Jean Harlow (1911-1937)

'Jean Harlow
Jean Harlow

Jean Harlow was was an American film actress of the 1930's, known as the "The Blonde Bombshell. She was only 26 when she died in 1937 and her career lasted only 10 years but she had become world famous, and is, indeed, still famous today, as one of Hollywood's first sex symbols and she has been ranked by the American Film Institute at number 22 on their list of the greatest movie stars of all time. In May 1937 she became the first movie actress to appear on the cover of Life magazine.

She began her movie career by appearing in films which were designed specifically to show her sex appeal, but she had genuine comedic talent and she was able to make the transition to stronger, more rounded roles. Under contract to MGM she achieved great fame but her personal life was marred by tragedy and disappointment and ultimately, her sudden death at the tragically early age of 26.


Jean Harlow was born Harlean Harlow Carpenter on March 3, 1911 in Kansas City, Missouri, the daughter of a dentist and his actress wife, whose maiden name was Jean Harlow. Harlean, known as "The Baby" until she was 5, suffered from poor health throughout her childhood, including meningitis and scarlet fever.

Early Years and First Marriage

After her parents divorced when she was 11, she and her ambitious mother spent two years in Hollywood where her mother tried, unsuccessfully to pursue an acting career. Returning to Kansas City where she studied at the Ferry Hall School, Harlean met Charles "Chuck" McGrew, a local businessman and heir to a large fortune. She was 16 and McGrew, 22, when they eloped in September, 1927 much to the disapproval of Harlean's mother who had, herself, recently married for a second time.

Harlean and her new husband moved to Beverly Hills where she fell into the movies by chance. She was spotted by a Fox Film corporation executive while sitting in a parking lot waiting for an aspiring actress friend. She was invited for an audition and became an extra in a number of early movies including 'Why Is a Plumber?' in 1927, 'Moran of the Marines' in 1928, and 'The Love Parade' in 1929. She appeared in three films with Laurel and Hardy and 'The Saturday Night Kid' in 1929, starring Clara Bow as well as bit parts in seven other movies. Her new career put pressure on her marriage and she and her husband divorced in 1929. She began to use her mother's maiden name, Jean Harlow, although this was not legally changed until 1935.

Hollywood Star

She became the leading blonde good-bad girl of the early talkies, constantly surrounded by scandal regarding her marriages and the numerous men in her life.Replacing a Swedish actress with an accent too strong for the Talkies, she was cast out of character as a proper English 'Miss' by Howard Hughes in the huge hit 'Hell's Angels' in 1930. On its release 'Hell's Angels' attracted a crowd of 50,000 at Grauman's Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard.

Jean swiftly became a national and international sex symbol and, despite much criticism of her acting ability, her popularity among movie fans was immense. Many of her female fans dyed their hair platinum to match hers and, loth to miss an opportunity, Howard Hughes's team organized a series of "Platinum Blonde" competitions across the country, with a large cash prize to any hairdresser who could match Jean's unique color.

In 1931 her career received a great boost when she was cast as the love interest, opposite James Cagney, in the gangster epic 'The Public Enemy' but she really came into her own the following year in partnership with the young Clark Gable in the MGM movies 'Red Dust', 'Hold Your Man' in 1933, and 'China Seas' in 1935, typically portraying a loose-living tramp whose honest sexiness is refreshingly appealing to both co-star and audience.

Second Marriage 1932

Jean's contract with Howard Hughes was bought out in March, 1932 by MGM, represented by management executive, Paul Bern. Harlow married Bern on July 2, 1932 but after only two months during the filming of 'Red Dust', Bern committed suicide by shooting himself, the day after his mentally unstable former common law wife had met Harlow.

A a few days later the former Mrs. Bern was found floating in the Sacramento River, after allegedly committing suicide, giving rise to the theory that she had murdered Bern before killing herself. The tragedy of Harlow's life was beginning to unfold. Her reaction to the tragedies was muted and dignified and won her many admirers. 'Red Dust' became a big hit and her fan base increased as a result.

Jean's career continued to prosper. She showed her comedic talents to the full in the ensemble 'Dinner at Eight' in 1933, and she began playing showbiz roles that flirted with autobiography, such as 'Bombshell' in 1933 as the "If Girl", spoofing 1920's sex symbol and "It girl" Clara Bow., 'The girl from Missouri' in 1934, and 'Reckless' in 1935.

Third Marriage 1933

After the death of Paul Bern she began an affair with champion boxer Max Baer but another scandal threatened to erupt when Baer's estranged wife named Harlow as co-respondent in a divorce case, claiming "alienation of affection". In an attempt to defuse the situation MGM in 1933, arranged for a friend of Harlow's, cinematographer Harold Rosson, to marry her. They quietly divorced seven months later and remained on good terms.

Following the end this marriage, she found the genuine romantic love of her life in heartthrob actor William Powell whom she had met whilst filming 'Reckless'. They were together for two years, but before they could wed, Jean's health, never vigorous, began to decline.

By the mid 1930's she was one of the biggest stars in movies and she co-starred with Hollywood's top leading men including Spencer Tracy in 'Riffraff', and Cary Grant in 'Suzy', both in 1936. She showed flair for the new genre of screwball comedy in 'Wife vs. Secretary' in 1936 with Myrna Loy and the young James Stewart and 'Libeled Lady' the same year. The Hays Code toned down her image, leading to less clingy gowns and cutting out risqué dialogue and compromising situations.


Her last film was a reunion with Gable in 'Saratoga' in 1937. During filming she collapsed on set and was diagnosed with uremic poisoning and kidney failure, a direct result of the scarlet fever which she had suffered as a child. After constant attention at home for eight days her condition worsened and she was hospitalized, dying on June 7, 1937

She was buried at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park, in Glendale, California in a private room in the Great Mausoleum, paid for by William Powell. On her marble crypt were inscribed the words "Our Baby." She was just twenty-six years old.

When she died there was just one week's shooting left on 'Saratoga'. Jean's final scenes were completed using her stand-in, Mary Dees. When 'Saratoga' was released later in 1937, it became the biggest money-making movie of the year.

Jean Harlow Academy Awards

No Nominations:

Jean Harlow Filmography

Honor Bound
Moran of the Marines (uncredited)
Chasing Husbands (uncredited)
Liberty (as Harlean Carpenter)
Fugitives (uncredited)
Why Be Good? (uncredited)
Why Is a Plumber?
Close Harmony (uncredited)
The Unkissed Man (uncredited)
Double Whoopee
Thundering Toupees
Masquerade (uncredited) (unconfirmed)
Bacon Grabbers
The Saturday Night Kid (uncredited)
The Love Parade (uncredited)
This Thing Called Love (uncredited)
Weak But Willing (uncredited)
New York Nights (uncredited)
Hell's Angels
City Lights (uncredited)
The Secret Six
The Public Enemy
Iron Man
Platinum Blonde
Beau Chumps
Three Wise Girls
The Beast of the City
Red-Headed Woman
Red Dust
Hold Your Man
Dinner at Eight
Blonde Bombshell
100 Per Cent Pure
China Seas
Wife vs. Secretary
Libeled Lady
Personal Property