Long before Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield there was Jean Harlow, the original platinum blonde bombshell. She embodied sex and was the first actress on the cover of Life Magazine.
Her first speaking part was in a Clara Bow movie The Saturday Night Kid (1929). When she was 19 years old her career was launched with Howard Hughes’ film Hell’s Angels (1930). Howard Hughes gave her a five year contract and MGM bought it for $30,000. In her pre-code movies she was known for her tramp roles and platinum blonde hair. She set off a trend with women dying their hair platinum blonde. She played a vulgar gold digger, a secretary, a red head, and even an actress. She was on overnight star in Red Dust (1932) with Clark Gable. Harlow and Gable had red hot chemistry and they starred in six movies together. She also co-starred with James Cagney, William Powell and Spencer Tracy.
Some of Harlow’s movies include: The Public Enemy (1931), Platinum Blonde (1931), Red-Headed Woman (1932), Dinner at Eight (1933), Bombshell (1933), The Girl from Missouri (1934) China Seas (1935), Wife vs. Secretary (1936), Libeled Lady (1936), and her final film Saratoga (1937).
On July2, 1932 Harlow married Paul Bern who helped launch her career. Two months later on September 5, 1932 Paul Bern was found dead in their home of a gunshot wound. The police ruled it a suicide. However, the MGM execs fearing a scandal arrived at the house to “clean” it up. A suicide note was found to say, “you understand that last night was only a comedy.” Harlow being the professional she was returned to work on Red Dust within days. This earned her the respect of all involved in the picture.
With the production code censorship Harlow made an extreme image change on the screen. Her makeup was more subtle and gone was her platinum blonde hair.
In 1935 on the set of Reckless Harlow fell in love with William Powell. Powell gave Harlow a 150-carat sapphire ring but no marriage proposal. They dated for two years until her death. They also co-starred in Libeled Lady.
During the filming of Saratoga Harlow became ill on the set. She died on July 7, 1937 of kidney failure. She was only 26. William Powell was devastated. Powell paid $25,000 for a private marble room in Forest Lawn’s Great Mausoleum. Her crypt is inscribed with the words “Our Baby”.
Saratoga was almost complete. The fans wanted to see Harlow on the big screen one more time. MGM finished the film with stand-ins and it became one of the highest grossing pictures of 1937.