Among the many aspects of Marilyn Monroe’s life that have intrigued historians and fans alike is her supposed admiration for Jean Harlow, another iconic figure from Hollywood’s golden era. While it is widely believed that Marilyn idolised Jean Harlow, a closer look reveals a more nuanced reality.
WHO WAS JEAN HARLOW?
Jean Harlow, born Harlean Harlow Carpenter on March 3, 1911, and tragically passing away at the tender age of 26 on June 7, 1937, was an American actress whose legacy remains a symbol of the glamorous early days of Hollywood. Known for her roles as “bad girl” characters, she was the leading sex symbol of the early 1930s and a defining figure of the pre-Code era of American cinema.
Often affectionately nicknamed the “Blonde Bombshell” and the “Platinum Blonde,” Harlow was celebrated for her “Laughing Vamp” screen persona. Although her career in the film industry spanned just nine years, her impact was profound, solidifying her status as one of Hollywood’s biggest movie stars, whose image continues to endure in the public eye.
In recognition of her lasting influence, the American Film Institute ranked Harlow as the 22nd greatest female screen legend of classical Hollywood cinema in 1999.
Jean Harlow’s journey in Hollywood began when she was signed by business magnate Howard Hughes, who directed her first major role in Hell’s Angels (1930). Despite facing a series of critically unsuccessful films and Hughes eventually losing interest in her career, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) acquired Harlow’s contract in 1932. MGM recognized her comedic talent and cast her in leading roles in a string of hit films, including Red-Headed Woman (1932), Red Dust (1932), Dinner at Eight (1933), Reckless (1935), and Suzy (1936).
Jean’s popularity quickly rivalled and then surpassed that of MGM’s top leading ladies at the time, including Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, and Norma Shearer. Tragically, her life was cut short while filming Saratoga, co-starring Clark Gable, due to kidney failure. However, MGM completed the film using body doubles and released it less than two months after her passing, making it the most successful film of 1937 and the highest-grossing of Harlow’s career.
Beyond her cinematic contributions, Jean Harlow was also known for her involvement in charity work. In January 1937, she and Robert Taylor travelled to Washington, D.C., to participate in fundraising activities for President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s birthday, which later became associated with the March of Dimes charity. Harlow, a Democrat, had actively campaigned for Roosevelt in the 1936 United States presidential election and had previously supported Upton Sinclair in the 1934 California gubernatorial election.
Unfortunately, Jean Harlow’s life was marked by recurring health issues. In her final days, she fell seriously ill while filming. Initially, her condition was attributed to cholecystitis and influenza. However, it became increasingly clear that she was suffering from kidney failure, with symptoms including fatigue, nausea, fluid retention, and abdominal pain.
Despite efforts to treat her, Harlow’s condition deteriorated rapidly, and she was hospitalized on June 6, 1937. Sadly, she slipped into a coma and passed away the next day, June 7, at the young age of 26. The official cause of death was cerebral oedema, a complication of kidney failure.
Rumours and controversies surrounded Harlow’s death, with some speculating about her mother’s religious beliefs, refusal of medical treatment, or complications from past illnesses. In truth, she had received medical attention while at home, but her illness had taken a severe toll on her health.
Jean Harlow’s passing left a void in the Hollywood community, with colleagues and friends expressing their grief and admiration for the talented actress. Her final resting place is in the Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, where her inscription reads “Our Baby.” Spaces were reserved for her mother and William Powell, her co-star and love interest at the time, although Powell later married actress Diana Lewis.
Despite her untimely departure, Jean Harlow’s enduring legacy continues to captivate audiences, and her films remain a testament to the Golden Age of Hollywood cinema.
THE NEXT JEAN HARLOW?
Image Via: VintageEveryday
Marilyn left an indelible mark on the world of cinema and popular culture. Interestingly, throughout her career, she was often compared to Jean Harlow, and even dubbed her successor.
Jean Harlow, the original “Blonde Bombshell” was known for her stunning beauty, seductive screen presence, and a string of successful films that made her a household name. She epitomised the glamour and allure of the early days of Hollywood, much like Marilyn would do in her time.
The comparisons between Marilyn and Jean were undeniable. Both actresses were celebrated for their platinum blonde hair, hourglass figures, and the ability to exude sensuality on screen effortlessly. Their striking physical resemblances were impossible to ignore, and it fueled the idea that Marilyn was Jean Harlow’s modern-day counterpart.
