Victor Fleming

Bombshell (1933)

It isn’t easy being a silver screen sensation!  Lola Burns (Jean Harlow) sure knows how hard it can be, she can’t go anywhere without someone wanting something from her.  She gets up in the morning and realizes that her fleet of cars is being used by everyone but her.  Then there’s her freeloading lush of a  father (Frank Morgan) who stays out all night and comes home still drunk from the night before.  Her father’s always hitting her up for money to bail her brother (Ted Healy) out of his gambling debts in Tijuana.  When she shows up at the studio for work, she’s greeted by fans wanting autographs, which she’ll gladly sign.  And then there’s E.J. Hanlon (Lee Tracy), the head of the publicity department, who never tires of concocting scandals about Lola to feed to the press.  It’s exhausting just trying to keep up with all these demands!

Deep down, Lola is ready to quit the movies and just be a normal woman.  After Hanlon comes up with a particularly ridiculous scandal for Lola, she writes to the studio head and threatens to quit if Hanlon isn’t fired.  In an attempt to make Lola think he’s truly sorry, he arranges an interview for her with Ladies Home Companion magazine to give her a chance to show her domestic side.  After talking to the woman from Ladies Home Companion, Lola really starts to feel maternal and heads down to the orphanage to look into adoption.  She finds a baby boy she’d like to adopt and sets up an appointment for people from the orphanage to come visit her at home.  Lola desperately wants to make a good impression, but Hanlon personally sees to it that their meeting is a total disaster.  He not only sends a bunch of reporters to her house, he also sends over a couple of Lola’s rival lovers over at the same time.

After a huge fight breaks out, Lola decides she’s had enough of everybody.  She announces she’s quitting the movies and sneaks away to a resort out in the desert.  But she soon finds out there’s no escape from Hanlon, who manages to track her down.  While she’s out horseback riding, she meets Gifford Middleton (Franchot Tone), who comes from a wealthy family in Boston.  He’s not into the movies, so he’s totally oblivious to who she is and her reputation.  Lola quickly falls in love with him and agrees to marry him.  Just as she’s ready to meet his very proper family, her father and brother show up at the resort.  Lola warns them to be on their best behavior, but of course, that doesn’t happen.  Then when the Middletons find out who she is, they want nothing to do with her and Lola is so furious that she decides to return to the screen out of spite!

Bombshell is generally regarded as one of Jean Harlow’s signature movies, but for me, it fell just a tad flat.  I love that Jean was game for making fun of herself and I think it was pretty bold of her to be in a movie that made fun of her own freeloading relatives.  I can’t help but think that she probably enjoyed living through her character in the scene where Lola tells off her parasitic family and staff.  Jean was good in this movie, but I felt the movie was sort of overtaken by the supporting cast.  Frank Morgan was particularly awesome as Lola’s father, but then when Lola’s brother comes into the picture and Frank gets to do some scenes with Ted Healy, they made an excellent pair of leeches.  And who can forget Lola’s pack of sheepdogs always being led in at the most inopportune times?  Bombshell is a screwball comedy through and through, so it goes without saying that it’s fast-paced and zany.  It’s one of those movies that movies that I had to watch a couple of times to catch everything that happens.

Overall, if you’re a Jean Harlow fan, Bombshell is definitely required viewing.  I didn’t think it was bad, just a little overrated.  It was funny, but Libeled Lady was a better comedy as a whole.

Red Dust (1932)

Red Dust 1932 Clark Gable Jean Harlow

Dennis Carson (Clark Gable) is a rubber plantation owner in Indochina and quite content with his life the way it is.  He’s not too thrilled when he comes home one night to find Vantine (Jean Harl0w), a wise-cracking prostitute on the lam from Saigon, staying at his plantation house.  Dennis is willing to tolerate her presence, but eventually she’s able to win him over.

Dennis has fun with Vantine, but is glad to see her leave just in time for his new surveyor and his wife, Gary and Barbara Willis (Gene Raymond and Mary Astor), to arrive.  Unfortunately, Gary has arrived with a case of malaria and needs to rest before he can start working.  Barbara isn’t too keen on Dennis, but once she sees how he takes care of her husband, she’s pretty won over.  Dennis is also quite interested in Mrs. Willis.  But then, Vantine makes a surprise return to the plantation after her boat got damaged on the trip.  Dennis does everything he can to keep Barbara and Vantine separated.  After all, he wouldn’t want Barbara to get the wrong idea.  When Gary is well enough to work again, Dennis sends him down river to do some surveying work, leaving Barbara alone at the plantation.  Dennis takes this opportunity to get to know Barbara a little better and the two of them start an affair.  Eventually, Dennis and Barbara decide they want to get married, so Dennis heads out to join Gary on his job to tell him.  But when he gets to talking with Gary, he realizes just how much Gary loves Barbara and he doesn’t have the heart to break up their marriage.  He’s also come to realize that neither Barbara or Dennis would really be happy living on the plantation.  Dennis heads back to the plantation to console himself with booze and Vantine.  When Barbara comes in to see what’s going on, he makes a big act out of declaring that he never really loved her anyway.  Furious, she shoots him.  Meanwhile, Gary has decided to return to the plantation house after catching wind of their affair and walks in just after Dennis is shot.  Dennis says she shot him after he made a pass at her and Vantine backs his story up.  Barbara and Gary leave the plantation and Vantine nurses Dennis back to health.

Jean Harlow really was one of the pre-code queens.  One of the documentaries on the pre-code era, I forget if it was Complicated Women or Thou Shalt Not, described her as a “happy pagan”  and I can’t think of a better way to describe her in Red Dust.  She was a prostitute, but she was full of snappy lines and always seemed to be having a great time, nothing to indicate that she’s really a bad person.  Even though she made some really great movies during the production code era, her whole image and persona were just made for pre-codes.  The famous rain barrel bathing scene is definitely one of the greatest scenes of her career.  Just watch how she revels in being provocative and shocking:

I also really love Harlow’s chemistry with Clark Gable.  They are one of my favorite on-screen pairs because between Gable’s attitude and Harlow’s sassiness, what could go wrong?  MGM originally wanted Greta Garbo to play Jean Harlow’s role and I am so glad they decided to change their minds.  As much as I adore Garbo, she would have been completely wrong for Red Dust.  First of all, Garbo and Gable weren’t particularly fond of each other so they wouldn’t have had that great chemistry that Harlow had with him.  Secondly, it’s hard to imagine Garbo playing that rain barrel scene with such zeal.

Aside from some rather cringe-inducing portrayals of Asians, Red Dust was a pretty darn engaging movie.  Great writing, great acting, and very pre-code.  Lots of fun!