Mother Jean moved with Harlean to Hollywood in 1923 with hopes of becoming an actress, but was too old at 34 to begin a film career. When, finances dwindled her mother and she moved back to Kansas City after Skip Harlow issued an ultimatum that he would disinherit his daughter if she did not return. Several weeks later, Skip sent "Baby" to a summer camp called Camp Cha-Ton-Ka in Michigamme, Michigan, where Harlean became ill with scarlet fever. Mother Jean traveled to Michigan to care for her but was told that she could not see her daughter.
Harlow next attended the Ferry Hall School (now Lake Forest Academy) in Lake Forest, Illinois. Each freshman was paired with a "big sister" from the senior class, and Harlean's big sister introduced her to 19-year-old Charles "Chuck" McGrew, heir to a large fortune, in the fall of 1926. Soon the two began to date, and then married. On January 18, 1927.
Shortly after the wedding, the couple left Chicago and moved to Beverly Hills. McGrew turned 21 two months after the marriage and received part of his large inheritance. The couple moved to Los Angeles in 1928, settling into a home in Beverly Hills, where Harlean thrived as a wealthy socialite. McGrew hoped to distance Harlean from her mother with the move. Neither McGrew nor Harlean worked, and both, especially McGrew, were thought to drink heavily. The couple divorced in 1929.
In Los Angeles, Harlean befriended Rosalie Roy, a young aspiring actress. Lacking a car, Roy asked Harlean to drive her to Fox Studios for an appointment. Reputedly, Harlean was noticed and approached by Fox executives while waiting for her friend, but stated that she was not interested. Nevertheless, she was given dictated letters of introduction to Central Casting. A few days later, Rosalie Roy bet Harlean that she did not have the nerve to go and audition. Unwilling to lose a wager and pressed by her enthusiastic mother, Harlean drove to Central Casting and signed in under her mother's maiden name, Jean Harlow.
After several calls from Central Casting and a number of rejected job offers, Harlean was pressed into accepting work by her mother, now back in Los Angeles. She appeared in her first film, Honor Bound, as an unbilled extra for $7 a day. This led to small parts in feature films such as Moran of the Marines (1928), This Thing Called Love (1929), Close Harmony (1929), and The Love Parade (1929), among others. In December 1928, she signed a five-year contract with Hal Roach Studios for $100 per week. She had a co-starring role in Laurel and Hardy's short Double Whoopee in 1929, and went on to appear in two more of their films: Liberty and Bacon Grabbers (both 1929).
In March 1929, however, she parted with Roach, who tore up her contract after Harlow told him, "It's breaking up my marriage, what can I do?" In June 1929, Harlow separated from her husband and moved in with her mother. After her separation from McGrew, Harlow worked as an extra in several movies. She landed her first speaking role in 1929's The Saturday Night Kid, starring Clara Bow.
In late 1929, she was spotted by James Hall, an actor filming Howard Hughes' Hell's Angels. Hughes, reshooting most of the originally silent film with sound, needed an actress to replace Greta Nissen, who had a Norwegian accent that was considered to be undesirable for her character. Harlow made a test and got the part.
Hughes signed Harlow to a five-year, $100-per-week contract on October 24, 1929. Hell's Angels premiered in Hollywood on May 27, 1930, at Grauman's Chinese Theater, becoming the highest-grossing film of 1930 . The movie made Harlow an international star.
With no projects planned for Harlow, Hughes sent her to New York, Seattle, and Kansas City for Hell's Angels premieres. In 1931, loaned out by Hughes' Caddo Company to other studios, she gained more attention when she appeared in The Secret Six, with Wallace Beery and Clark Gable; Iron Man, with Lew Ayres and Robert Armstrong; and The Public Enemy, with James Cagney. Though the successes of the films ranged from moderate to hit, Harlow's acting was mocked by critics. Concerned, Hughes sent her on a brief publicity tour which was not a success, as Harlow dreaded such personal appearances.
