The Rich Dividends of Sin: Women and Hollywood in the ’30’s

This is my second blog for the Jean Harlow Blogathon. While it does not concentrate solely on our lady of honor, it does concentrate on her era, and the time during which she was making films, in particular the film-making “odds” that she was up against. Enjoy!

Satan is ever seeking to convince people that the wages of sin is not death. Originally, he made that claim to Adam and Eve. Through the movies, he makes it again to our generation. Sin does seem to pay rich dividends in Hollywood.

-Dan Gilbert, Chairman, Christian Newspaper Men’s Committee to Investigate the Motion Picture Industry,

On May 17, 1934, the Chicago Tribune ran a small cartoon, entitled, “The Salacious Film Producing Company Debates Whether or Not to Get Worried.” It depicted five men and one woman crowded around a table, discussing a newspaper that one gentleman, in the chair marked “Salacious Film Producer,” is holding. The headline reads, “Nation Wide War Against Filthy Films.” Four men are drawn like stereotypical Hollywood executives- slightly balding, heavy-set, smoking cigars or a pipe, and wearing glasses. The fifth man seems to be the “Hollywood director type,” hair slicked back, a small moustache and a cigarette, short tight pants to just below the knee, and a short-sleeved shirt, open at the neck. The woman, dressed in a hat and stylish dress, with short hair, is standing just beside the director-type, with a cigarette in a holder. One of the executive-types is saying, “Why you’re one o’ the great educational influences o’ th’ country, Chief! Look what America was when you started educatin’ ‘em and look what it is today!” Another says, “Forget it Chief! Don’t Worry! These moral crusades soon blow over.”  The woman states bluntly, “Wait till you get your ten million, Chief, then you can reform without losing a cent.” But the crucial remark is from the director-type. He asks, rhetorically, “Hain’t you giving the people what they want? Is it our fault they’ve learned to like it rare?”

Like it rare, indeed. This cartoon, published at a quintessential juncture in the history of Hollywood motion pictures, was a salient reflection of the situation in Tinseltown. The “nation-wide war against filthy film” mentioned, had been raging for over 10 years in different forms. It was only in 1934, however, right around the publication of this cartoon, that it had reached epic levels.

The battle had started in 1922, when multiple Hollywood real-life scandals like the “Fatty” Arbuckle sex trial and actor Wallace Reid’s drug addiction, had elicited a public morality outcry. At this point a trade protection organization, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA), was incorporated, and the film industry appointed Will H. Hays as director, because his “conservative affiliations and sterling public image spoke well of the industry’s intentions.”[1] Hays began a program of self-regulation, but, unfortunately for them, that didn’t quite gel. Hollywood continued to be what a Catholic Church group deemed “the pest hole that infects the entire country with its obscene and lascivious moving pictures.”[2] In 1927, concerned as ever with the problem of censorship, Hays met with studio executives from Fox, M-G-M, and Paramount, and they orchestrated the first set of guidelines for the film industry, simply entitled the “Don’ts and Be Carefuls” while Hays organized the Studio Relations Committee (SRC) to implement them. However, suggesting that people “don’t” or “be careful” does not a clean picture make, and the films continued to make American moral groups bristle. Finally, in 1930, the “Code to Govern the Making of Talking, Synchronized and Silent Motion Pictures” was born; authored partially by Irving Thalberg, vice president in charge of production at M-G-M, and Martin Quigley, a Catholic Lay person and publisher of the Motion Picture Herald. As Leonard J. Leff and Jerold L. Simmons wrote, “the Code nonetheless promised some changes in Hollywood. Not only were the proscriptions more comprehensive than the Don’t and Be Carefuls, but Colonel Joy [Hays appointee who read scenarios and scripts] would attempt real enforcement.”[3]

The one thing that the PCA didn’t bank on was the effect that the Depression would have. The earlier Jazz Age of the twenties had people attending the theater in droves. Now, with unemployment at almost eight million Americans, the lush days were over, and the mounting East Coast pressure sent Hollywood a message straight from Darwin: those who produced runaway hits would keep their inflated salaries, swimming pools, and limousines; those who produced fizzles would join the soup lines…as attendance continued to slide, the cooperative spirit behind the initial success of the code dissolved.[4]

A multitude of things have changed in the last years since the Code, but the one thing that has never wavered is what sells. The same things that lure audiences to the movies in 2011, ensnared them to the screen in the early 1930s. Those who made films in 1930 knew about the restrictions. But they had a new code- the aphorism “sex and violence sells” was exactly what they followed, and if one were to look at the films that were produced at that time, they followed that code religiously, much to the distress of Will Hays, and his newly appointed public relations man for the Production Code, Joseph Breen.

