While many female stars had played “notorious” women, Jean Harlow, along with Mae West, had done so most flagrantly, “enjoying sex without shame or embarrassment.” And so the Legion of Decency issued an ultimatum: make Harlow a virtuous woman or they’d boycott every film in which she appeared. The threat of a Catholic boycott may not seem like much today, but in 1934 it was a serious threat that could sink a movie and, potentially, a star’s career. MGM decided to play along, changing the name of Harlow’s next project, One Hundred Per Cent Pure, to Never Been Kissed. Was it MGM’s idea of an ironic joke? Maybe, but it still didn’t satisfy the newly empowered censorship board, which, starting in 1934 and under the watchful eye of Hays’s “deputy” Joseph Breen, was actually enforcing drastic cuts in dozens of Hollywood films. Never Been Kissed thus transformed into very sensible The Girl from Missouri, and the script became a moral Frankenstein, “vacillating,” according to one reviewer, “between the necessity to ‘justify’ its chief protagonist and to let her be herself.” The same could’ve been said for dozens of films that emerged during this period, as the studios attempted to balance the newly enforced rules of the Hays board with the appetites of their audiences.
The Girl from Missouri was only the first step in a renewed effort to remodel Harlow’s image. Over the next two years, her screen persona would shift dramatically: pre-1934, plots had pivoted on Harlow’s ability to seduce men; post-1934, in films such as Wife vs. Secretary, it was all about the protection of her virtue. Howard Strickling, head of MGM publicity, wrote an editorial in the Washington Post trumpeting her dramatic about-face: “Jean has grown, mentally and spiritually”—now she’s “more tranquil than she’s ever been” and “more poised and more satisfied,” clearly code for “she’s not plowing through a series of men.” Her hair was a new, mousy brown shade—dubbed “brownette”—that disassociated her from the blonde bombshell connotations of her past. She was hanging out with William Powell, one of the most respected men in Hollywood, and an engagement seemed forthcoming, but for now, they were just taking it slow, enjoying each other’s company—no matter the rumors that MGM had written a clause into her contract forbidding her to marry.
By 1937, Harlow was ascendant. The doyennes of the studio were all in decline, as Norma Shearer’s executive husband, Irving Thalberg, had died of a heart attack, and Garbo and Crawford had both been somewhat dubiously dubbed “box office poison.” But Harlow’s repeated pairings with Gable, Powell, and Spencer Tracy were reliable moneymakers, and Libeled Lady, released in 1936, not only won an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture but proved her to be an effective comedienne. But over the course of the spring, Harlow’s health gradually began to decline. She was drinking heavily—one report had her downing glasses of gin, yelling, “Here goes another baked potato!” She and Powell were supposedly on and off again, which only further fueled the drinking. Or so the retrospective story goes—at the time, the press said nothing. When Life put her on the May 3, 1937, cover, it used a picture that was two years old—that’s how bloated, whether from drink or other causes, she had become.
In late May, Harlow complained of feeling ill while on the set of Saratoga, her latest project with Clark Gable. She was exhausted and nauseated, but insisted on working until she nearly collapsed on set. Over the next few days, she was misdiagnosed with the flu and bedridden; according to oft-cited legend, when Gable came to visit her, her breath smelled strongly of urine; “it was like kissing a dead person, a rotting person.” Harlow’s kidneys were shutting down. She slipped into a coma on the morning of June 7, 1937, and never awoke. The official cause of death: uremic poisoning, the symptoms of which she had likely been suffering for months.
Harlow’s posthumous image was the same as her living image, only amplified. Obituaries and remembrances emphasized the “real” Jean Harlow, who always preferred slacks and sportswear to the slinky gowns for which she was, at least for the first half of her career, best known. A Washington Post headline promised that Harlow “Was Totally Unlike Roles She Played in Films”—an avid conversationalist, an aspiring novelist, and above all, not a tramp. She had inspired intense devotion from the men who loved her, and Powell had been at her side when she died. In his grief, he arranged for Harlow’s burial in a tomb inscribed with “Baby,” where he planned to eventually be entombed as well. It was all very romantic and melodramatic, taking on the same tragic narrative characteristics that attend the tales of all stars who die young. No matter how assiduously publicity departments try to disassociate these stars from their on-screen characters, audiences still think of them as players in a high stakes game of life and death, sex and betrayal, bliss and despondency. It’s only natural that the understandings of their deaths should match the same emotional pitch.
In the months and years to come, two dominant explanations for Harlow’s demise began to circulate. First, her mother, a devout Christian Scientist, had refused to allow her to undergo treatment—a claim that multiple accounts of sustained treatment clearly refute. Second, and most persuasively, the fumes from her hair dye—peroxide, ammonia, Clorox, and Lux flakes—had contributed to her kidney damage. That which made her a star, in other words, had also killed her. Other than a recent study indicating that chlorine gas inhalation apparently causes kidney damage in rats, there’s no tangible evidence that Harlow’s hair dye contributed to her death. Scarlet fever and kidney infection as a teen, sure, exacerbated by her drinking, but the hair dye narrative is nevertheless the one that sticks in popular memory.
From SCANDALS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD: Sex, Deviance, and Drama from the Golden Age of Hollywood Cinema by Anne Helen Petersen. Published by arrangement with Plume, a member of Penguin Group (USA), LLC. Copyright © 2014 by Anne Helen Petersen.
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