Surprise blogathon time…
One of Jean Harlow’s most striking features was her platinum blonde hair, of course. It wasn’t natural; Howard Hughes thought a bottle job would kickstart ash-blonde Harlow’s career. He wasn’t wrong. Harlow quickly became a sensation. Her new image got an additional boost when she starred in the 1931 vehicle, titled…what else? Platinum Blonde. The film brings Harlow with Loretta Young, Robert Williams, and Frank Capra together for the only time in film history, and the results are unique.
Stew Smith (Robert Williams) is a crackerjack reporter who’s been sent to the Schulyer mansion to get the scoop on their latest scandal. They’re so pampered that when Mrs Schulyer looks at the butler, Smythe (Halliwell Hobbes), he says, “Double strength,” because he knows that’s how she takes her bicarbonate of soda. The son, Michael (Don Dillaway) is being sued for breach of promise by a showgirl, and Grayson (Reginald Owen) the family lawyer, stands to pay the woman thousands of dollars in hush money. The Schulyers are horrified Stew will print the story even though it’s not exactly a secret. Ann tries to sweet-talk Stew into holding on to the story, and doesn’t seem to notice that Stew avoids giving her a straight answer. She feels it keenly, however, when Stew places a call to his editor and tells him about the story he just landed.
Stew makes fun of the Schulyers the next day over breakfast with his best friend, Gallagher (Loretta Young), but to her amazement, announces that he’s going back. He wants to return the volume of Conrad he swiped, but that’s just a cover story. Stew finds Ann intriguing.
He’s also found a set of letters to Michael from another illicit lover. Ann pulls out the family checkbook to pay Stew off, when Stew says he’s not into blackmailing people. What he really wants is some lunch.
Uh huh. Lunch. Stew and Ann date for a month, then elope, much to the chagrin of Gallagher, and Stew is ribbed mercilessly by his fellow journalists who call him “Ann Schulyer’s husband.” Stew bristles, swearing up and down he’ll be the one who wears the pants in the family, that he’ll always be his own man, and Ann’s going to live in his apartment downtown.
Heh. Famous last words. Stew finds himself living in a wing of the Schulyer mansion, with a valet named Dawson who won’t even let him put on his own shoes. Stew is highly insulted and shows Dawson the door. As if that’s not enough, Ann buys Stew garters, and they sing-songingly banter back and forth about whether Stew’s going to wear them. Spoiler alert: The guys at the office have something else to make fun of.
The garters are just the beginning of Stew’s troubles. Ann seems to keep him around mostly for eye candy, and he’s bored stiff. So is Ann, who incensed to find out Gallagher is a woman, and quickly goes gaga for a pilot who’s a new star among the society circle. Worse, the papers call Stew “Cinderella Man.” He’s most irritated at his journalistic rival, Bingy (Walter Catlett), who comes around smirking and looking for dirt. Before, Stew and Bingy were just trying to one-up each other. Now, Stew shows Bingy his right cross.
It all comes to a head one night when the Schulyers are out at a party, leaving Stew behind. While puttering around the cavernous empty house, he discovers an echo in the main hallway. Smythe hears Stew whooping and comes out to investigate, only to get caught up in the fun.
Stew doesn’t stop there. He invites a few friends over, who invite a few friends over, who invite a few friends over, and they raid the liquor stores. Even Bingy gets in on it, having made friends with Stew after showing up in a Native American headress and fake beard. The horrified Schulyers return to find Smythe in the middle of a bacchanal, totteringly drunk. He sidles up to Mrs. Schulyer and slurs out “Double strength.”
And what is Stew up to during all of this? Why, writing a play with Gallagher, of course. Ann finds them, her eyes like daggars even though it’s completely innocent. They really are writing a play. Oh yes, something breaks, and it’s gorgeous.
There was a lot of footing being found in the making of Platinum Blonde. It was Robert Williams’ first lead role, and his comic delivery is delightfully natural, especially considering early sound films often involved actors staying close to microphones. He must have been fun to work with, as both Harlow and Young look barely able to stifle their giggles in some of their scenes. Sadly, Williams died of peritonitis three days after Platinum Blonde premiered. He was only thirty-seven.
Frank Capra was also emerging. He was a veteran filmmaker, but like many directors during the transition from silent movies to sound, was trying to figure out how it all worked. His style that is so apparent in his later films was just beginning to come out. Capra’s films often featured the everyman with his loyal entourage of friends who come to bat for him, and Platinum Blonde is no different. They’re just usually a little less drunk. Capra’s humor was definitely poking through as well–the echo scene in the hallway would make a return appearance five years later in Mr. Deeds Goes To Town.
As Ann, Harlow plays what we know as Harlow–platinum blonde, sexy, and jiggly. Her aversion to foundation garments was very much in evidence here. She might look familiar, but she seems uncomfortable, and walks around like she’s tiptoeing. Maybe that’s why the public was kind of “meh” about Platinum Blonde–they could sense Harlow’s discomfort.
Harlow’s new look didn’t come without cost. Unfortunately, and not surprisingly, the weekly treatment of Lux Flakes, Clorox and ammonia did a number on her hair. She later had to wear a darker coif or else put a wig on, and her later films at MGM marketed her as a redhead.
Platinum Blonde might not have been the best film for everyone involved, but historically it is significant. It helped to fix Jean Harlow in the public’s mind, as well as her image in cinema history.
For more of the lovely Jean, please visit Musings Of A Classic Film Addict and The Wonderful World of Cinema. Thanks for hosting, ladies–it was fun! And as usual, thanks for reading, all. Till next time…
Platinum Blonde is available on DVD from Amazon.