Some films of the time include such titles as Two-Faced Woman, Sinners in the Sun, She Had to Say Yes, Night Nurse, Safe in Hell, I’m No Angel, Ladies of Leisure, The Greeks Had a Word For Them, Public Enemy, and Female. Clearly these were not what the PCA had in mind. But Hollywood pushed ‘em through, regardless. Sometimes, the racier the title, the better it was, even if it wasn’t particularly applicable to the plot. And the plots? They weren’t exactly Apple Pie and Mom. To the left of you, ladies and gentlemen, I give you drug addiction and alcoholism. To the right, we are offered rape and prostitution. Dead ahead of us, we can see all sorts of murder and criminal activity. Adultery, pregnancy out-of-wedlock, these were the subject matters dealt with in the films of the early 30’s.

On the other hand, these films are some of the most fascinating ones to come out of Hollywood since its inception, 100 years ago. There are a veritable plethora of reasons why these films are so provocative and interesting. However, the one thing that a multiplicity of films had during this time that they didn’t have again until possibly recently (and even that is arguable) is an exciting and unapologetically powerful location for women. Mick LaSalle, in his luminary work on women in the pre-Code era, writes,

The best era for women’s pictures was the pre-Code era…before the Code, women on screen took lovers, had babies out of wedlock, got rid of cheating husbands, enjoyed their sexuality, held down professional positions without apologizing for their self-sufficiency, and in general acted the way many of us think women only acted after 1968…That’s why the Code came in. Yes, to a large degree, the Code came in to prevent women from having fun. It was designed to put the genie back in the bottle- and the wife back in the kitchen.[5]

While there are many other reasons why the Code became strictly enforced in 1934, LaSalle’s estimation is not entirely faulty. This time period offered a type of role for women to play that, to this day, is still unusual. Cascading from the social changes in the 20’s for women, the right to vote, signature fashion changes, and the prevalence of more women going to college and entering the workforce, these films sought to reflect the emergence of power within “the weaker sex” by providing them with a wider assortment of icons and stories in an industry that soon limited their roles to those of less self-sufficient heroines. Although there is a multitude of instances of powerful female roles in the forties and beyond, they never quite had the same taste and free spirit attached to them as they did during the time before the Code of 1930 became an undeniable reality.

In addition to this, the Pre-Code era, due to its plethora of interesting roles for women, gave many actresses their start. In fact, many women began in Pre-Code films, established a certain “character” and became famous for that, even after the Code was enforced. One of these such women was Jean Harlow. While she was, quite literally, a short-lived actress, the persona that she established during her early films was one that followed her throughout her career. While she wasn’t always fond of it, it was one that she played often and played well.

Her first film, Hell’s Angels (1930), had her playing Helen, a character who as David Stenn notes, is “less a character than a caricature, a one-dimensional vamp who smokes, drinks, wears low-cut dresses, and seduces any man at hand.” (6) While she wasn’t lauded for her performance, it was still a case of a woman who was out there, doing what she wanted to because she wanted to. Her subsequent films took this and ran with it, with much better results. Such great results, in fact, that she became a superstar within the M-G-M stable.

Her next installment within the Pre-Code ranks was Public Enemy (1931), with James Cagney. A thorn in the side of  people like Will Hays and Joseph Breen, this was a gangster film; a genre they were very much not in favor of. Once again, Harlow turned on the sultry charm and plays the gangster’s love interest. Even within the first few scenes that we meet Harlow in this film, we are keyed into the fact that she is very much a sexually charged and interesting figure. Not at all like the milque-toast, mealy-mouthed women that were generally being displayed on the screen at the time.

While she did several other films that reflected her Pre-Code “ness” (Red Headed Woman, Beast of the City, Red Dust), it was actually the film that established her as a cinematic icon that also encoded her as a woman of some kind of independence and strength. In Platinum Blonde (1931), Harlow plays a character that, while seeming to undermine the virility of the male protagonist in the film, is actually quite a significant role as a female. While this film is, undoubtedly, prototypical Capra fare, pitting the poor against the rich, major class dissection, and an eventual outcome in favor of the underdog (the lower/poor class), Harlow’s character is no schlub!

