Mention the name Jean Harlow and what do you think of?
A waif thin, sassy young woman with gleaming platinum blonde hair, dressed in slinky, skimpy gowns that left little to the imagination. She's a Hollywood legend. A fully paid up member of the 'they don't make 'em like that anymore' brigade that also numbers Garbo, Dietrich and Marilyn Monroe to name but three.
She is so universally well known, you could be forgiven for thinking she had a long, illustrious career spanning many dozens of films and the odd Academy Award, but the actress born Harlean Harlow Carpenter on Match 3rd 1911, in Kansas City, had a career spanning just 8 years before her untimely death (from acute renal failure) at the tender age of 26.
Her screen persona was the wisecracking, unconventional broad with a line in suggestive remarks and a talent for displaying her body to its best advantage. She rarely, if ever, wore a brassiere - a fact not lost on her many adoring male fans. In fact, it has been stated that she never wore any underwear, slept in the nude and put ice cubes on her nipples immediately before shooting a scene, in order to appear sexier! Yet, in much the same way as Marilyn Monroe a couple of decades later, she counted thousands of female fans among her admirers. As Harlow herself said, "Men like me because I don't wear a brassiere. Women like me because I don't look like a girl who would steal a husband. At least not for long."
Harlow packed a lot of living, not a little tragedy - and three marriages - into her 26 years. She ran away from home at 16 to marry businessman Charles McGraw, but their marriage lasted less than three years and ended in divorce. Actor Paul Bern fell for her charms and they were married in 1932. Shockingly, just two months later, he was found dead of shotgun wounds in his dressing room. A verdict of suicide was delivered, although this was subject to much speculation and controversy that he might have been murdered.
Harlow's third husband was cameraman Harold Rosson, who worked with her on her most famous films - Red Dust, Red-Headed Woman and Blonde Bombshell. He captured both her looks and effervescence with perfect insight into what made Harlow unique. Sadly, it seems professional admiration wasn't enough to make this marriage stick and it lasted less than a year.
Harlow was a natural comedienne and there is probably no better example of this talent than in her only major starring role in which she failed to appear with her trademark platinum hair. Anita Loos wrote the perfect script for her in Red-Headed Woman.
Most of us, when we imagine Harlow, think of her in black and white. Hardly surprising really, for this most colourful of characters only appears in glorious Technicolour for eight minutes of her acting life - in the 1930 hit film, Hell's Angels.
She made six films with Clark Gable who adored her. While the rest of the studio called her 'Baby' (she was only 5' 1"), he called her 'Sis'. Perhaps fittingly, her last film was with him. While filming Saratoga, she became increasingly ill, until she was unable to continue. Gable said he felt he was holding a ghost in his arms. The final scenes had to be shot using her stand-in and employing long and wide camera angles.
Poor health had dogged Harlow most of her life. As a teenager she had suffered from scarlet fever and meningitis and this had left her permanently weakened. In the last year of her life, she contracted an apparent case of acute sunburn. a throat infection and influenza. She collapsed in May 1937, but seemed to be rallying when, on June 6th, she fell into a coma from which she never awoke. She died on June 7th 1937 with her fiance, actor William Powell, at her side, along with her mother, stepfather and cousin. It was widely reported - and even shown in a film of her life made many years later - that her mother's Christian Scientist beliefs had led to a refusal to allow medical intervention which might have saved her life. This has now been discounted as without foundation.
Her legacy lives on and she has inspired generations of blonde bombshells. Marilyn Monroe was one of her greatest fans and was approached to play her in a biopic of Harlow's life. When she saw the script, she declined, saying, "I hope they don't do that to me after I'm gone."
Jean Harlow was ranked 49th Greatest Movie Star of All Time by Entertainment Weekly.