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.
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.
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…”