The primary plot point in Platinum Blonde is that the character of Stewart “Stew” Smith (Robert Williams), while having initially fallen in love with and agreed to marry Anne Schuyler (Jean Harlow) does not like what the marriage entails. Multiple references are made within the film to show how “imprisoned”  Stew feels in the situation that he, himself, has gotten himself into (birds in cages, sock garters as symbols of constriction). His principal argument is that Anne is holding him within a set of circumstances under which he has no agency.

While this film seems to run as typical Capra-fare, it also seems to run as a kind of unintentionally subversive Pre-Code parable. The scandalous idea of being “kept” was generally reserved for out-of-wedlock, and almost solely relegated to “kept women.” But what if this concept extended itself to marital relations? And even better yet, what if the one doing the keeping were a woman? While the structure of the film still favors the character of Stew (most Capra films were male-centered, the women were well-fleshed out), it is quite fair to say that Anne’s character, and the power that she possesses within Platinum Blonde was not regulation or code of the day.

Within marriage during that time, agency was not something that belonged to the wife. Platinum Blonde seeks to turn the tables, if just a little. While it is not the main point of the film (class struggle being the center), looking at the character of Anne is important. Stew went into the marriage willingly. He was in love and wanted to marry her. Sure, she had money. But he knew that going in. There was, most certainly, a power switch that took place within the diegesis. Anne became the central “pants-wearing” figure of the household. Stew wanted to get out, as he wanted his independence. The great irony of the film is the gender issue. Once again, we can look to Mick LaSalle’s discussion of women in Pre Code films having Great Positions of Power. Looking at later films, we see women trying to break free of loveless marriages or ones in which they are being kept inside a “gilded cage.” Capra’s Platinum Blonde is one in which the woman is the figure who holds the key. Is Anne Schulyer an evil character? No, not even close. Is she close to the characters that Jean Harlow played in other films of the time? In fact, no. She is actually a great deal richer (pun intended) in character and her dominating presence gave her a stardom that went beyond the huge publicity campaign that Howard Hughes had organized around the film. Jean Harlow became best known as the Platinum Blonde, due to an aesthetic feature that was started in this film, however the character in this film helped launch a career that soared (albeit briefly) to heights that she never dreamed she would reach. By playing the rich Anne Schulyer, she “kept” her power in Hollywood, even if at the end of the film she “lost” Stew.

What Anne lost with Stew, Harlow gained in stardom, Platinum Blonde (1931)

On July 1, 1934, the amended Production Code went into effect. As a combined result of the formation of the Catholic Legion of Decency, who threatened a nation-wide Catholic boycott of the movies and accused the industry of “faking observance to the Code,”[6] and Joseph Breen’s new more stringent leadership, what was once just a set of guidelines to be ignored, became a fact that could not be denied. Ten days later, the Production Code Administration (PCA) officially opened for business, and it was at this point that Mr. Joseph Breen had ultimate authority on the output of the Hollywood studios. This authority was secured in three ways: first of all, no picture could be made without script approval from Breen and the PCA. Second of all, it could not be released if it was not endowed with Breen’s “seal of approval.” Lastly, if any company tried to release a film without a seal, God help them, no MPPDA theater could play it. And so, Hollywood changed. But not without leaving its pre-Code mark forever emblazoned on the annals of the cinema.

One of the more potent examples of a film that exemplified what the Code sought to ban, yet what LaSalle says is one of the crowning points of pre-Code cinema, is a film called Female starring Ruth Chatterton and George Brent.

This film, released on November 11, 1933, was a mixed production package. Initially slated to direct the film was German-born immigrant William Dieterle, later known for such titles as The Devil and Daniel Webster, and The Life of Emile Zola. However, on August 9, 1933, Edwin Schallert of the Los Angeles Times reported, “William Dieterle, who was directing Female, Ruth Chatterton’s picture, has been taken ill, and will be replaced by William Wellman.”[7] Wellman, an extremely prolific director, well-known for his work during the pre-Code era, went uncredited for his work on this picture, as did Dieterle, although, according to some sources, Wellman did direct at least 17 scenes in the picture. Brian Cady accounts that upon Dieterle’s illness, “the film was taken over and completed by William Wellman using cameraman Ernest Haller. At that point Warner Brothers decided the lead “boy toy,” George Blackwood, was not up to the job. They replaced him with Johnny Mack Brown and brought in Michael Curtiz who ended up re-shooting half the movie and gaining the final directorial credit.”[8] Final directorial credit went to Curtiz, but with three very prominent directors working on this film, it is clear that the production was more than a little chaotic.

