Credit: TCM

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Kirsty Asher

Identifying a modern figure who evokes the painstakingly specific appeal of Jean Harlow grows increasingly difficult as time passes. In a 2001 New York Times piece, Molly Haskell lamented this, “you’d be hard put to find movies in which sleaze and turpitude pay off as handsomely as they do in ”Red-Headed Woman” and ”Baby Face.’” The “healthy vulgarity” which Haskell identified in Harlow remains as elusive as ever in a modern Hollywood era where sex has been considerably muted. What’s more, its sporadic amplification often brings complicated views of its positivity and its involvement with the male gaze. It was Harlow’s effortless ability to be at once merry and lustful – “the Laughing Vamp” – with a cherubic delight that evoked a type of purity, one unconfined by a Christianised ideal of sexual morality. This comprised the original incarnation of the Blonde Bombshell. 

Seeing, then, that the paradoxical appeal of Harlow’s performance style – to be impishly sexual and endearingly comedic – is no longer strictly associated with the Blonde Bombshell, it’s important to look at the system which created its marketable image, and how that began its gradual plasticisation. To understand the artificialising of the Bombshell is to acknowledge what Darrell Rooney, author of Harlow in Hollywood (2011) described in a 2014 lecture as Jean Harlow’s “symbiotic relationship” with early Hollywood. Jean arrived in Hollywood when both were in early adolescence. She and her mother moved there in 1923, when Harlow was 12, and she attended Hollywood School for Girls alongside the likes of Katherine DeMille, Irene Selznick and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. When Harlow died aged just 26 in 1937 of kidney failure, the Classical Golden Age of Hollywood was just beginning to take off. The construction of Harlow, or more specifically the image of her, was instrumental in the construction of Hollywood – a fantasy beyond the drudge of reality.  

Of course, the construction process of said fantasy was achieved by mundane and consumerist means, and the process for Harlow’s signature hair colour was no different. Naturally an ashy blonde, Harlow’s signature colour was achieved with an eye-watering mixture of peroxide, ammonia, Clorox, and Lux flakes. The result was a shade of blonde never before achieved in publicised hair and beauty. There is a knowing consumerism to the involvement of familiar American brands in constructing a star’s image, an image which would experience fanatical mimesis across the country, to the detriment of thousands of scalps. 

Overemphasis of the Bombshell’s visual appeal made the marketing and publicity of Frank Capra’s film Platinum Blonde (1931) entirely about Jean Harlow. It was originally titled Gallagher, but as interest in Harlow and her unique hair peaked during production the name was changed to deify her look – the snowy blonde hair and arched eyebrows deftly painted where her own had been shaved off. The opulence of this look, inspired by the most luxurious of metals, was a balm to a country embattled by the Great Depression. This wasn’t a flaxen blonde from the Old Country; this was a sleek chrome which shone like the recently-built Chrysler Building. It looked impossibly glamorous, an unattainable luxury. Except it wasn’t. With a little help from trusty, reliable chemical brands, any girl could be Platinum Blonde. 

Despite being an eponymous character with a dominance in the poster art for Platinum Blonde, Harlow as wealthy heiress Ann Schuyler has sparingly few scenes compared to the other top-billed actors. The film is really about the gradual realisation of love between charming everyman journalist Stew Smith (Robert Williams) and his colleague played by Loretta Young, who he affectionately calls by her genderless surname – Gallagher. What stops the heavy marketing of Harlow from being pure materialism is that Platinum Blonde is one of her strongest screen performances. This is especially apparent in the ‘garters’ scene, where as part of Ann Schuyler’s mission to bougie-fy Stew as he prepares to marry into her wealth, she tries to convince him to wear men’s garters. They sing a call-and-response ditty about it, with Harlow leaning her forehead against his, her eyes never leaving his face as she reacts organically to each of his lines. Her laugh is so genuine, her warmth so beautifully naturalistic that it’s easy to see here why Harlow’s performance style endeared her to so many. While the oversaturation of Jean Harlow in the marketing of the film may have misrepresented her importance to the story, her performance at least speaks for itself. Nevertheless, the publicity frenzy was aimed squarely at reproducing her look, not reiterating her talent, and so began a schism between the Bombshell as an image and the Bombshell as a persona.

