75 years ago today Jean Harlow died. The Platinum Blonde superstar, arguably the ur blonde bombshell that Marilyn Monroe gets the bulk of the credit for being, was only 26 years old. She'd been a sensation since the age of 19 when Howard Hughes' Hell's Angels (1930) premiered. I loved the Scorsese-directed Hughes bio The Aviator (2004) when it premiered because of its handsome snapshot of Old Hollywood Glamour but I never quite understood what Gwen Stefani was doing playing Harlow. I couldn't see the resemblance beyond hair color and anyone can have that; Platinum Blonde does not normally occur through natural means!
When I was a baby cinephile and more familiar with Old Hollywood giants from their still photos than their actual work, Jean Harlow's huge fame and legendary sex appeal confused me. I thought she looked... odd and weirdly masculine (maybe it was the nose and chin? or maybe just my youth). Definitely not "beautiful". But I learned quickly that traditional beauty, both the male and female variety, is often flat onscreen. Screen presence always trumps beauty. Even the most famously beautiful movie stars are famously beautiful because their screen presence augmented their beauty, permanently burning it into the collective consciousness.
That's a lesson that unfortunately many casting directors and studio executives have never learned. This is especially true on television where entire shows are populated with "beauties" but you can instantly forget what everyone looks like by the time the credits are rolling in the sidebar as commercials for the next whatever play. It's especially true on networks like the CW and for whatever reason it always reminds me of those legendary stories about the casting of X-Files. Many executives didn't want Gillian Anderson because she wasn't "hot" enough but an interchangeable pretty blonde that would be easy to imagine doing photoshoots for men's interest mags, would never have seized the public imagination like Gillian did as Agent Scully. But I digress!
Seeing the pre-code movie Red Dust (1932) cured me of all Harlow doubts, since her carnality still reads as so immediate, unwithered by the passage of time.
Doesn't it feel sometimes as if being a Movie Star was more of an Occupational Health Hazard in earlier cinematic decades. So many film stars died young: James Dean (24), Jean Harlow (26), Rudolph Valentino (31), Carole Lombard (33), Marilyn Monroe (36), John Gilbert (38), Natalie Wood (43), Monty Clift (45), Stephen Boyd (45), Judy Garland (47), etcetera. Or is it merely that those who die young stick in the memory, filed under What Could Have Been.