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.

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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.

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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.

At the turn of the year Part 2: THE DIVINE LUISE

Luise Rainer

So now Luise Rainer has gone, two weeks short of her 105th birthday. She was not quite the last of the great Hollywood legends – Olivia de Havilland is happily still with us – but she was always one of the most enigmatic and intriguing. She lived for many years in Eaton Square, in the same house – though not in the same apartment – as that once occupied by Vivien Leigh. A near neighbour was Ivor Novello’s leading lady, Mary Ellis, who also lived to be 105 and who died in 2003 as a snowstorm flurried around SW1: a friend told me that Miss Ellis had given a drinks party in her bedroom only the previous day.

Luise had that same kind of spirit. We happily saw a lot of her at Les Senteurs after the shop moved to Elizabeth Street in 1999. She once cancelled a winter flight to the USA at the last moment and came into the shop in a huge and magnificent fur hat on Christmas Eve saying that she had decided to stay at home and throw an impromptu dinner for twelve instead. She would have been then around 95 and still a startlingly brisk walker (always in heels), almost impossible to keep pace with. Of an afternoon she’d walk up from Belgravia to Leicester Square and back for a little exercise, and to have her shoes re-soled. She missed her dogs, having kept troupes of dachsunds in earlier days. She told me how she’d fallen backwards down an escalator in the West End but bounced back – “tough dame, huh?”. Luise was extremely funny always, disconcertingly sharp & observant. Her lively impression of George W. Bush was a speciality.

I first met Miss Rainer at Harrods about 25 years ago – always modest, she introduced herself by her married name but I thought “I know that face..that voice.”. And it was indeed she, the woman once known at MGM as “The Viennese Teardrop”, wearing her signature jewelled skullcap and exquisite beige trouser suit. She was then, as ever, on the look out for a superior tuberose perfume: she adored Piguet’s Fracas and never found a scent to match it. Her top floor flat at Eaton Square – ” come on, have a drink!” – smelled deliciously of pale gardenias and tuberoses, fresh and airy as though in a garden. There her two Oscars from 1936 and ’37 stood unobtrusively on a bureau in her study: so startlingly solid and heavy when picked up that I almost dropped one of them, taken aback by the unexpected weight.

Luise made full use of our shop fax machine, and when I (always a technophobe) moaned about getting to grips with the computer she told me that she was taking lessons in the new social media devices: “I have No Intention of being left behind!” Maybe her practical pragmatic streak was expressed in her hands which though beautiful, expressive and perfectly kept were surprisingly large for such a tiny person. She told a wonderfully comic story against herself concerning a journalist who visited her one hot summer day: she offered him a beer from the fridge and he enjoyed it so much she proposed another. “He didn’t seem to like the second as much as the first. When we examined the label, the expiry date was 1987…”

Luise Rainer had that wonderful gift of seeming to live every second of life, good or bad, to the full: she lived in the moment, always looking forward. Blessed with tremendous energy and humour she lit up my life considerably. I always felt illuminated and revived by her, even by a word in passing. She strode down Elizabeth Street like a queen, admired by all, and until fairly recently used to shop for her groceries -” I don’t eat!” – in the Kings Road supermarkets. Here I’d sometimes run into her browsing through ‘Hello!’ magazine at the stationery kiosk:

“‘LIMELIGHT is back in town!’ – big deal…!”

Happy memories and grateful thanks, Miss Rainer.