Pre-production seemed to share the same bed. No less than three different articles of the time name Barbara Stanwyck as the leading lady. The Los Angeles Times, for example, quoted in their report of up-coming Warner Brothers productions that “Female, starring Barbara Stanwyck, from the sensational novel by Donald Henderson Clarke”[9] was set to start production soon. However, the next thing you know, Miss Stanwyck has changed her mind. Edwin Schallert writes, “What’s one woman’s poison is another’s meat. And that’s curious in this instance. Barbara Stanwyck didn’t care for the picture Female, which looks as if it will be Ruth Chatterton’s next. Miss Stanwyck was at one time scheduled for the film, but is understood to have successfully opposed doing it.”[10]

The image of Stanwyck and the image of Chatterton within Hollywood were quite different. To make that shift from one actress to another, must have involved some very interesting negotiations. Judging by past works, the role was definitely more of a Stanwyck vehicle. Chatterton, an older actress, was already well-known for Broadway roles, and stage success. Considered to be a very “classy” actress, a role like this was a slightly odd one, but it seemed to work.

Female, based on a controversial book by Donald Henderson Clarke, tells the story of Alison Drake, a hard-hitting businesswoman who runs her own automobile manufacturing business. The film opens with a shot of a business meeting, and a man speaking. The way it is constructing, it seems obvious to the viewer that the man speaking is a powerful figure, if not the head, of this company. Guess again. As soon as he is done speaking, the camera falls on Chatterton, who, upon opening her mouth, makes it abundantly clear who, figuratively, wears the pants around the business. She is all business, no-nonsense, and strong. She can handle multiple phone calls on multiple phone lines, while discussing important matters with her employees, and giving instructions to her secretary. Alison Drake, however, does have a soft spot: good-looking men. We learn, quite quickly, however, that it is not quite romance that she’s after, when she invites these employees up to her house for dinner to discuss “business.” Miss Drake plies the oblivious gentlemen with vodka, “like Catherine the Great” comments one of her servants, and then proceeds to have her way with them. Later, if at work they express any kind of romantic attraction, she quickly dispatches them to another branch of the company- in Montreal. Then one day, she meets her match- a man who does not cave to her seduction. After a very rocky progression between the two, during which he proposes and she practically laughs at the proposal, Alison finally decides that perhaps love and marriage are in the cards for her. She goes and finds her man, who had left town, and they make up, leaving us to infer the standard happy ending.

Alison’s nightly escapades and general characterization did not go unnoticed by censors. James Wingate, one of the censors at the time, wrote to Warner Brothers, horrified. He states,

It is made very plain that she has been in the habit of sustaining her freedom from marriage, and at the same time satisfying a too-definitely indicated sex-hunger, by frequently inviting any young man who may appeal to her to her home and there bringing about a seduction. After having satisfied her desires with these various males, she pays no further attention to them other than to reward them with bonuses. And in the event that they become importunate, she has them transferred.[11]

Mark Vieira notes that, “Warner Brothers told Wingate that Chatterton’s antics would be adjusted, but made no changes.”[12] Gee, that was a big shock in 1933. Not only were the censors unhappy, but also the very making of this picture went against the “Formula” that Will Hays tried to implement in 1924, which “discouraged the adaptation of disreputable plays and novels.”[13] Donald Henderson Clarke’s novel had already been the subject of an obscenity lawsuit. The New York Times reported that “a hearing on the charges brought against the Vanguard Press, book publishers, of 100 Fifth Avenue, by the Society for the Suppression of Vice was adjourned…the Society alleges that Donald Henderson Clarke’s “Female” which was published by the concern, is obscene.”[14] This film was definitely objectionable to all censoring bodies involved, and just after 1934, became one on a list of films to recall and never show again, care of Joseph Breen, and his post-1934 authority.

In the beginning of the film, a girlfriend asks Alison if she’s ever going to fall in love. Alison laughs. “It’s a career in itself. It takes too much time and energy. To me, a woman in love is a pathetic spectacle. She’s either so miserable she wants to die, or she’s so happy you want to die.” Her friend responds, “Aren’t you ever going to marry?” To which Alison quickly retorts, “No thanks, not me. You know a long time ago I decided to travel the same open road that men traveled. So I treat men the exact way they’ve always treated women.” The surprised friend says, “You definitely don’t have much respect for men.” To which Alison says, “Oh, I know, of course for some women men are a household necessity. Me? I’d rather have a canary.” This speech places Female into that category that Mick LaSalle discusses, about women in the pre-Code films coming into their own. He calls Female “role-reversal stuff, very entertaining” but he also notes that Chatterton’s character “predictably…fall[s] in love with the one guy she couldn’t push around.”[15] The strength and characterization that this film exhibits is probably the reason why almost every review compared Chatterton to Mae West, an extremely prominent and successful star of the pre-Code film era. In fact, West almost invented it, with her witticism and beyond-controversial antics and storylines.