Marilyn’s career trajectory also bore a striking resemblance to Harlow’s. Just as Jean Harlow was propelled to stardom through her association with Howard Hughes and later MGM, Marilyn’s early career was shaped by influential figures such as Johnny Hyde and her eventual contract with Twentieth Century Fox. Both actresses faced initial challenges and setbacks in their careers, with Marilyn, like Harlow, initially cast in smaller, supporting roles. Their characters exuded a magnetic sensuality that drew audiences in, creating an enduring appeal that transcended the eras.
The comparisons didn’t stop at their physical appearances or the types of roles they played. Marilyn Monroe was dubbed “The New Jean Harlow” by the media, signalling not only their visual similarities but also their shared status as sex symbols and iconic Hollywood figures. Marilyn’s rising fame in the 1950s had strong echoes of Jean Harlow’s heyday in the 1930s.
According to Milton Greene, in 1957, Marilyn herself acknowledged the parallels between her career and Jean Harlow’s
While Marilyn eventually carved out her unique legacy in Hollywood, becoming one of the most celebrated actresses in cinematic history, the comparisons to Jean Harlow remain an intriguing aspect of her career. The idea of Marilyn as Jean’s successor is a testament to the enduring fascination with both actresses and their enduring influence on the world of entertainment.
In September 1952, Marilyn Monroe, in an interview with the renowned journalist Louella Parsons, made a statement that has since fuelled the misconception about her idolising Jean Harlow. When questioned about the possibility of playing Jean Harlow in a biopic, she replied, “Oh, is it true? It’s the first time I’ve heard it. So many people say I look like Jean Harlow, and I’d love to do her life story. I never saw any of her pictures, but from what people say, I’d love to look like Jean Harlow, and I’d love to do her life story.”
This conflicts with the idea that Marilyn was a devoted fan of Jean Harlow’s films. It is evident that Marilyn was primarily referring to her physical resemblance to Harlow and her interest in portraying her on-screen, rather than a deep admiration for Harlow’s acting talents.
Biographer Donald Spoto, in his book of Marilyn, frequently drew comparisons between the two actresses. The media of the time also played a role in perpetuating the idea of Marilyn as Jean’s successor. However, there is scant evidence to support the claim that Marilyn Monroe was a fervent admirer of Harlow’s cinematic work.
One of the few statements that hint at Marilyn’s interest in Jean Harlow comes from an interview with Georges Belmont in 1960 for Marie Claire. In this interview, Marilyn mentioned that she was “fascinated by Jean Harlow” when she was seven years old because they both had “white hair.” This comment, while acknowledging her affinity for Harlow’s image, does not necessarily translate into a profound admiration for her work as an actress.
Contrary to popular belief, there (seem to be) no direct quotes from Marilyn Monroe herself that explicitly declare Jean Harlow as her idol. While it’s true that Marilyn collected some cards featuring Jean Harlow’s photos, this alone does not imply idolisation. It’s essential to separate the idea of physical resemblance and a desire to portray someone on-screen from the notion of being a devoted fan.
However, it’s worth noting that Marilyn did recreate some of Jean Harlow’s iconic photoshoots, further supporting her fascination with Harlow’s image. These recreations not only highlighted their physical resemblance but also paid homage to Jean Harlow’s enduring legacy in Hollywood.
One prevalent misconception surrounding Marilyn Monroe’s connection to Jean Harlow revolves around an alleged meeting with Jean Harlow’s mother, Mother Jean Bello, in the 1960s. Some sources, including Donald Spoto, claimed that Mother Jean had approved Marilyn to play her daughter in a biopic. However, this rumour is based on inaccurate information. Mother Jean passed away in 1958, long before any supposed meeting between her and Marilyn could have occurred, debunking the claim.
In conclusion, Marilyn Monroe’s connection to Jean Harlow is more complex than often portrayed. While she acknowledged their physical resemblance, and commonalities with some aspects of their lives and career as well as expressing interest in portraying Harlow on-screen, there is no substantial evidence to suggest that Marilyn was a devoted fan of Jean Harlow’s movies nor that she idolised her as is so often claimed by biographers and fans alike.