Harlow was next cast in Platinum Blonde (1931) with Loretta Young. The film, originally titled Gallagher, was renamed by Hughes to promote Harlow, capitalizing on her hair color, called "platinum" by Hughes' publicists. Though Harlow denied her hair was dyed, the platinum blonde color was reportedly achieved by bleaching with a weekly application of ammonia, Clorox bleach, and Lux soap flakes. This process weakened and damaged Harlow's naturally ash-blonde hair. Many female fans began dyeing their hair to match hers. Howard Hughes' team organized a series of "Platinum Blonde" clubs across the nation, with a prize of $10,000 to any beautician who could match Harlow's shade.
Harlow next filmed Three Wise Girls (1932) with Mae Clark and Walter Byron. Paul Bern then arranged to borrow her for The Beast of the City (1932), co-starring Walter Huston. After filming, Bern booked a 10-week personal-appearance tour on the East Coast. To the surprise of many, especially Harlow herself, she packed every theater in which she appeared, often appearing in a single venue for several nights. Despite critical disparagement and poor roles, Harlow's popularity and following was large and growing and, in February 1932, the tour was extended by six weeks.
According to Fay Wray, who played Ann Darrow in King Kong (1933), Harlow was the original choice to play the screaming blonde heroine. Because MGM put Harlow under exclusive contract during the preproduction phase of the film, she became unavailable for Kong, and the part went to the brunette Wray, wearing a blonde wig.
When Luciano crime family mobster Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel went to Hollywood to expand casino operations, Harlow became the godmother of Siegel's eldest daughter Millicent.
Paul Bern, by now romantically involved with Harlow, spoke to Louis B. Mayer about buying out her contract with Hughes and signing her to MGM, but Mayer declined. MGM's leading ladies were presented as elegant, while Harlow's "floozy" screen persona was abhorrent to Mayer. Bern then began urging close friend Irving Thalberg, production head of MGM, to sign Harlow, noting her popularity and established image. After initial reluctance, Thalberg agreed and, on March 3, 1932, Harlow's 21st birthday, Bern called her with the news that MGM had purchased her contract from Hughes for $30,000. Harlow officially joined the studio on April 20, 1932.
At MGM, Harlow was given superior movie roles to show off her looks and nascent comedic talent. Though Harlow's screen persona changed dramatically during her career, one constant was her apparent sense of humor. In 1932, she starred in the comedy Red-Headed Woman, for which she received $1,250 a week. The film is often noted as being one of the few films in which Harlow did not appear with platinum blonde hair; she wore a red wig for the role. She next starred in Red Dust, her second film with Clark Gable. Harlow and Gable worked well together and co-starred in a total of six films. She was also paired multiple times with Spencer Tracy and William Powell. She was later paired with up-and-coming male co-stars such as Robert Taylor and Franchot Tone in an effort to boost their careers.
At this point, MGM began trying to distinguish Harlow's public persona from that of her screen characters, changing her childhood surname from common "Carpenter" to chic "Carpentier", claiming that writer Edgar Allan Poe was one of her ancestors and publishing photographs of Harlow doing charity work to change her image from that of a tramp to an all-American girl. This transformation proved difficult; once, Harlow was heard muttering, "My God, must I always wear a low-cut dress to be important?"
During the making of Red Dust, Bern, her husband of two months, was found shot dead at their home, creating a lasting scandal. Initially, Harlow was speculated to have killed Bern, but Bern's death was officially ruled a suicide. Louis B. Mayer feared negative publicity from the incident and intended to replace Harlow in the film, offering the role to Tallulah Bankhead.
After Bern's death, Harlow began an indiscreet affair with boxer Max Baer who, though separated from his wife Dorothy Dunbar, was threatened with divorce proceedings naming Harlow as a co-respondent for "alienation of affection", a legal term for adultery. After Bern's mysterious death, the studio did not want another scandal and defused the situation by arranging a marriage between Harlow and cinematographer Harold Rosson. Rosson and Harlow were friends and Rosson went along with the plan. They quietly divorced eight months later.
