Golden Girl

As far as I know, this is the only color film footage of Jean Harlow:

The above clip is from the 1930 Hell’s Angels, Howard Hughes’s obsessive tribute to airplanes, war, male camaraderie, and dirty blondes. Harlow did appear in color stills, as well as in many black-and-white photographs, but there’s a difference in film. Especially in a talking picture. It’s a simulacrum of life: people move, and speak, as they would in nature. On film, it’s a deceptive naturalism (it’s a two-dimensional one, for starts); but there’s an illusion of how an actor might look, sound, and move as if in a room with you.

But the color itself—that, strangely enough, detracts from the realism. Why do black-and-white photos of the past seem so much more “real”? Possibly in part to the technology. Early color photography is garish and unnuanced. The colors are too solid and bright, they tend to distract the eye because they don’t blend; whereas in black-and-white there’s a gradual range across the grays. Seeing Harlow in black-and-white photos or film, her skin and clothing organize into a harmonious tonal gradation. But the first glimpse of her in color in Hell’s Angels, you’re apt to be blinded by what seems a flash of gold and pink. Our eyes register the colors before they do the human figure.

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There are also the limitations embedded in early color film cinematography. The two-strip Technicolor process used only two color filters (orange-red and blue-green), so the colors on film do not accurately reflect the color spectrum. True yellow and blue are missing, nor are there true whites or blacks. What’s meant to be white come across as a delicate cream, and black appears as a deep, dark, murky green. The resultant look is a little ‘off.’ Nothing looks right to the eye, images seem overlaid with a patina of old varnish that discolors the underlying surface.

Hell’s Angels’ ballroom sequence was actually shot in Multicolor, a rival two-strip color process; then the footage was printed in two-strip Technicolor. Being no expert, I can’t say what are the differences between Multicolor and two-strip Technicolor or if that makes any difference in the color processing. Eve Golden in her Harlow biography, Platinum Girl (whose very title acknowledges our iconic view of the actress), likens the process, unfavorably, to colorization, which gives film a fake chromo-colored look.

I’m not bothered by it myself. The very unreality of the effect, particularly of the creams, warm golds, and greenish blacks, is oddly sylvan. A scene in a country house interior feels surrounded by forest. And in the outdoor scenes it’s an enchanted wood; the roses on the bushes are translucent pink, as if touched by a baby’s thumb. It’s a more painterly feel. I don’t know if this is due to the work of any of the film’s many cinematographers or to the limits of the process itself (or to whatever DVD this clip is from or even to YouTube). But I find the result as charming as an antique storybook or hand-colored 19th-century photography. It’s a vanished, yet visible world: these scenes were filmed in 1929; the setting is 1914; and what we see is preserved as a lost, ambered time.

And Harlow is luminous in color, her platinum luster highlighted by gold. But the effect is softer, more sculptural; I’m aware of the shadows and hollows denoting flesh and musculature. Harlow’s biographer David Stenn in Bombshell describes how Harlow in person had alabaster skin and white hair; she gleamed. It was part of her aura. And the color hints at that. When she first appears in a garden, materializing out of blackish-green murk like a creature out of a delicately sensual Faery world, she shimmers like a candle flame. Her body seems made of pale gold, she doesn’t seem quite real. In the close-ups her skin glows with pink and cream tints, like a miniature painted on ivory. The effect is dreamlike but also erotic. Harlow looks ethereal but yet as edible as pink-and-white frosting; you can almost taste the sugar.

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The eroticism is heightened by her gown (supposedly designed by Hughes himself), which is almost transparent, and barely covers her. The back has only this long, flat strap stretched from neck to waist, exposing all of that lovely, supple dorsal section (you’ll notice the other actresses are dressed in period fashion, practically wrapped in fabric). And you can see that she wears no underclothing. Harlow is about as naked as you could get in an American commercial film at the beginning of the sound era and still sneak past a censor (Stenn notes that Harlow had no inhibitions and no qualms about nudity. It wasn’t exhibitionism but a primordial innocence; she saw nothing wrong with it). And the scene also winks at sexual activity. Harlow runs out and pauses, like a gold butterfly hovering over a leaf, and mysteriously smiles. Emerging behind her is an embarrassed young man hastily buttoning his shirt and smoothing his hair. Nearby, a startled couple look on with disapproval. A bit of hay-tumbling has been going on in that deep, velvety darkness, and the film means you to catch on.

Then we get our first close-up of her and you’re aware of Harlow’s face, how her eyes, eyebrows, and mouth define her features against her gold skin, and how focused is her gaze.  She looks at other actors differently, she’s much more bold and direct. That boldness sets her off. Although the scene takes place at the start of World War One, there’s nothing “period” here about Harlow. Her directness could come out of a movie today. Playing a sexy momma, Harlow’s point of reference would have been a 1920s vamp, but she goes beyond that. It’s not just her anachronistic dress. She has an instinct about her character that avoids vampish cliché. Note how she beelines in on Lyon when introduced to him. There’s no eye-widening intensity or nostril-flaring, no self-consciously hypnotic glaring. She keeps it simple; she just looks at Lyon steadily, and you can see her awareness of everything else dropping. She’s instantly attracted to this man and instantly wants him. Her desire is pure and clear and right in the moment; and the flushed sheen of her skin seems to radiate that feeling.

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The background to Hell’s Angels is long and confused. Howard Hughes began shooting the film in 1926-27 as a silent movie. He took so long to finish it (firing two directors in the process) that by the time he was ready to release it, sound movies had come in and anything silent was out of date. So Hughes had to scrap any footage other than the flying sequences—which, having cost the lives of four men, including a mechanic trapped in a plane sent crashing for a spectacular dogfight episode, weren’t about to be reshot—and re-film all the on-the-ground parts.

Hughes’s flying scenes are astonishing, perhaps none more than that of the dirigible bombing, featuring an airship slowly piercing a bank of clouds like a giant, fat needle. But for the talking, non-battle scenes, Hughes hired James Whale, newly arrived to Hollywood and with just one film under his belt, on which he served as an assistant. Per Whale biographer James Curtis, Hughes chose Whale because he was English and had fought in World War I; presumably Hughes thought Whale would be an expert on British soldiery. Hughes kept his two actors, James Hall and Ben Lyon, but he needed a new actress for what is the only major female role in the film. (The original star, Greta Nissen, was not kept on, supposedly because of her thick European accent.) So he sought an unknown whom he wouldn’t have to pay a hefty salary (the film had already cost him over $2 million, and its eventual total would go up to nearly $4 million).

Not surprisingly, in the case of a star being born, everyone in hindsight wants to be seen as the midwife. Hall and Lyon each claimed to have brought Jean Harlow to Hughes’s attention, as did the the agent Arthur Landau. It may not matter; what matters is that Harlow, at age 18, got her first break and her first crack at stardom. And her ripe, eroticized presence (how much more so in color?) launched her, as Stenn writes, as a “new symbol of female sexuality.”

Though no one seemed to catch on to that during what was a hellish shoot. Along with Hughes’s eccentricities and the horrors of color cinematography (the lighting burned her eyeballs), Harlow had to deal with the contempt of both Whale and his screenwriter, Joseph Moncure March, who thought her incompetent. Harlow’s previous film work was as a bit player, her most significant appearance in a Laurel and Hardy short. Whale had been in the English theater for ten years, as actor, set designer, and director; he came to Hollywood just off directing the prestigious Journey’s End on both the West End and Broadway, its success establishing his reputation (he would later direct the film). He had worked with top British actors—Laughton, Olivier, Colin Clive. But now he was to direct this nobody, an insecure, inexperienced girl, clearly out of her depth, whose role required her to vamp every man she meets. Maybe Whale, on only his second film, felt a bit out of his depth, too. He certainly had little compassion for his fellow sufferer. There’s the famous, nasty exchange attributed to Whale when Harlow, at her wit’s end, pleaded with her director to explain what he wanted her to do in a seduction scene. “My dear girl,” Whale replied, “I can tell you how to be an actress, but I cannot tell you how to be a woman.”

That’s a horrible thing to say, to anyone, but to a frightened teenager, it must have been devastating. I’m amazed Harlow withstood it. Moreover, I’m amazed at what we see. However crude and shallow Harlow’s acting is in the film, she brings an astonishing assurance to the part. True, she in no way suggests an upper-class WWI-era English debutante, but neither do Lyon or Hall suggest British officers (and at least she attempts an English accent). And she already holds the screen, you zoom in on her whenever she’s on. I’ll give credit to Whale for giving Harlow onscreen space, for letting her hold that look on Lyon, for instance. (Could this have been a case of Whale coaching? If so, then Harlow responded beautifully.)  He may have behaved like a son of a bitch, but he directed his actress with cinematic generosity.

There are other things I notice about Harlow here. She has beautiful, slim hands that move gracefully (watch how she lifts an imaginary hair from her knee). She’s not vain; she’s aware of her co-stars and not of how she might look on camera. And she adds nice touches, such as caressing her throat and breast when Hall kisses her; you sense how much her character enjoys sensual physical contact. There’s also the way she moves. She doesn’t slink like a silent Garbo, nor pose like a ’20s Swanson. In that flowing gown (very different from those body-hugging sheaths she was squeezed into in films like Dinner at Eight), Harlow floats breezily through space, her body free of tension. On camera, the effect is hauntingly sensual; she seems to break out of film space and step into our own.

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Do these effects come across more clearly in color? I can’t say for sure, but I find myself always watching her intensely in this scene. I think it’s because she stands out so clearly, her golden body occupying cinematic space so solidly. It gives extra weight to everything she does.

One other thing I feel when watching Harlow in this scene is sadness. She’s the picture of gleaming, healthy youth here, a golden girl embodying life. And she would be dead in just eight years, at age 26. Her life was really like a brief, flaming spurt of a candle. Viewing Harlow in this clip, in all her living glory, yet knowing she’s been dead for over 75 years, I feel I’m participating, albeit in a modern, technological fashion, in a kind of ancient ritual, something that King Saul or Odysseus would understand: I’m invoking ghosts. Watching decades-old classic movies is, in a way, like summoning up the dead. I know that sounds ludicrously solemn and self-serious. Slipping a DVD into the player or downloading from Netflix, we’re not about to burn incense and gird ourselves with pentagrams. We’re just watching a movie, right?

But I think movies move us, in part, because they are records of the past, something we humans have always held onto, in so many ways. Ancient peoples devised ceremonies of ancestor worship; and we sophisticated, forward-thinking moderns place expensively framed family portraits on the mantlepiece, or store digital pictures of friends on our expensive iPhones. Even streaming the newest releases, we’re taking hold of the evanescent moment and preserving what was and no longer is. It’s an elaborate form of denial; by holding on to what’s gone, we’re holding off our own death, the extinguishing of our own fleeting moment, which fades, like a dissolve, even as we breathe. We just have the technology now to make it more convincing. And the actors we watch are like ghost images; especially in the old movies, where their bodies are wrought in shades of gray, bleached of life. How much more like life are they when they’re in color? Seeing Jean Harlow like this, preserved in warm, glowing tints, I want to keep on watching, as if watching could keep her alive for just a few moments longer. Even in this unreal, stylized colored image, I treasure a beguiling deception of being that much closer to the real, once-living woman—of having been privileged a glimpse of her long-gone, corporeal self.

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