Dueling Harlows: Race to the Silver Screen

Back in March, when I was trying to think of posts for the The Kitty Packard Pictorial’s Jean Harlow blogathon, I had considered writing about one of the two Harlow biopics released in 1965.  At the time, all I knew about the two movies is that they were both titled Harlow, were released within weeks of each other, both starred women named Carol, and that neither one is exactly regarded as a masterpiece of cinema.  But then I watched the Carroll Baker version of Harlow and was so bored with it that I decided to scrap that idea for an article.

All these months later, I was given the opportunity to read “Dueling Harlows: Race to the Silver Screen” by Tom Lisanti and got to learn about a whole other side to these movies that I was totally unaware of.

Although largely forgotten today, there was an extremely bitter rivalry between producers Joseph E. Levine (producer of the Carroll Baker version) and Bill Sargent (producer of the Carol Lynley version) that was very well documented in the press.  The story of this rivalry is far more entertaining than the movies it was caused by.

20th Century Fox had been kicking around the idea of doing a Jean Harlow biopic since the 1950s with Marilyn Monroe as the top choice to play Harlow and nothing ever came of that.  But then Irving Shulman released his book “Harlow: An Intimate Biography” in 1964.  Although that book was of extremely questionable veracity, it was a big success and generated so much interest in Harlow that virtually every studio in Hollywood wanted in on the action.  Many of them announced plans to make a Harlow biopic, but eventually, most of them dropped out and the last two contenders were Joseph E. Levine with Paramount and independent Bill Sargent with his experimental Electronovision process.

Both men were quite intelligent and innovative, but both also had big egos and wicked competitive streaks, so the two of them going neck-and-neck with each other was destined to get ugly fast.  In the end, the two of them were so consumed with fighting this battle with each other that neither film ended up being particularly good.

In “Dueling Harlows,” Tom Lisanti does an excellent job of detailing every punch thrown in the feud that time seems to have forgotten.  If there’s anything you would like to know about either Harlow movie, “Dueling Harlows” will tell you everything you want to know and then some.  I loved that this was a book about a feud you just don’t hear about anymore, which is surprising considering what a nasty feud it was.  It was refreshing to learn about a rather overlooked story in Hollywood history.

The fact that this war was waged over two movies that aren’t very good make it even more interesting to me, because it made me wonder what could have been if these producers hadn’t been so obsessed with beating the other to the screen.  When I saw the Carroll Baker version, I thought it had the potential to be a far better movie than it was and after reading “Dueling Harlows,” I stick by that sentiment.

Disclosure:  I did receive a free review copy from the author.

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2 comments

  1. Very interesting! I was always was curious why there were two Harlow movies made the same year. Glad there is a book that tells all the nitty gritty behind it. I watched the Caroll Baker movie last year for Kitty Packard’s blogathon too, and thought it sucked lol.
    I still want to see the Carol Lynley one, but I hear it’s not much better.

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