Monday, August 24, 2015
Once upon a time there were two Jean Harlow movies
Fifty years ago this summer, Harlow beat Harlow. But in the end, Harlow beat Harlow.
Let me explain.
Paramount Studios had planned a biographical movie based on the life of MGM star Jean Harlow for a long time. John Michael Hayes’ script would particularly focus on her rise from a feminine foil in silent Laurel and Hardy comedies through her heyday as a featured player and ultimately star at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in such films as Red Dust and Grand Hotel. The story would include her private life love affairs, marriages, and untimely death. It would also cover the rocky relationship with her mother and stepfather. The film would be released as Harlow.
While Paramount filmed its Technicolor, widescreen Harlow glitz, an independent movie studio across town, Magna Pictures, was shooting its own version on Jean Harlow’s life—to be called Harlow. Karl Turbey’s script would be directed by Alex Segal. Gordon Douglas was helming Paramount’s Harlow.
The race was on to see which same-named movie would open first.
Carroll Baker was the Technicolor Jean Harlow, while Carol Lynley was Harlow in black and white. Paramount’s movie was shot using celluloid film stock; Magna’s release was thriftily shot on videotape and then transferred to film. The process was touted as Electronovision. The latter was supposed to look like a live television production from the early 1950’s. It definitely looks low budget, except for its stellar cast. In fact, both movies have impressive casts.
The Lynley Harlow is supported by Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., Ginger Rogers (her last film), Barry Sullivan, Lloyd Bochner, Hermione Baddeley, Audrey Totter, John Williams, Jack Kruschen, Robert Strauss, Sonny Liston (!), and Cliff Norton. The great Nelson Riddle contributed to the score.
A bizarre scene occurs in the MGM studio commissary at lunch, wherein Harlow (Lynley) approaches a table occupied by Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy (Jim Plunkett and John J. Fox) and Al Jolson (Buddy Lewis, hammily played in blackface). Jolson’s one line includes him ogling Harlow and shouting, “Oh, Mammy!” It is logical to see Stan, Ollie and Jean lunching together at MGM, but what the hell is Jolson doing there…and in makeup? He was a Warner Brothers star at that time.
Released May 14, 1965, the Lynley Harlow never lived up to its ad catchphrase: The Picture The World Has Been Waiting To See! Even though it was rushed to release over a month before the Baker Harlow, no one rushed to the movie theatre. To this day, few have seen it.
This is by no means implying the Paramount Harlow was or is a classic. But it has had staying power…in part due to Carroll Baker’s highly publicized (especially in Playboy magazine) sex persona that began in 1964’s The Carpetbaggers. Her erotic image helped Paramount’s Harlow become a financial success.
Audiences seeing Baker’s Harlow, after it opened June 23, 1965, were dazzled by the full color images of Angela Lansbury, Red Buttons, Raf Vallone, Peter Lawford, Mike Connors, Martin Balsam, and Leslie Nielsen. Neil Hefti supplied the music, and Bobby Vinton sang the movie’s theme song. Period costumes were by Edith Head. Producer Joseph E. Levine made sure his Harlow was promoted to the max.
Levine’s Harlow was months in the making, while the videotaped Harlow at Magna took eight days.
Neither movie is above average.
Only one of the two versions is remembered at all. Modern audiences would draw a blank at either film's existence.