By 1933, MGM realized the value of the Harlow-Gable team and paired them again in Hold Your Man (1933), which was also a box-office success. The same year, she played the adulterous wife of Wallace Beery in the all-star comedy-drama Dinner at Eight, and played a pressured Hollywood film star in the screwball comedy Bombshell with Lee Tracy. The film has often been cited as being based on Harlow's own life or that of 1920s "It girl", Clara Bow.
The following year, she was teamed with Lionel Barrymore and Franchot Tone in The Girl from Missouri (1934). The film was the studio's attempt at softening Harlow's image, but suffered with censorship problems, so much so that its original title, Born to Be Kissed, had to be changed. Due to the financial success of Red Dust and Hold Your Man, MGM cast Harlow with Clark Gable in two more successful films: China Seas (1935), with Wallace Beery and Rosalind Russell, and Wife vs. Secretary (1936), with Myrna Loy and James Stewart.
From 1933 onward, Harlow was consistently voted one of the strongest box office draws in the United States, often outranking her fellow female colleagues at MGM in audience popularity polls. Reckless (1935) was her first movie musical. It co-starred her then-boyfriend William Powell and Franchot Tone. Although her character sings in the movie, Harlow's voice for the performance was dubbed by skilled vocalist Virginia Verrill. The film offered yet another incident of "arts meets life" for Harlow, as her character in the movie suffers the horrors of her husband's suicide.
By the mid-1930s, Harlow was one of the biggest stars in the United States, and it was hoped, MGM's next Greta Garbo. Still young, her star continued to rise while the popularity of other female stars at MGM, such as Garbo, Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, and Luise Rainer, waned. Harlow's movies continued to make huge profits at the box office even during the middle of the Depression. Some credit them with keeping MGM profitable at a time when other studios were falling into bankruptcy. After her third marriage ended in 1934, Harlow met William Powell, another MGM star, and quickly fell in love. The couple was reportedly engaged for two years, but differences kept them from formalizing their relationship (she wanted children, he did not). Harlow also said that Louis B. Mayer would never allow them to marry.
Suzy (1936), in which she played the title role, gave her top billing over Franchot Tone and Cary Grant. While critics noted that Harlow dominated the film, they added that her performance was imperfect, and the film was a reasonable box-office success. She then starred in Riffraff (1936) with Spencer Tracy and Una Merkel, a financial disappointment, and the worldwide hit Libeled Lady (1936), in which she was top billed over Powell, Myrna Loy, and Tracy. She then filmed W.S. Van Dyke's comedy Personal Property (1937), co-starring Robert Taylor. It was Harlow's final fully completed motion picture appearance.
Jean suffered from scarlet fever at the age 15 in 1926. This may have contributed to her untimely death from kidney disease on June 7, 1937, at the age of 26.
In January 1937, Harlow and Robert Taylor traveled to Washington, DC, to take part in fundraising activities associated with President Franklin D. Roosevelt's birthday. The trip was physically taxing for Harlow and she contracted influenza. She recovered in time to attend the Academy Awards ceremony with Powell.
Production for Harlow's final film Saratoga, co-starring Clark Gable, was scheduled to begin filming in March 1937. However, production was delayed when she developed septicemia after a wisdom tooth extraction and had to be hospitalized. After she recovered, shooting began on April 22. On May 20, 1937, while shooting Saratoga, Harlow began to complain of illness. Her symptoms—fatigue, nausea, water weight and abdominal pain—did not seem very serious to her doctor, who believed she was suffering from cholecystitis and influenza. However, he was apparently unaware that Harlow had been ill during the previous year with a severe sunburn and influenza. Her friend and co-star Myrna Loy noticed Harlow’s grey complexion, fatigue, and weight gain. On May 29, Harlow was shooting a scene in which the character she was playing had a fever. Harlow was clearly sicker than her character, and when she leaned against co-star Gable between scenes, said, "I feel terrible. Get me back to my dressing room." Harlow requested that the assistant director telephone William Powell, who left his own set to escort Harlow back home.