Reviews at the time called the film “a sort of discussion of the dangers of feminism and a defense of woman’s place as homemaker”[16] and complained “one knows, moreover, that Miss Chatterton will eventually capitulate with a loud bang. It will be, oh, such a melting capitulation. It happens per rote”[17] I would argue, however, that the way she orchestrates the romance throughout the film, still places Alison Drake in more of a position of power than anything else. Sure, Jim Thorne would not fall under her spell of seduction- at first. She still devises the entire situation, and she makes it happen. Even at the end of the film, where some reviews note disappointment that she gives up her job, and gives in to the “normal” wife-and-mother-type role, she only says that to Thorne, in the car. At that point, however, they are driving to where she must have a meeting with very important businessmen. To me, this paradoxical situation only proves the power of this character more so, pointing out her ability to manipulate any situation to her advantage.

Alison Drake and Ruth Chatterton were not dissimilar. They were both powerful women, who placed high importance on their careers, sometimes to the disappointment of the men they were involved with. Chatterton was already a highly established stage actress by the time she got to Hollywood. Almost 40 years old, by Hollywood standards, she was even a little bit “past her prime” when she was playing roles like Alison Drake. She was a play-producer and aviatrix, and later became a fairly well-known novelist. It is not unusual, after all, that she was chosen for this part, after Stanwyck bowed out. What can be seen from this is that the role of Alison Drake was made vibrant by the personality and character of Ruth Chatterton.

Pre-Code films have recently become a popular area of research, over the last few years. There have been several books and even some documentaries made about the existence of, and circumstances surrounding them. This “unearthing” of these documents is integral to our appreciation of the rest of film history, but most importantly the image of women in film history. In regards to his work on the subject, and his book, Mick LaSalle said that he believes that “the real audience for this subject is young women… Young women are amazed by these films because it reassures them that they’re not some kind of a modern-day anomaly.”[18] It’s nice to have that reassurance.


[1] Vieira, Mark A. Sin in Soft Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Publishers, 1999.

[2] The National Catholic Welfare Conference, cited in “The Legion of Decency.” Commonweal 18 May 1934.

[3] Leff, Leonard J. and Jerold L. Simmons. The Dame in the Kimono: Hollywood, Censorship, and the Production Code from the 1920’s to the 1960’s. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990.

[4] Ibid.

[5] LaSalle, Mick. Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.

(6) Stenn, David. Bombshell: The Life and Death of Jean Harlow. New York: Doubleday, 1993.

[6] Lord, Daniel A., S. J. Played By Ear. Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1956.

[7] Schallert, Edwin. “Old San Francisco Immortalized in New Film; Studio and Theater News and Gossip.” Los Angeles Times, 9 August 1933.

[8] Cady, Brian. “Female.” Turner Classic Movies Archive. 1 December 2003. http://www.turnerclassicmovies.com/ThisMonth/Article/0,,25792%7C25796%7C25803,00.html

[9] “Warner Brothers Plan Full Program for Coming Year.” Los Angeles Times, 28 May 1933.

[10] Schallert, Edwin. “News and Reviews of the Stage, Screen, and Music; Gossip of Studios and

[11] Wingate, Letter to Warner, quoted in Vieira, ibid.

[12] Vieira,ibid.

[13] ibid.

[14] “Sumner Must Face Suit.” New York Times 14 April 1933.

[15] LaSalle, ibid.

[16] Watts, Richard Jr. “On The Screen: Female.” 4 November 1933., Warner Brothers Archives. Clippings File, Female.

[17] Cohen, John S. Jr. “The New Talkie: Female With Ruth Chatterton, a Tale of a ‘Captain of Industry.’” 3 November 1933. Warner Brothers Archives. .Clippings File, Female.

[18] Pickle, Betsy. “Complicated Women Looks at Early Brazen Film Roles.” Scripps Howard News Service 1 May 2003.

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The Dreaming Moon: Jean Harlow and the Magnetic Fields’ Get Lost

Jean "The Baby" Harlow, 1911-1937

There are a good amount of people out there who criticize the academic world, and with good cause. They say that we “reach,” that the things that we discuss have nothing to do with each other, and to put two such different items within the same paper/blog post/etc., is pretentious and an abuse of academic power.

