Combustible Celluloid
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With: Carroll Baker, Red Buttons, Raf Vallone, Angela Lansbury, Peter Lawford, Mike Connors, Martin Balsam, Leslie Nielsen, Mary Murphy, Hanna Landy, Peter Hansen, Kipp Hamilton, Peter Leeds
Written by: John Michael Hayes
Directed by: Gordon Douglas
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 125
Date: 06/23/1965

Harlow (1965)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Star Wreck

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Back in the old days, they used to make "quickie biopics," that thrived on both star power and on lurid details, not Oscar buzz. Facts were not in the least important. And so Gordon Douglas -- the director of Zombies on Broadway, Them!; and Viva Knievel! -- was hired to direct this biopic of actress Jean Harlow (1911-1937), the first of two that were produced that year. The only thing this movie gets right are Jean's name and the name of her second husband, Paul Bern. Even there, the movie cheats a little. Jean claims that "Jean Harlow" is her real name, which it was not, and the movie claims that Bern was Harlow's first husband; he was her second of three.

Carroll Baker (Baby Doll) stars as Harlow, and she's the movie's biggest selling point. Though Baker never caught on as a sex symbol, she was one of the most sensuous creatures to parade across a movie screen in the 1960s, and she captures the raw appeal that Harlow must have had. We witness the actress' rise to stardom, stalled because she refuses to jump onto the "casting couch," and stressed by the presence of her mother (Angela Lansbury) and her overspending, gigolo stepfather (Raf Vallone). Thankfully a helpful agent happens along, Arthur Landau, and she's on her way. Landau is wonderfully played by Red Buttons, who received a Golden Globe nomination for this.

Harlow makes a bunch of fictitious movies, hobnobs with fictitious movie stars, directors and producers and eventually marries Bern (Peter Lawford), who kills himself when it comes out that he is impotent. Bern killed himself in real life as well, but I'm sure the circumstances were a bit more complicated. In the movie Harlow dies, unloved, of pneumonia, but her real-life affliction was quite a bit more horrible. I wonder if a more truthful biopic could be made today? Gwen Stefani had a brief appearance as Harlow in Martin Scorsese's The Aviator (2004)... perhaps they could consider a spinoff?

Either way, the lack of details in Harlow -- and the reliance on old showbiz clichés -- eventually brings down the movie. Though, aside from the strong performances by Baker and Buttons, it still has some good points. Douglas luxuriates in a gorgeous widescreen, color frame, taking in spacious mansions and studio lots, and making sure that Harlow is alone and apart from it all. OliveFilms, which recently inherited a wealth of old Paramount films, has released a nice-looking new DVD with no extras or optional subtitles. Meanwhile, the real Harlow can be seen in memorable (real) movies like Hell's Angels (1930), The Public Enemy (1931), Platinum Blonde (1931), Red Dust (1932), Dinner at Eight (1933) and Libeled Lady (1936).

In 2013, Olive Films released a gorgeous new Blu-ray edition. The colors really pop in this edition, and Baker looks even more gorgeous.

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