This Thursday marks what would have been the 100th birthday of screen legend Jean Harlow. To commemorate this occasion, the Kitty Packard Pictorial has organized a Blogging it for the Baby, Jean Harlow Blogathon which is taking place this entire week. The project, which encourages bloggers with film related sites to post about Harlow all week, struck me as a really interesting idea and something I wanted to participate in. However, my instant reaction was how could I possibly write about Jean Harlow in a way that is appropriate for a site devoted solely to Ann Dvorak? I figured I would have to sit this one out on the sidelines until I really started thinking about these two actresses and realized they actually have a few things in common, not least of which 2011 also marks Ann Dvorak’s centenary this coming August 2nd.
At first glance it seems that Jean Harlow and Ann Dvorak were worlds apart. Harlow was the wise-cracking platinum blonde who was able to use overt sexuality as a comedic weapon. Dvorak was the brooding brunette whose high-wire intensity played out best in dramatic form. Harlow landed at M-G-M, a studio who carefully crafted an on screen persona that film fans loved and sent her skyrocketing to the top of the box-office. Dvorak was at Warner Bros., a studio focused more on making movies than movie stars and who let Ann languish in mostly supporting roles unworthy of her talent. Harlow was stricken down at age 26 at the height of her popularity, her funeral was a star studded media event, and her grave is a place fans visit (or at least try to visit) continuously. Ann died in obscurity at age 68, almost 30 years after retiring and her ashes were spread over Waikiki Beach by a handful of friends. Harlow has had a consistently high place in the annals of film history, while Dvorak is lucky to be included as a footnote.
Despite these many differences, the two actresses also had a few things in common. Both women started off in the film industry when they were teenagers. Harlow as an extra and bit player with Fox, Paramount, and Hal Roach, and Dvorak as an extra and chorus girl at M-G-M. Both assumed their mother’s name as their stage moniker, and while Harlean Carpenter was always known to fans as Jean Harlow, Anna McKim went by Anna Lehr for only a short period of time before opting for the more exotic Ann Dvorak. Both mothers were very dominant and seemed to enjoy their daughters being in the spotlight more than the actresses themselves did. While Dvorak’s mother had a decade long career as a film actress, Mother Jean’s aspirations at film stardom never panned out.
Ok, perhaps the above comparisons are grasping at straws a bit, but there is one common thread between the careers of Jean Harlow and Ann Dvorak that is undeniable. They were both given their big break in the movies by Howard Hughes. Harlow delighted audiences in as the vampy Helen in 1930’s Hell’s Angels, and Dvorak shocked 1932 film-goers in Scarface as Cesca, whose feelings for older brother Tony (Paul Muni) go way beyond sisterly affection. While Hughes’ eagle-eye spotted talents in both woman that wasn’t readily apparent to other film-makers, his association with both was brief. Harlow would make only the one film for the Caddo Co. before being loaned out to M-G-M who eventually bought her contract from Hughes for $30,000. Dvorak made one more film for Hughes, Sky Devils, and was then loaned out to Warner Bros. exclusively. The Burbank studio became her permanent home after Hughes unloaded her contract for $40,000. Without Howard Hughes, it’s possible that neither woman would have made their mark on film history by becoming the emblematic Pre-Code female, strong, sexually aware, self possessed, and damn fun to watch.
While my Ann Dvorak biography is still a seemingly never ending work in progress (I’ll have an updated report soon), I can at least mention a new Harlow book, Harlow in Hollywood: The Blonde Bombshell in the Glamour Capital, 1928-1937, by Darrell Rooney and Mark Vieira. Due out this month, Harlow in Hollywood contains a bonanza of rare images and judging from Vieira’s previous books like Irving Thalberg: Boy Wonder to Producer Prince, I am betting the text will be well researched and thoughtful. This book looks like it’s going to be a must have for fans of Harlow, classic films, and Los Angeles history.
Happy 100th to the Baby and Ann-D! Enjoy the rest of the Harlow Blogathon over at the Kitty Packard Pictorial.