Jean Harlow's short career can be summed up fairly simply: she had an attitude for comedy & a body for sex. Whereas Mae West's brand of bawdy sexuality was significantly curtailed by the institution of the Production Code, Harlow's was only slightly cooled. Of course she wasn't free to frolic naked in a rain barrel as she did in Red Dust, but she could still pine for a married man as in Wife vs. Secretary or play an 'easy' woman as she did in China Seas. What made and makes Jean Harlow so memorable is that it didn't matter if her character's sexuality was overt or subtle, it just was, plain and simple. She didn't do anything to mask it, nor did she do anything to exacerbate it...she was just a sexual entity, in the most natural sense, which explains why Red Dust is my favorite Jean Harlow movie. She plays a prostitute on the run from the law who ends up on a rubber plantation run by Clark Gable. She & Gable spar, Mary Astor shows up to create a perfect triangle & Harlow proves she can battle with the best of them for the man she loves. There's a scene where Harlow is leaving the plantation by boat, wanting Gable to ask her to stay, when instead he offers to pay her for her 'services' where the look on her face is heartbreaking. She lays bare the feelings of every person who has ever been shamed for who they are. It is just a moment, but it helps make Red Dust my favorite....that and the aforementioned naked rain barrel scene (it says all you need to know about Harlow).
Dinner at Eight, on the other hand, is a classic comedy that fully benefits from Harlow's comedic timing & willingness to make herself look foolish. Rare among '30's actresses, Harlow was comfortable playing an ignorant gold digger, but playing it to the hilt for laughs. As the pampered & philandering wife of a oafish businessman she plays greedy, manipulative, needy, childish and sexy all at the same time. Marie Dressler's closing line, perhaps one of the greatest closers in movie history "Oh, my dear, that's something you need never worry about" (in reference to the mechanical elimination of EVERY profession) is set up wonderfully by Harlow's complete performance throughout the film. The fact that she called Dinner at Eight her favorite film, even though she was terrified to be working with the likes of both Barrymore brothers, Dressler, Wallace Berry & Billie Burke and under the direction of George Cukor only makes the performance that much better.
Red Headed Woman & Bombshell are 2 sides of a single coin. While Red Headed Woman catapulted Harlow to stratospheric fame, Bombshell is the story of an actress already in the stratosphere and looking for peace. The overt sexuality of Red Headed Woman is something to behold as Harlow is almost animalistic in her hunting & manipulating of her boss, played by Chester Morris. When she locks him in her bedroom, daring him to resist her and not stay the night, he slaps her, eliciting a near orgasmic squeal and "do it again, i like it" rant before the two ravenously kiss each other. It's a scene that could only have been written in the Pre-Code era (1930-1934) and only been played so well by the sexually free Harlow! Lola Burns, her character in Bombshell, on the other hand, has played all the parts, jaded and overworked, exploited by her studio & her family. She is the tortured soul that Harlow had become a mere year later. Her life, like Lola's, had become a push me-pull you merry-go-round and the insights offered up on Bombshell of the treatment of Hollywood talent are as eyeopening as any I've ever seen. Lola's life, much like Harlow's and other stars of the studio era was not all glamour and privilege, but a series of humiliations surrounded by artifice.
Wife vs Secretary & Libeled Lady are 2 post Production Code films, but still offer Harlow at her best. In both movies she is part of a 'love triangle', both real or imagined. Her casually nicknamed Whitey is the 'right hand man' to publishing executive Clark Gable, who is happily married to perfect homemaker Myrna Loy in Wife vs. Secretary. When Myrna suspects that Gable is having an affair with the vivacious Whitey she practically pushes her husband to cheat with his love struck secretary. Thankfully cool head prevail & the easy chemistry between Gable & Harlow in this case remains platonic. Regardless, their scenes together crackle with wit and charm