I agree with that. To some degree. There are people out there who argue things to sound important or smart or exciting. And if that’s what they wanna do, cool for them. But if you can’t back it up, you’re gonna be stuck like the Goonies were, trying to figure out the notes on that damn skeleton piano. The bottom line for me is: can you read the music???

That said, what I am about to do, is definitely going to seem like reaching. But it is based upon my own interpretations and in that manner I think it works. I make no apologies, nor do I say that this is anything but a purely personal piece that is based upon a very passionate love of two things in my life: Jean Harlow, the actress, and the Magnetic Fields, the band.

This is my first blog for the Jean Harlow blogathon, which is being done to celebrate what would have been her 100th birthday (March 3rd). In a way, I felt compelled to write for this because Harlean Harlow Carpenter née Jean Harlow was only 26 years old when she died. She deserves a little more recognition. We all know about Marilyn, but without the original Platinum Blonde, Ms. Monroe wouldn’t’ve had a high heel to stand on…

Today I went to pay rent. As I was riding my bike around, I put on one of my favorite albums as I felt it would help me brainstorm a little. What I didn’t know was that it would provide me fodder for my entire piece. From the beginning to the end of The Magnetic Fields’ album Get Lost, it is almost as though they were writing it about and for Ms. Jean Harlow.

Jean Harlow was born as Harlean Harlow Carpenter on March 3, 1911, in Kansas City, Missouri. Her mother, known as “Mother Jean,” was not only overbearing but she went beyond what one would consider the epitome of the stereotypical “stagemother.” Eventually, they got out of Kansas City, but as David Stenn notes, it wasn’t all for the “sake of the child.” In 1923, after divorcing Harlean’s father, Mother Jean took Jean to Hollywood, hellbent on a new life, one that they certainly were not going to get anywhere in Missouri. However, Mother Jean was a little off-base. She was of the mind-set that she might be able to procure a position within the burgeoning film industry, not necessarily her daughter. The pure, unadulterated fact was…she was just a little bit too old. Stenn writes,

In an era when leading ladies were teenage girls, thirty-four-year-old Mother Jean was hardly star material…At this point a stereotypical “stage mother” would have transferred the dream to her daughter, who was becoming a beauty herself. Mother Jean, however, was different: too fixated on her own aspirations to focus on anyone else, she continued to see herself, not her child, as the center of her existence. (1)

Jean and Mother Jean, in the "later" years...

When Harlean first arrived in Hollywood, acting was her last interest. And it was a rocky road to her first beginnings in any film work, including several different schools, a move to Chicago (engineered by Mother Jean so as to be closer to her own somewhat-questionable boyfriend at the time, Marino Bello), and a marriage to a man named Chuck McGrew which resulted in Harlean’s return to Hollywood.

The first song on The Magnetic Fields’ album Get Lost seems to refer to this period of Jean Harlow’s life, and from my standpoint, it has a double referent: not only can one see Harlean in the song (the chorus uses the word “Baby” repeatedly, a nickname given to Harlean early in her life) but one can also see Mother Jean. The idea of being able to be famous just as long as you get out of “this town” may be related to rock’n’roll within the context of this particular song, but it is so easily analogous to the early part of Jean Harlow’s life and career, that it would be almost ridiculous not to pay attention to it. Her own “marble face” was marveled upon as she grew up, and as she got to Hollywood, the beginnings of her career (tragically) were based upon “giving up control,” generally to her mother, but certainly, at times, to the Hollywood Machine. Regardless of her own Hollywood dreams, Mother Jean was aware that her daughter could “sell the world a new look and sound” and made damn sure that happened, almost without regard for what Jean, herself, may have wanted.

As Harlean’s travels through Hollywood continued, she was able to score some bit parts in films through a friend, fate,  and Central Casting. In a nutshell, McGrew had attempted to pry Harlean from Mother Jean’s tight-fisted grasp by taking her back to the west coast. While there, she met a lovely young lady named Rosalie Roy. One day, Rosalie needed a ride to Fox Studios, and Harlean offered to give her a lift. While there, some of the executives noticed her and pounced. After that, it was just a matter of time. However, this was about the point where “Harlean” became “Jean Harlow.” While applying for one of the Central Casting positions, she put her name down as Jean Harlow, and not Harlean Carpenter or McGrew.