Where Harlow escapes the criticism aimed at later Bombshells, it is because of her grounded presence. Her sensuality was unselfconscious and earthy, not borne of vanity, or attention-seeking public displays. She shunned underwear for the sense of freedom – the allure it created was incidental. Her posture had a slouchy adolescence, not the poised, pneumatic silhouette commonly associated with the Bombshell. It wasn’t a wiggle so much as a round-shouldered saunter which carried Harlow through a scene. This is what kept the perception of an entire facade detached from the Bombshell when it was inhabited by Jean Harlow. She moved like a human, not a goddess. In truth, the Bombshell may have been created with the use of Harlow, but the idea of it became transient, capable of inhabiting other bodies when there was an inkling that Hollywood could use it and manipulate it in publicity. Although it started with Harlow, the visual culture she established was so desirable that it set off a chain reaction; a line of hopeful, vulnerable young women who desperately wanted to emulate it, and would stop at nothing to do so. What’s more, the artificial roots of the Bombshell’s visual appeal combined with its mass marketability unleashed a libertarian beauty which overtook the need for accompanying acting talent. 

This began tentatively with Marilyn Monroe’s career, and soon became glaringly apparent in the likes of Mamie Van Doren and Jayne Mansfield. Beyond these figures there was Anna Nicole Smith and Pamela Anderson. Through these figures the Bombshell became increasingly associated with a synthetic form of femininity, and less about memorable performance. Each new reiteration brought with it augmentation: tits got bigger, waists got smaller, asses got rounder. Whether it was surgical or natural became of little concern. Adorned always with the highest fakery: the platinum blonde hair. With this transition came criticism that it cheapened sexual imagery and promoted unrealistic Euro-centric beauty standards. By association of this criticism, whoever has inhabited the Bombshell becomes the focus of a quest to rationalise its existence. There is an urge to ascribe it to a secret intellectualism, to find genius behind the simplicity. This is especially relevant to Dolly Parton, who actually has built an entire brand on dressing up genius in simplicity. 

When Marilyn Monroe took up the crown of thorns, the seeds of the Bombshell’s constructed appeal and overt sexuality germinated. Jean Harlow’s nudity was playfully suggested in Red Dust (1932) where as the assertive sex worker Vantine she flirts with rubber plantation owner Dennis Carson (Clark Gable) while bathing naked in a barrel. Marilyn was forced to concede her nudity to the press in 1952 after rumours emerged that she had modelled nude in 1949 to pay bills. A year later Hugh Hefner decided he wanted the photos for the first issue of Playboy and printed them without her consent. Rather than bury her career, the scandal merely amplified the public’s fascination with her vulnerability. Jean Harlow had a film renamed for her hair colour to amplify her image, and Marilyn’s role in We’re Not Married! (1952) was said to have been created to “present Marilyn in two bathing suits.” Where Jean Harlow’s three marriages were kept relatively separate from her career, Marilyn’s were held to the magnifying glass. Like Jean before her, Marilyn’s acting skills were only noticed by those who cared to notice them, because her image, both in beauty terms and in the public’s mind, was more important to keeping the Hollywood machine running in the advanced stages of the Golden Age. Marilyn was Hollywood, and Hollywood was Marilyn. The symbiosis was still present.

Like Harlow, Marilyn’s death marked a turning point for Hollywood, which would soon usher in the American New Wave where naturalism trumped constructed public image. The Bombshells who were left behind to see off the rest of the 1960s were rudderless, as none of them could match Marilyn’s popularity. Mamie Van Doren’s career never lifted above aping what Marilyn had done in films before her, and Jayne Mansfield was far more famous for her nip slips and extroverted attempts to make headlines than her acting skills. Mansfield’s death in a brutal car crash in 1967 seemed to cement the fate of the Hollywood Bombshell as a bouncy, flippant and chaotic life cut horribly short. 

Early Hollywood was defined by, and edified by the Bombshell, but its shining veneer struggled to outlast the Golden Age. As television and the internet have become competing screen media and expanded into new realms of artificiality, the need to access bubbly blonde sex appeal solely through cinema has diminished.  Remnants of the Bombshell still live on in various states of extremity in the likes of Dolly Parton, Pamela Anderson and former Club Kid Amanda Lepore. That delightful original paradox, however, which so captivated audiences, has become an elusive, platinum-white whale.