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Robert Osborne on Jean Harlow
Remind Me

Robert Osborne on Jean Harlow

Since the movie medium is now well into its second century, it's virtually impossible for anybody to be "the first" to do something cinematically. Make a 3D movie? Some folks still have aching eyes from when third-dimension movies were a craze fifty-eight years ago. Watch a film on an iPhone? Basically, people were watching movies that size when "flickers" were initially introduced in small machines called Nickelodeons over 100 years ago. Even in the early 1930s, when our TCM Star of the Month Jean Harlow began her spectacular career, it was not easy to do something in the film world no one had done before. But Harlow did have first-time bragging rights on one thing: she was the first in what became a long line of platinum blonde bombshells who have added sizzle, sensuality and sassiness to the film medium ever since.

Before Harlow, vamps and seductresses always tended to be sloe-eyed, exotic, slinky and, 99 percent of the time, dark-haired. Not Harlow. She was numero uno to become a major star by being bold, brassy and determinedly blonde. Thereafter came a long parade of others who likewise were intimately acquainted with peroxide bottles, and that continues to our (Lady) Gaga present day. Those who followed have included several blondies who triumphantly turned heads as they strutted their salty sex appeal and did it spectacularly well (notably Lana Turner and Betty Grable in the 1940s and Marilyn Monroe, who took the blonde bombshell image to the level of high art in the 1950s), but most others have been mere pretenders to the throne built and inhabited by Jean Harlow in her time. The amazing thing is that the Harlow time was so shockingly short.

Not counting the early years when she did extra work and played bit parts, her reign encompassed only eight years and twenty-two films. Stardom came at eighteen in 1930's Hell's Angels, she was a sensation at twenty-one in 1932's Red Dust, legendary at twenty-three in 1933's Dinner at Eight, and dead three years later at the age of twenty-six (of uremic poisoning, since revealed to be the result of longstanding kidney disease). This month on TCM we'll be showing twenty Harlow endeavors, which will give you ample opportunity to see why she still fascinates, entertains and amuses us.

What made her so popular? Well, the face, the figure and the blonde tresses were certainly all a plus factor. Check her out in 1932's Red-Headed Woman and you'll see what a difference the color of hair did make. Other Harlow assets: that spunky "I hear you knockin' but you can't come in" attitude that she flaunted so deliciously. Another reason people adored her then, as new audiences do today, is because she was a brightly gifted actress and comedienne who despite the tough exterior seemed, at heart, a kind, sensible, immensely likeable human being. Costars and friends such as Myrna Loy and Rosalind Russell certainly thought so. They were among those who, three decades after Harlow's death, were so insulted by a salacious book about their longgone friend that each went on numerous television talk shows with fire in her eyes to repudiate the author's words and defend Harlow's reputation. It takes an extraordinary person to inspire that kind of devotion.

It's that lively lady we think you'll thoroughly enjoy spending time with Tuesdays in March on TCM, beginning March 8.

by Robert Osborne