Between Spring and December, Harlow went from Central Casting extra to signing a contract with Hal Roach. Not bad for a girl from Kansas City. Even so, it was not her own doing that was pushing her career, first and foremost. Although Chuck McGrew had attempted to get her away from Mama, Mother Jean was fixated on Jean’s life going on to something grand and big. In fact, when there was interest in Jean, she had up and moved from the Windy City, sleazy boyfriend and all, and come back to Hollywood to make sure that things were done right. But…it was all for The Baby, right?

Rock music is a funny thing. Clearly Get Lost was not written about Jean Harlow’s life. And any musician knows that the key to a good song, no matter what genre it is, is its ability to get the audience to relate to it. What I find unique about this album is that the next song on this album, “The Desperate Things You Made Me Do,” works as what Harlean would’ve said to Mother Jean if she could’ve. I realize that the actual intent of the song is not a maternal one: it clearly has more sexual connotations, and there are time-stamps contained within the song that date it. However, the intentions and lyrics (in my mind) work as part of the Jean Harlow story.

The next section in Harlean/Jean’s life involved an abortion that Mother Jean forced her to get and then a divorce from McGrew. The abortion destroyed Jean, but what Mama wanted, Mama got. Thus when Stephin Merritt sings the chorus of this song (“I dedicate this song to you/for the desperate things you made me do/I’d like to beat you black and blue/for all the agony you have put me through”), one could easily imagine a helpless teenage Harlean wanting to say the same things to Mother Jean, but not being able to. Not only that, but the idea that, within the song, the person being sung about/to is essentially sacrificing the singer and not caring about it, is a big deal. That seemed to be a big part of Mother Jean’s misplaced persona. Stephin Merritt sings “Time provides the rope/ but love will tie the slipknot/ And I will be the chair you kick away/You don’t even like anything you like or the people you know” and describes Harlean’s mother perfectly. Sadly, it also describes how Harlean came to die at such an early age. Mother Jean was so obsessed with the creation and upkeep of Jean Harlow that Harlean became lost in the shuffle, and died, painfully, far too young. Thanks, Mom.

Before the ultimate tragic event just mentioned, the Baby got famous. Hired by Howard Hughes and then signed to a contract by him, her career began to take off. While she was criticized harshly for what many saw as a lack of acting chops, the viewing public seemed to ignore that and the image that was carefully cultivated for her by Hughes became a full-blown success.

A publicity blitz began. Although its plot had nothing to do with her hair, Hughes convinced Harry Cohn to change the name of Harlow’s new film from Gallagher to Platinum Blonde, and in conjunction with its release, Caddo [Hughes’ company] organized over three hundred “Platinum Blonde” clubs across America, offering $10,000 to any beautician who could chemically match Harlow’s mane. None won, but the craze boosted peroxide sales by 35 percent despite the Depression…(2)

While the lyrics to the next song on the album don’t follow the story exactly, the title does. Song number three on Get Lost is called “Smoke and Mirrors” and that is, essentially, how Jean Harlow was sold to the public and how her romantic life was dealt with. While the song does hit on some aspects within her on-screen image (“a little fear, a little sex”), the way that her “handlers” made her popular was through cold calculated manipulation and lies. But that’s Hollywood- all smoke and mirrors anyway! Jean Harlow was not Harlean Carpenter. Directly after Jean Harlow was established as the Platinum Blonde, she was borrowed by Paul Bern for a film called Beast of the City. Her public image was growing, despite the fact that the young girl from Missouri was now pretty much type-cast as somewhat of a wanton woman. On her 21st birthday, due to Paul Bern’s persistence (it also didn’t hurt that he had asked his pal Irving Thalberg for a bit of help), Hughes agreed to sell her contract to M-G-M. From that point forward, her career soared, even if her private life didn’t.

Jean Harlow and Paul Bern

Jean married Paul Bern in 1932. The marriage only lasted 2 months. He was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound the night of September 5, that same year. There were many conspiracy theories surrounding the “why,” so the first thing that M-G-M had to do was damage control, and they did. Unfortunately, this was not the last fire that they had to put out in a short span of time. Jean began an affair with married boxer Max Baer, and had to be quickly married off to cinematographer Harold Rosson in order to prevent any more massive controversy for the starlet. After Rosson (and a quick “quiet” divorce), Harlow became involved with William Powell, and, while they never married (she wanted children, he didn’t) that relationship seemed to be her most functional romance. All the public relations that M-G-M put into making these various relationships look palatable to the public definitely used more smoke and mirrors than any magician at the time used!

