Wait For The Moment When: Jean Harlow has Clark Gable scrub her back in ‘Red Dust’ (1932)

Jean Harlow in Red Dust

Jean Harlow in Red Dust

She’s a tropical trollop with a pet parrot, shacked up on an Indo-Chinese rubber plantation with over-sexed planter Gable. Beautiful Mary Astor is about to shatter their jungle idyll with refinement and a revolver, but for now Harlow decides to take a dip in a rain butt. She’s just cleaned out the parrot’s cage – “What ya been eating? Cement?”. It’s all very pre-Hays Code and when Depression audiences saw Gable duck Jean’s gleaming white body in the barrel there were riots in cinemas across the USA. Seats were torn up and women fainted. It doesn’t happen like this any more. The last time I witnessed anything remotely similar was when a noisy and packed late house in Leicester Square gasped and squealed in unison as Travolta peeled off his shirt in Pulp Fiction. This spontaneous reaction – “thousands cheer” – was one of my more memorable cinema experiences.

A recent survey of Harlow’s brief hurricane of fan mail (she died of kidney failure at 26) revealed not the expected lecherous outpourings of middle aged men but the sweet admiration of young girls and their requests for beauty tips. Maybe this should not surprise us. On screen, despite the heavy make-up and the clingy gowns, she’s often like a child dolled up in her tarty mother’s clothes. There’s no guile about Jean – she’s frank, noisy and honest; amoral not immoral. They called her “the Baby” on the MGM soundstages so we assume that the essence of her real-life personality translated to the screen.

f0c28927103e50082f6677a8c40febeb

Guerlain’s Mitsouko

 

And, talking of her fan base, it’s nice to know that George V and Queen Mary were avid Harlow admirers, having all her movies privately screened at Buckingham Palace – even the notorious Red Headed Woman, banned for general viewing in the UK until 1965 (can you believe it?). Despite their starchy exteriors the Royal couple were both Geminis – with all the mercurial spirit and delight in novel entertainment which that implies. Remember how Queen Mary later adored all the murders, seductions and cleavage of The Wicked Lady?

Harlow is famously said to have worn Guerlain’s Mitsouko – her second husband reputedly covered himself with his wife’s heady scent before his mysterious suicide in their bathroom. But for me the real mystery is how this gorgeous oakmoss emerald-dark chypre came to sit so well on Jean’s translucently fair skin. The trademark platinum hair was bleached but Harlow was naturally fair, almost albino, and photos of her wearing only diminuendo makeup are quite startling in their lunar luminous pallor. I always think of Mitsouko as quintessentially a brunette scent – enhancing an Ava Gardner or Liz Taylor type. I cannot imagine the impact of it as worn by tiny, vivacious, wise cracking Jean. Now, none of us shall never know; and very few are left to remember.

Dinner-at-Eight

Dressler and Harlow in Dinner at Eight

 

It all goes to show that with perfume there can be pride and prejudice but there’s also personal preference; and most importantly those spectacularly unpredictable idiosyncratic unions of fragrance and chemistry. I never pass a Guerlain counter without an admiring thought of the original Blonde Bombshell with her ice-cube-toned breasts, no knickers, and her snappy brisk way with a line. Marie Dressler’s celebrated put-down at the climax of Dinner At Eight works so well only because of the brilliant way Jean supplies the feed:

” I was reading a book the other day…all about civilisation or something… a NUTTY kind of a book…and the guy says that machinery is gonna take the place of EVERY profession!”

“O my dear: that’s something you need NEVER worry about…”

Curtain.

Vignettes of Old Marylebone: No. 10 – Marble Arch

Buckingham_Palace_engraved_by_J.Woods_after_Hablot_Browne_&_R.Garland_publ_1837_edited

As children in the faraway Midlands we sang a nonsense song about the Marble Arch into which you could slot the name of any celebrity of your choice:

“Around the Marble Arch
X used to march
He tumbled into a box of eggs
All the yellow ran up his legs..”

So when I finally got to touch the beautiful if slightly foxed chunks of white Italian marble I still saw all those spattered yolks in my mind’s eye. It’s a funny old thing and tunnelled with little rooms, apparently. Marooned in the middle of the traffic since Park Lane was widened over half a century ago the Arch is now scratched by graffittists and, as the London papers keep pointing out, is on occasion used as a loo.

Even before it became a traffic island Marble Arch was a displaced wanderer. It started life in 1827 as the gateway to Buckingham Palace but was brought up in sections to Marylebone when the Palace was enlarged, to be rebuilt as the ceremonial entrance to the Great Exhibition held in Hyde Park in the summer of 1851. The bronze statue of George IV – that heavily-perfumed consumer of cherry brandy, opium and pork pies – originally designed to ride atop the Arch now prances in Trafalgar Square.

May 1st 1851 was the Marble Arch’s finest hour: Queen Victoria in pink satin and lace swept through in her carriage to open the Crystal Palace ( erected near to where the Albert Memorial now stands ). The great glass conservatory was filled with birds, living cedars, vast organs and choirs whose voices could scarcely be heard for the sheer size and scale of it all. Prince Albert, whose brainchild the exhibition was, stood resplendent in scarlet gazing at the tribute of the Empire; a mysterious Mandarin in blue silk and peacock feathers who was later said to be someone’s cook made the ritual kow tow.

And perfume was present. Fragrance was featured. Our Grossmith friends won medals. Eugene Rimmel’s huge baroque fountain of living scents was one of the star attractions during the six month run of the show. Perfume has always drawn the crowds: renew your own acquaintance Les Senteurs.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Vignettes of Old Marylebone: No. 8 – River of No Return.

Fleet River, London, England

The spell of running water exercises a peculiar fascination on the mind only equalled by that of perfume. The idea of subterranean lakes and streams only compounds the magic and conjures up the exotic fantasies of Gaston Leroux, H. Rider Haggard and Coleridge. Think of the souls of the dead being ferried across the Styx upon payment of an obol; the barque of the extinguished sun sailing through the night. Or, more merrily, drifting in mad King Ludwig’s cockleshell though gaslit pink and blue opaline crystal caverns “measureless to man” and as magical as Selfridge’s Lower Sales Floors or the shelves at Les Senteurs. Who would think that at least one of London 13’s lost and buried – but still rushing – rivers flows below the bustling busy streets of Portman Village?

No wonder London is so humid in summer; it is built over endless marshes. Westminster Abbey once stood on an island; the Thames has lost at least half its width since the Roman city was sacked by Boudicca’s hordes. The City was divided by the Fleet River rushing down from Farringdon until less than 300 years ago – that’s just three long lifetimes. The Tyburn was once better known as the name of a tributary of the Thames than as a synonym for the grim gallows at Marble Arch.

Once green and glorious and gushing down from Hampstead, the Tyburn was one of the bountiful sources of safe drinking water that made early London such a prime spot for settlement. But as the city enlarged and corrupted, the Tyburn like its sister rivers became stinking sewers of offal, by and by built over: sinking out of sight, smell and common knowledge. Londoners quenched their thirst with beer and spent their short lives half drunk in consequence. However, down there the rivers still flow, occasionally heard gurgling or glimpsed contained in drains in underground stations. The Tyburn pours down beneath Regents Park, Marylebone Lane, through Mayfair, Green Park and under Buckingham Palace and the Abbey to the Embankment at Whitehall. Wonderful to think of! Seymour Place now exotic with rare perfumes drifting through the door of Les Senteurs must once have stood in water meadows fragrant with wild flowers. The scent is only a spray away.

Image: The Fleet River under London from undercity.org