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.”