While her romances were scandalous and fraught with difficulty, her career prospered. But if her career was prospering, Mother Jean’s fist was just as tight as ever. By Mother Jean had married Marino Bello, and the two of them seemed to get greedier and more involved in direct proportion to the Baby’s stardom.

Jean made 12 films in the next 5 years before her untimely death. Within that time, however, she also was subject to several health issues that delayed the production of at least three of the films (Wife vs. Secretary, Suzy, and Libeled Lady). If she had not been so fragile, who knows?  The fact that Mother Jean was a heavy factor in how hard Jean worked and how much she wore herself out didn’t help and neither did the fact that she had Jean on a tight leash during her whole career. Her methods of “career management” mixed with “mothering” directly effected Jean Harlow’s early death.

Jean Harlow in Saratoga (1937), the last film she did. The film had to be finished using stand-ins and doubles, and dubbing in lines. The public affection for Harlow would not let them replace her with another actress, as was the first impulse.

While rumors abound about Harlow’s death, it is not due to Mother Jean’s Christian Scientist affiliations. Due to Harlow’s case of scarlet fever as a young teen, she had contracted something called glomerulonephritis, which essentially caused her kidneys to slowly degenerate over the years. If this had been caught and diagnosed earlier, who knows? It might have been able to be fixed. But Jean had doctors by her bedside, even if she was not at the hospital. By the time she left the set of Saratoga, the Baby was in excruciating pain, and disintegrated into delirium and was deemed too weak to be moved.  Her internal organs were past the point of no return, and it was too late. In this day and age, we have the technology to fix that. But not so in 1937.

Writes David Stenn, “‘There wasn’t anything I could do to save her,’ sighed Dr. Chapman, and though he meant it medically- in the days before antibiotics, dialysis, or transplants…he also sensed Harlow’s emotional surrender. ‘She didn’t want to be saved,’ Dr. Chapman continued. ‘She had no will to live whatsoever.’ Never a fighter, Harlow faced death with the same passivity that characterized her life. Considering its circumstances, her attitude was understandable: after forty-two movies, three marriages, two abortions, scandal, alcoholism, gonorrhea, and heartbreak, Harlow had lived too hard for a twenty-six-year-old.” (3)

The Magnetic Fields album continues with several songs about love, pain and loss, which, aside from being controlled by a greedy, overbearing mother seem to fit Harlean/Jean’s life to a tee. Harlean was a natural young girl, just looking to be happy. Jean Harlow was a created product who never wanted to be “created.” She was what her mother wanted her to be, not what she wanted. On set, she was known to be one of the more down-to-earth and likable actresses; someone who didn’t put on any airs. You can see that in her comedy. But she was never allowed to have her own life. She wanted to have a child, a happy marriage, good friends…in fact, if it wasn’t for Mother Jean, she might have had a perfectly good life in Kansas City.

What Mother Jean did cannot be undone, but the gift that was left for us was the incomparable work of one Jean Harlow née Harlean Harlow Carpenter, and for that we can forever be grateful. Her vivaciousness and her unforgettable smile will forever go unmatched. many actresses have tried but so far not a single one has had the same presence or natural on-screen comfortability that Jean Harlow possessed. Her physicality corresponded perfectly with her well-timed facial expressions, making her all at once awkward yet sexy.

The final song of Get Lost is called “The Dreaming Moon,” and sounds a bit like a lullaby. As I was listening to the album today, hearing the various songs and their relative associative properties with the Jean Harlow story, I had to smile to myself when I realized what the last lyrics of this song were. I’ve always loved this album and I’ve always loved this song (although I think that “All the Umbrellas in London” is my favorite track), but this time it had a different meaning. Happy 100th birthday, Harlean. Thanks for the cinematic gifts you have given us. They are forever treasures, and while you only lived a short time, your work will live on forever.

The Dreaming Moon-lyrics: Stephin Merritt, Magnetic Fields

With an ivory pipe
And a cummerbund
In the dead of night
On the autobahn
With the long ago
On the radio
And the dreaming moon…
We were young and in love
In a burning town
But the fire went out
I’m alone again now
And I finally know
How cool to be cold
With the dreaming moon
I’ll begin again
With another new name
And a whole new life
Full of fortune and fame
But in the 100th year
I’ll be right back here
With the dreaming moon

(1) Stenn, David. Bombshell: The Life and Death of Jean Harlow. New York: Doubleday, 1993.

(2) Stenn, ibid.

(3) Stenn, ibid.