Kennedy at the Movies on WKBD-Channel 50 in Detroit (Kennedy merits his own post–a 1940s  Warner Brothers’ contract player, he was a true local gem and I owe him, and my  parents, all my movie love).

My first big movie star crushes were Jimmy Cagney and Jean Harlow, sparked by a mesmerized viewing of Public Enemy. My parents bought me a wonderful book, The Films of Jean Harlow (just looking at the cover now is like a madeleine), and I must have read and re-read every page countless times. She seemed the height of movie-star sophistication to me–the Platinum Blonde, white satin dresses always sliding off her shoulders, her sooty-black eyelashes and cherried mouth. Later, I would understand her star persona–less a glamour gal than a bombshell with a heart of gold (even when, before her persona was firmly in place, she played a bad girl, you never quite believed her).

The fact that she died so young, at age 26, and had such a hard life (many marriages, parasitic family members) made her story all the more compelling. I’m not sure what it was that so entranced me–my appreciation of her now, especially her immense comedic gifts, is an adult appreciation, a movie-lover’s appreciation.

But at age seven, eight, she represented something quite grand, sparkling, transcendent. I wonder too if her unique physicality was part of it–when not miscast, and when past the awkwardness of some of her earliest screen appearances, she had this completely natural way of moving, her lovely platinum body just seeming to slip from its clothes (she famously wore no undergarments). She seemed so comfortable in her own skin.  She was so vivid and vital and I loved her. I still do.

All month, Tuesdays on Turner Classic Movies are dedicated to her films and there are many rarely shown treasures (one, Three Wise Girls (1932), I DVR-ed last Tuesday but still, catching five minutes of it, I couldn’t stop watching. All its pre-Code majesty–Mae Clarke advising Jean on what undergarments to wear to attract a man, and how to walk in them–a moment which seems to appear in all pre-Code movies).

In honor, the famous rain barrel scene from Red Dust, with the incomparable Clark Gable, a close friend. After she died, he said, “She didn’t want to be famous. She wanted to be happy.”

20 Comments to “they knew men, and how”

  1. I’m so envious of you with both TCM and a DVR!

    Sadly they don’t have that book you mention at Strand. They do have one by Eve Golden — “Platinum Girl: The Life and Legends of Jean Harlow” — is that one worth checking out?

  2. I don’t know if I know that one or not (it does look familiar)–but Films of Jean Harlow wasn’t a bio—it was a film by film overview, even the small ones–so it felt like you were SEEING all those movies. So great. For bios, I really like the David Stenn one–do you know it? http://www.amazon.com/Bombshell-Life-Death-Jean-Harlow/dp/0967282225/ref=ntt_at_ep_dpi_2
    He wrote that good Clara Bow one too

  3. I dig those film-by-film books! I just got one on the dual careers of Lillian and Dorothy Gish, which was put together by Lillian. It is mostly stills, candids, and other memorabilia — and it includes a lot of her theatrical career after she left the movies, as well!

  4. Aren’t they great? Right around the time I got the Harlow one, my parents got me the Cary Grant one, which I know just as well (I feel like I could recite them, if pressed!)

  5. Isn’t it funny how much we relied on books to learn about movies then? Some movies just weren’t available, so reading about them was almost as exciting. Of course, I’m a lot older than you! Was your Harlow book one of those “Pyramid Illustrated History of the Movies” books? They were small, silver-and-white. I have the Myrna Loy, Cary Grant, and Robert Mitchum editions. Oh, wait… those “films of” books! Larger format… My sister had the Ginger Rogers one. Someone should also write at greater length about those hosted afternoon movie showcases on local TV, and how important they were in their way. I blogged about my afternoon movies a little while back, hosted by a really square guy named Max Goodman.

  6. This is SO true, Jack–to this day, there are so many movies I’m sure I’ve seen that I then realize I haven’t. I felt like I saw the whole Lee Tracy oeuvre long before I’d seen him live!
    I remember those Pyramid Illustrated History of the Movies! I don’t think the Harlow was one of those but I remember a Lana Turner one, for sure! Another favorite of mine: The MGM Story. Oh, now I see there WAS a Harlow one, but not the one I had: http://www.amazon.com/Harlow-Pyramid-illustrated-history-movies/dp/0515042471
    Your Bill Kennedy is Max! Bill wore the greatest sports jackets and sat at a desk and, if I recall correctly, smoke a lot.
    Now, safely ensconced in the comment section of another blog, can you tell the Deanna Durbin joke?? Because the ones I’m currently writing in my head are….