On May 30, Powell checked on Harlow, and when he found her condition unimproved, recalled her mother from a holiday trip and summoned her doctor. Harlow's illnesses had delayed three previous films (Wife vs. Secretary, Suzy, and Libeled Lady), so there was no great concern initially. On June 2, it was announced that Harlow was suffering from influenza. Dr. Ernest Fishbaugh, who had been called to Harlow's home to treat her, diagnosed her with an inflamed gallbladder. Harlow felt better on June 3 and co-workers expected her back on the set by Monday, June 7. Press reports were contradictory, with headlines like "Jean Harlow seriously ill" and "Harlow past illness crisis."Clark Gable, who visited her during these days, later said that she was severely bloated and that he smelled urine on her breath when he kissed her—both signs of kidney failure.
Dr. Leland Chapman, a colleague of Fishbaugh's called in to give a second opinion, recognized that she was not suffering from an inflamed gallbladder, but was in the end stages of kidney failure. On June 6, Harlow said that she could not see Powell properly and could not tell how many fingers he was holding up. That evening, Harlow was taken to Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles, where she slipped into a coma. The next day at 11:37 am, Harlow died in the hospital at the age of 26. In the doctor’s press releases, the cause of death was given as cerebral edema, a complication of kidney failure.
For years, rumors circulated about Harlow's death. Some claimed that her mother had refused to call a doctor because she was a Christian Scientist or that Harlow herself had declined hospital treatment or surgery. Also rumors related that Harlow had died because of alcoholism, a botched abortion, over-dieting, sunstroke, poisoning due to platinum hair dye, or various venereal diseases. However, medical bulletins, hospital records, and testimony of her relatives and friends prove it was kidney disease. From the onset of her illness, resting at home, Harlow had been attended by a doctor; two nurses visited her house and various equipment was brought from a nearby hospital. Yet, it seems also true that Harlow’s mother had barred some visitors, such as the MGM doctor, who later stated that she did so because she was a Christian Scientist. It has been suggested that she still wanted to control her daughter, but no evidence supports the allegation that she refused medical care for Harlow
Harlow was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale in the Great Mausoleum in a private room of multicolored marble which William Powell bought for $25,000. She was buried in the gown she wore in Libeled Lady, and in her hands, she held a white gardenia and a note that Powell had written: "Goodnight, my dearest darling." The simple inscription on Harlow's grave is "Our Baby."
MGM planned to replace Harlow in Saratoga with either Jean Arthur or Virginia Bruce, but due to public objections, the film was finished using three doubles (one for close-ups, one for long shots and one for dubbing Harlow's lines) and rewriting some scenes without her. The film was released on July 23, 1937, less than two months after Harlow's death, and was a hit with audiences. It became MGM's second-highest grossing picture of 1937.
At the time of Harlow's death, MGM was planning for Harlow to star in a series of films as Maisie. She was replaced by Ann Sothern.
Harlow wrote a novel entitled Today is Tonight. In Arthur Landau's introduction to the 1965 paperback edition, Harlow stated her intention to write the book around 1933–34 but it was not published during her lifetime. After her death, Landau writes, her mother sold the film rights to MGM, though no film was made. The publication rights were passed from Harlow's mother to a family friend and the book was finally published in 1965.
In 1965, two films about Jean Harlow were released, both called Harlow. The first film was released by Magna in May 1965 and stars Carol Lynley. The second was released in June 1965 by Paramount Pictures and stars Carroll Baker. Both were poorly received and did not perform well at the box office. In 1978, Lindsay Bloom portrayed her in Hughes and Harlow: Angels in Hell. In 2004, Gwen Stefani briefly appeared as Harlow in Martin Scorsese's Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator.
In August 1993, Sharon Stone hosted a documentary about Harlow entitled Harlow: The Blonde Bombshell, which aired on Turner Classic Movies
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