Published in 1965, The Films of Jean Harlow by Michael Conway and Mark Ricci opens with a biography and retrospective of Harlow’s career with seven pages of commentary, followed by a nine-page photo gallery, and then a film-by-film overview of her work as an actress.
Stills, cast list, crew list, a synopsis and contemporary comments from film critics are included for each film. From her performance as an extra in Double Whoopee to her final film, Saratoga, the book provides a brief but comprehensive look at the career of this screen legend.
By far, the most interesting aspect of The Films of Jean Harlow is the inclusion of excerpts from reviews that were written when her films were released. In many cases the same critics are referenced over and over again, and it’s fascinating to see how their opinions of her changed as time passed.
Richard Watts, Jr. of the New York Herald Tribune is one such critic. He started out as no fan of Jean. In a review of Hell’s Angels, Watts writes: “Miss Harlow has at least one realistic scene in which she makes pretty ardent love to Mr. Lyon.” One realistic scene out of the whole film! In his review of The Iron Man, Watts refers to Jean as “not one of this department’s favorite actresses.” Harsh!
Most reviewers seem to have been very hard on Jean early on in her career. Quite a few of the reviews of her early films either describe her as Harlow playing Harlow every time, or criticize her acting abilities.
The critics’ tune changes eventually, though, including that of Watts. By the time Bombshell rolls around, Watts describes himself as an “[enthusiast] for the increasing talents of the distinguished Miss Harlow.” Even further, in his review of Dinner at Eight, he calls her “the amazing Miss Jean Harlow.”
Irene Thirer of the New York Daily News takes a somewhat snarky approach to her criticism of Harlow. In her review of The Beast of the City, Thirer writes, “Yep, the platinum blonde baby really acts in this one, mighty well” — implying that a good performance is unexpected from her, or that she’s never given one before. Thirer also writes in her review of Red-Headed Woman that “[Harlow’s] emoting improved immeasurably along with the change in the shade of her tresses.” And finally, in a review of Personal Property, the witty Thirer quips that “Miss Harlow is at home as the golden-haired gold-digger with a heart of gold.”
Harlow’s collaborations with Clark Gable seem to garner some of the best reviews in the book, which is not a major surprise considering how popular they remain with classic film fans today. Gable and Harlow were undeniably a wonderful pair.
The Films of Jean Harlow is a great read for fans of the actress, if for no other reason than to see how the press felt about her performances and films at the time they were released. The book is also full of fantastic pictures. It’d make a wonderful addition to the book collection of any classic film fan.