  7. I remember “Bill Kennedy At the Movies”. It was so easy find old black and white films on TV when I was growing up in Michigan in the 60s and 70s. Well, all we had was a black and white TV. Anyhow, there were always late night classics to fall asleep to. It was in high school in Ann Arbor when my movie love exploded at the University film co-ops. Every night a choice of six to eight different classic or foreign films to choose from. Heaven. Then I met a sweet old guy when I was sixteen. He had a massive silent film collection in his apartment, sixteen and super 8, and I spent every Friday night for six years drinking Manhattans and listening to a wellspring of movie knowledge that’s long gone now. He was friends with Lillian Gish. It pains me to wonder what happened to all that stuff after he died. Movies!

    • Oh, Russell, how did he have all those movies? just a collector? how wonderful!

      • Russell, that sounds too good to be true! I’m so jealous!

      • I’m not sure how my friend Art got started collecting silent film (and pornography — gay, straight, and body building fetish — but that’s a different thread). All I know is that this elderly unmarried gentleman, a piano player by trade, had been doing it for a long time. He had every silent film that was available to purchase. His library of books about silent film was complete. There was a screen that would roll down on the far wall of the living room with the touch of a switch. Sixteen mm and super 8 projectors stood on platforms behind the couch where we drank our Manhattans and ate dry crackers with Muenster cheese. D.W. Griffith was Art’s particular area of expertise. He had in his possession some paper prints of an unreleased Griffith short, and was in the process of editing it for a museum. He’d gotten to know Lillian Gish at some point and talked to her on the phone occasionally. I believe the contents of his apartment ended up at a college in Florida after he died, though there was a time when I secretly hoped he might leave it all to me. Perhaps if I’d been more compliant on that couch at 17. Who knows.

  8. It was about a film of hers entitled (if I am recalling correctly) ONE HUNDRED MEN AND A GIRL. Let’s leave it at that!

  9. And other movies that came on OVER and OVER on “The Big Show” are invading my mind! It’s like that madeline you were talking about! Like, I watched one called EVERYTHING’S DUCKY, in which I believe Mickey Rooney owned a talking duck. IS THAT POSSIBLE? And one called IT GROWS ON TREES, in which a woman discovers a tree in her backyard with money growing on it, unless I am insane. And is there one in which Sid Caesar or somebody learns how to fly? I think it may have been called BIRDS DO IT. Man, you were lucky to get the Jean Harlow movies!

  10. I think you just made up ALL those movies! [they also appear to be perfect candidates for the DePalma-Lynch-Lewis canon!]. I’m sure I watched many, many lesser ones too (more of the Apple Dumpling gang variety!)

  11. I have several of those “Pyramid Illustrated History of the Movies” books. Charles Silvers’ one on The Western is still one of my favorite books on the genre.

    I grew up in Maine and, after I exhausted our public library, had to rent VHS tapes from Chicago! Luckily our library had a number of books about movies, so I browsed through those lots. And catalogs! The old Facets and Movies Unlimited catalogs were very educational. Somehow I got on some mailing lists that were made on manual typewriters and had bootlegs of old Hollywood movies (especially horror, silent, and serial) — I wish I had kept those! I had no friggin clue what any of those movies were at the time!

    • The guy I mention above, the silent film nut who inspired my unending love of old movies, used to get his stuff on film from old mimeographed, hand type-written catalogs like the ones you mention. It would be great to have a few of those to look back on. I’ll bet most of that stuff will not be available on Netflix for a very long time.

  12. I have ONE HUNDRED MEN AND A GIRL — Deanna Durbin, Adolphe Menjou, Alice Brady, Eugene Pallette, Mischa Auer and Leopold Stokowski — what a combo!

  13. Jean is forever!! I put this up before but it’s such a hot edit I gotta do it again: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1iabQmjaWCM&feature=related

  14. Byoot, Nathan!

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