BY STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@MiamiHerald.com
Platinum-haired Jean Harlow — who died suddenly at 26 in 1937 — quickly became one of early Hollywood’s biggest stars, known worldwide by her last name. Warner Archive has just released a seven-film set ($50, DVD on demand) commemorating what would have been Harlow’s 100th birthday.
Among the films in the set: Riffraff from 1935, co-starring Spencer Tracy as her husband and 15-year-old Mickey Rooney as her brother.
“I worked in a picture with her,” he said. “I made 350 movies!”
Was the wisecracking Harlow a talented actress? “Are you kidding?” Rooney shouted. “And she was nice! Fame? She didn’t care about that. She was just a nice girl.”
Two years after they worked together, Harlow collapsed on the set of Saratoga, co-starring her close friend Clark Gable. She died a week later of kidney failure. Rooney, then on the cusp of Andy Hardy fame, recalls the studio shut down the day of her funeral. “They felt sorry and mournful. She had a rough end.”
MGM finished Saratoga using body and voice doubles for Harlow and rush-released it a month after her death. The film, also in the box set, was MGM’s top moneymaker of 1937. Other titles in the set: Bombshell (1933); The Girl From Missouri set in Palm Beach (1934); Reckless (1935); Suzy (1936) and Personal Property (1937).
A natural ash blonde, Harlow achieved her signature look by weekly hair bleachings with Clorox and Lux flakes. So damaging was the process, she had to wear wigs in several of her films. MGM still photographers used a dentist’s lamp to light her head from behind, creating a striking halo effect.
“There was no one else like her,” said photographer Mark A. Vieira, co-author (with Darrell Rooney) of this year’s Harlow in Hollywood: The Blonde Bombshell in the Glamour Capital, 1928-1937. “There never was a star who had a combination of uninhibited sexuality and a kind of gentleness and sweetness.”
In 1965, two feature films were made about her, both titled Harlow. One starred Carroll Baker; the other Carol Lynley. Both bios made up details about Harlow’s short 1932 marriage to MGM producer Paul Bern, including a wedding night beating that never was proved.
The fictionalized versions, however, pale compared to what really happened, according to Vieira.
Harlow, the era’s greatest sex symbol, had married a man with “undersized genitals,” Vieira said.
No one knows if Harlow — known at MGM as The Baby — and Bern consummated their marriage.
“Harlow was starting to pester him. Aren’t we going to do this?” Vieira said.
Sixty-five days after they wed, Bern, 42, shot and killed himself — widowing the screen siren at age 21.