I suppose the first time any of us hears the name Jean Harlow, we learn two things at once. First, that she was a beautiful blonde movie star of the 1930s, and second, that she died at the age of 26. Thus, Miss Harlow rarely has a chance to be “living” for us, if you know what I mean. After all, Norma Shearer and Greta Garbo (see our previous post) were contemporaries of Harlow who left their screen careers circa 1940 and basically disappeared. Both enjoyed very long lives post-Hollywood, so why couldn’t we have the same expectation for Jean? But no, her name is barely introduced to us and it is embraced by tragedy. Yet, like Rudolph Valentino before her, or Marilyn Monroe after her, through her films Jean Harlow proves to be an endlessly fascinating embodiment of love and mortality. Perhaps to put it more bluntly, an irresistible combination of sex and death.
The Warner Bros. Archives released a terrific dvd set of Jean’s films earlier this year but, after all, films are carefully rehearsed, reshot if there are mistakes, and carefully edited to delete other shortcomings. So while Jean certainly was living when she made her movies, we know there’s no “anything can happen” possibility of a truly live performance. That brings us to our current post on OHIC – a rare, truly live performance by Jean Harlow on the Lux Radio Theater in December 1936 less than six months before her death. Jean did little radio work and this broadcast seems to be the only one that has been preserved. The story is MADAME SANS-GENE, based on a popular 1890s play, turned into a famous opera by Giordano, that Gloria Swanson made into a successful (and now lost) silent film in 1925.
In the 1960s, Sophia Loren starred in a remake of this story of a feisty young woman during the French Revolution who confronts washing laundry and dealing with Napoleon with equal disregard.
This network radio broadcast was heard live by at least 30 million listeners from coast to coast, and by shortwave around the world. The host is Hollywood pioneer director Cecil B. DeMille, and Jean Harlow’s co-star is Robert Taylor. It was no coincidence that their new film, PERSONAL PROPERTY, was just going into movie theaters for the holidays. The imposing-voiced Claude Rains plays Napoleon with the same authority as he did earlier in 1936 in the Marion Davies film, HEARTS DIVIDED.
Here then at just a click of the button below is the complete hour-long live broadcast of MADAME SANS-GENE as heard on December 14, 1936:
Jean and Clark Gable heat up the screen in RED DUST (1932), the first of several films they made together. Gable has the strange distinction of starring in the final films of the two most famous “goddesses” in film history: SARATOGA (1937), Harlow’s last film, and THE MISFITS (1961), Marilyn Monroe’s last film. It was also Gable’s last film, in fact he predeceased Marilyn:
Jean Harlow made quite a number of good films during her brief life but legend will always claim first and foremost that her most memorable performance was as the sultry vixen in Howard Hughes’ First World War epic, HELL’S ANGELS (1930). Incidentally, it is the only film with color footage of Jean. Although she was virtually unknown at the time, look who dominates the poster art: