The FIR Vault

THE MONROE-HARLOW CONNECTION

By • Aug 20th, 2013 • Pages: 1 2

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“Jean Harlow Dies” headlined newspapers of June 8, ’37. Marilyn Monroe (then 11-year-old Norma Jeane Mortenson) later said: “I remember when Jean Harlow died it was all over the schoolyard.”

“They call her the New Jean Harlow” advised the “Valley Times” of July 25, ’49, about bombastic new blonde Shelley Winters – a sentiment echoed by no less than “Life” magazine the following year.

A dozen years and dozens of would be Harlows had passed by the fall of ’50 when movie audiences got their first real look at yet another new blonde. Of the kept girl in John Huston’s THE ASPHALT JUNGLE they asked. “Who is she?!”

By ’51 most of Marilyn Monroe’s publicity had her tagged “The New Jean Harlow.” The aforementioned “Life” magazine concurred by publishing its April 7, ’52 cover story on MM. (Recently Shelley Winters described the sex symbol phase of her enduring motion picture career to me by saying, “I was the Marilyn Monroe of the valley.”) Within two years of MM’s initial “Life” cover (in all, she appeared on an even-dozen “Life” covers; cf. FIR Letters, March ’73), the magnetic Marilyn was to make obsolete for all time the movie-going public’s Quest for a new Harlow

Erskine Johnson wrote: “Hollywood took 14 years, three-score screen tests and a couple of million dollars to find a successor to Jean Harlow, who melted movie celluloid from 1927 to 1938.” Johnson’s article – in the New York “World Telegram & Sun” of August 5, ’52, an exact decade prior to the death of MM – was headlined “Marilyn Inherits Harlow’s Mantle.”

Cinema history would reveal that Monroe-Harlow comparisons traveled beneath the surface. It can be said of either actress that she was called the movies’ greatest sex symbol, the most exciting blonde in the world. Publicity releases informed the public that she loved champagne and slept in the nude. Her great success was her ability to be wholesomely sexual without being furtive or vulgar. She was able to “reconcile herself to the knowledge that thousands, millions of men wanted her.” Yet “it was not sexual admiration she wanted to attract, but understanding.” Wed several times, she chose men of “unromantic appearance” – which further endeared her to the public. The daughter of a mother devoted to the Christian Science religion, she herself was unable to bear a child.

Though she portrayed mostly gay, carefree women on the screen, it is personal tragedy. To be “truly considered an actress” was her wish. But she could not muster any real belief in her own future. Behind her image the “emotional drive, the tension that began afresh each day, made it more difficult to induce sleep at night, even with barbiturates. Each morning, still drugged with sleep, she had to be shaken awake, have scalding coffee poured down her throat, and then be helped to dress before she was driven to the studio.” Her final film co-starred Clark Gable.

When she died the switchboard at her studio was jammed with calls from all over the world. Her personal studio make-up artist recreated her famed features for her final public appearance. A mourner commented, “She is as beautiful in death as she was in life.” Following the services her fans “scrambled madly for bits of flowers” that lay scattered on the cemetery lawn. She “had lived full dream-lives” with untold millions of men, had been idolized by millions of women Her immortality was secured. In the ’30s she’d be known as Harlow, in the ’50s as MM.

Somewhere in my personal archives is a reel of celluloid containing a quick minute-or-so of film reputed to have been culled – from “Jean Harlow’s screen test.” The silent footage depicts closeups of Harlow displaying full-face and profile angles to the camera, all the while projecting an exuberant personality. It was that same special brand of unique vitality which most closely linked Monroe to Harlow, both on screen and off. At times the ghost of Harlow lingered about Marilyn in more fascinating ways: the North Palm Drive, Beverly Hills house in which Jean Harlow’s life ebbed away, #512, was but doors away from what was to become, some eighteen years later, the post-honeymoon residence of Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio. – #508 North Palm Drive.

Reportedly wed to Joe’s “first cousin” Russ DiMaggio, sometimes movie ‘extra’ June Harlow (CITY THAT NEVER SLEEPS, BENEATH THE 12 MILE REEF THE HUMAN JUNGLE) got her biggest publicity break via a “Cabaret” magazine layout in which the picture captions told her story: “She dreams of following her aunt, Jean Harlow and becoming a Hollywood star,” and “Comparisons of Marilyn Monroe to late movie star Jean Harlow are resented by rising burlesque queen June Harlow.” June was quoted, “There is another actress whose name I’d rather not mention who has been called ‘the second Jean Harlow’ This burns me up. I think if anyone is going to be the second Jean Harlow, it should be me.” Among the props on display in June’s nudie-centerfold were copies of some very famous calendar art, etc., of the cinema personality whose “name I’d rather not mention.”

Elsewhere, the media were mentioning the names of numerous blonde starlets as being Harlowesque, thereby making them possible candidates for the stellar role in the film Hollywood would inevitably craft about Jean’s fascinating, turbulent life.

Columnist Sidney Skolsky had long dreamed of producing THE JEAN HARLOW STORY. He championed for Marilyn Monroe to portray the blonde bombshell. Added fuel came in the person of Harlow’s mother, Mama Jean Bello, who sanctioned MM as the ideal, the only choice for the plum cinema role. On another front the project was activated as follows: producer Sam Bischoff approached Jean Bello, securing “all rights to THE JEAN HARLOW STORY” for $100,000. In addition, it was agreed that Mama Jean would act as “consultant and advisor” on the film, and that Harlow’s long-time agent Arthur Landau would be “associate producer and story consultant.” Bischoff then opened negotiations with William Faulkner to write the script for his independent film, budgeted at $2,000,000. Joe Hyams scooped the rest of the film community scribes with his May 5, ’54 headline, ” ‘Jean Harlow Story’ Slated; Marilyn Monroe Is Sought.” But MM, realizing the responsibility of portraying the legendary star (take heed ’65 Harlows Carroll Baker & Carol Lynley), remained un-persuaded. Neither Skolsky’s nor Bischoff’s film ever got off the ground.

Some months later 201 Century-Fox’s Buddy Adler “took THE JEAN HARLOW STORY off the shelf” and announced that filming would begin in the fall of ’54. Upon reading the Fox script, Monroe became “angry and disheartened,” stating: “I hope they don’t do that to me after I’m gone.” (Are you listening Barbara Loden, Faye Dunaway, Connie Stevens, Misty Rowe, etc.?)

Two years later Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer signed unknown Barbara Lang and announced she was under consideration for their Harlow biopic (Lang’s biggest screen exposure would come in ’57’s HOUSE OF NUMBERS). Back at Fox, Hollywood’s newest sex symbol, Jayne Mansfield campaigned for the role. Recognizing that Mansfield was more Mae West-ian than Harlow-ish the studio brass ignored Jayne’s pleas. In ’58 they contracted-&-groomed a newcomer named Stella Stevens for the role. But nothing came of it; Stevens’ Fox contract was aborted at 6-months option-time.

While Fox executives clung to a fading hope that Marilyn Monroe would reconsider the cinema role, MM kept an appointment in New York City to portray Jean Harlow (and Lillian Russell, Theda Bara, Clara Bow, Marlene Dietrich) for the still cameras of master photographer Richard Avedon. The public got its first glimpse of Monroe as Harlow in “Life” magazine’s December 22, ’38 Christmas Issue, inside which, MM’s playwright-husband Arthur Miller stated: “Marilyn looks no more like Harlow in life than any of the others who are her models here. But as Harlow, Marilyn’s comment is not made so much by wit as by her deep sympathy for that actress’s tragic life. There is a gallantry, I think, in this photograph.”

Monroe returned to Hollywood circa ’59-’60 to film Fox’s LET’S MAKE LOVE. At this juncture the Monroe-Harlow connection continued via an aging woman who claimed to have been Jean Harlow’s hairdresser at MGM, and who now flew from San Diego, California, to Los Angeles each Saturday morning (at Monroe’s beckoning & expense) to platinum MM’s hair. Simone Signoret, who shared these hair-coloring sessions with Marilyn and the retired MGM employee, recalls that the old woman’s “tales were full of silk dresses, white foxes, lame shoes and parties… Her stories always ended with the funeral of the ‘platinum-blonde bombshell.'”

Fascinatingly, the Harlow motif follows MM to the very day she lay dead in a Los Angeles morgue. During the final weeks of her life, Sidney Skolsky was still trying to talk Marilyn into playing Harlow, even to the point of taking Monroe to Indio, California, where they visited Mama Jean Bello at her Curiosity Shop (which Skolsky described as “a shrine to Jean Harlow”). Mama Jean considered the lovely woman standing before her and marveled, “She’s just like my baby.” Of August 5, ’62, Skolsky continues; “On the Sunday they found Marilyn dead, I had an appointment with her for that afternoon at four to work on THE JEAN HARLOW STORY.”

“I hope they don’t do that to me after I’m gone.” Well, dear Marilyn, they’ve enthusiastically done it to you in ways both great and small: research reveals that in addition to more than sixty-two books and magazines (worldwide circa ’52-’79) offering “Marilyn Monroe” as a cover-to-cover subject (and that count does not reflect paperback editions of original hardcover releases), your legend has been heaped upon the general public in two-dozen different Broadway and Off-Broadway theatrical productions, among them: After the Fall (starring the aforementioned Barbara Loden), Come On Strong, Fame, Kennedy’s Children, Loose Ends, Venus At Large, and – on the British stage – The Life and Death of Marilyn Monroe. Add something in excess of thirty-two television programs, among them: After the Fall (starring Faye Dunaway), Marilyn Monroe – Why?, Marvelous Marilyn, Paradise Suite, The Legend of Marilyn Monroe, The Sex Symbol (starring Connie Stevens), and The Story of Marilyn Monroe.

Internationally, movie audiences have viewed myth-like variations of MM exploited on the big screen in twenty-seven features thus far! A random sampling of titles include: WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER? (’57), THE GODDESS (’58), THE APARTMENT (in which Joyce Jameson essayed a role obviously intended to be an in-person MM cameo. (’60), THE MISFITS (’61), MARILYN (’63), MONRO-NO YONA ON-NA/A GIRL LIKE MONROE (Japan, ’64), THE LOVE GODDESSES (’65), MOVIE STAR AMERICAN STYLE (’66), THE TWO KENNEDYS (’69), HOLLYWOOD BLUE (in which an Arline Hunter stag-reel was passed off as “Marilyn Monroe in THE APPLE-KNOCKERS AND THE COKE,” ’70), THE WHITE WHORE AND THE BIT PLAYER (’71), FANTASIA CHEZ LES PLOUCS/FANTASIA AMONG THE SQUARES (France. ’71), GOODBYE, NORMA JEAN (starring Misty Rowe, ’76), and the upcoming THE K-INDEX AND $TARLET$. Need I mention a future inevitability, THE MARILYN MONROE STORY. And they continue to do it to Harlow, too, most recently via producer-director Larry Buchanan’s ’77 filmization of HUGHES & HARLOW: ANGELS IN HELL, starring Lindsay Bloom as Howard Hughes’ most famous discovery, cinema-wise.

Eight years ago – a decade after Marilyn Monroe’s death, on New York City’s Fifth Avenue an entire display window was devoted to a mannequin-style recreation of MM’s memorable ’58 impression of Harlow for photographer Avedon. In another part of town that ’72, I chanced upon a teenager glancing at a pop-art poster of Jean Harlow. In a prophetic twist, he asked: “Is that Marilyn Monroe?” It was said that Monroe “replaced” Harlow. Not really. Harlow was irreplaceable. And, despite untold efforts to create one (check the publicity histories of Mamie Van Doren, Sheree North, Diana Dors, Jayne Mansfield – to name but a few), there’ll never be
another Marilyn!

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3 Responses »

  1. Because some cute errors appears in every article you reprint my guess is that you just scan the original file pages – corrrect ? Instead of having your cute secretary Miss Boop (of Brooklyn fame) to retype and proof-read the stuff. Please continue the series of reprints in 2009 !

    Merry Xmas and Happy New Year !

  2. Hi Carl – You are correct, but we wish we had a secretary! But until then, having a few errors here and there is probably a necessary evil for us to keep uploading the articles, but we feel it’s worth it! Hope you keep enjoying them.

  3. The Life Magazine issue mentioned was December of 1958, not 1938, as the typo error indicates in this article. Didn’t this magazine have a copy editor?

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