Monday, February 28, 2011

Platinum Blonde and Beyond

It was her trademark, her calling card and, in 1931, the name of a film for which she received third billing. Platinum Blonde had originally been intended as a vehicle for top-billed star Loretta Young but, by the time it was released, the film's title had changed and changed again until it was an outright reference to pale-haired co-star Jean Harlow. It was not Harlow's breakout picture, that had come with Hell's Angels (1930), nor is it generally cited as one of her great classics, but Platinum Blonde was pivotal - it proclaimed her stardom.

The Public Enemy (1931)
In 1931, the 20-year-old starlet was still under an oppressive five-year contract with Howard Hughes, producer/director of Hell's Angels. She had proven her appeal in the film, but Hughes had no projects in the works for her and most Hollywood insiders believed he was mismanaging her career. Harlow's then-friend/future husband Paul Bern arranged for her loan to MGM for The Secret Six (1931), an underworld drama with Wallace Beery and not-yet-famous Clark Gable. Immediately after, she was loaned out to Universal for an unsympathetic role in The Iron Man (1931), a boxing drama with Lew Ayres. While still on that project, she went back to MGM for retakes on The Secret Six and began work on her next film, this time on loan to Warner Brothers for the gangster classic The Public Enemy (1931), with James Cagney. Her fourth film in five months was for Fox, Goldie (1931), a comedy with Spencer Tracy. Of these films only The Public Enemy was an unqualified hit, and it was a blockbuster, but it was Cagney who became the overnight sensation...Harlow's allure was noted, but her performance was widely panned.

With an assist from New Jersey mobster Abner Zwillman, who was involved with Harlow, a two-picture deal with Harry Cohn at Columbia Pictures was secured. Zwillman made sure the actress earned quite a bit more than what she eked out from Howard Hughes. Harlow's first film for Columbia was to be called "Gallagher" and was one of several films of the emerging "newspaper" genre. It was a romantic comedy about an everyman reporter who falls for a high living socialite and is blind to the love of his best friend and fellow reporter, a gal pal named Gallagher.

Loretta Young
Contracted to star as Gallagher was luminous Loretta Young, already a movie veteran at only 18. She'd started in pictures at age four with an uncredited bit part as a "Fairy" in The Primrose Ring (1917) starring Mae Murray. At eight she'd appeared as an "Arab Child" in Valentino's The Shiek (1921) and at 15 co-starred with silent screen legend Lon Chaney in Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928). In 1929 she, along with her sister Sally Blane, Jean Arthur and others, was named one of Hollywood's "WAMPAS Baby Stars." By the time she came to "Gallagher," Young had already appeared in more than 30 films.

"Gallagher" had begun as an assignment for director Edward Buzzell (At the Circus, Go West, Song of the Thin Man, Neptune's Daughter) and development of the project was nearly complete by the time Frank Capra, then a promising director at Columbia, took over.

Harry Cohn and Frank Capra
Capra was on his way up in 1931, but still a few years away from the Oscar nominations and wins that would characterize his career. He had been scheduled to make Forbidden with Barbara Stanwyck but that project was shelved for the time being and he moved on to "Gallagher." Comparing the filmographies of Buzzell and Capra, this was fortuitous.

On loan to Columbia from RKO-Pathé to co-star in Forbidden was recent Broadway-to-Hollywood transplant Robert Williams. With that film on the shelf, Williams was cast as the male lead, a down to earth newspaperman and charmer named Stew Smith, in "Gallagher."

Harlow and Williams
 Williams had been on the New York stage for nearly ten years when Hollywood beckoned. He'd starred in the great hit of the era, "Abie's Irish Rose," the longest running play in Broadway history up to that time. In 1930 he was cast in Donald Ogden Stewart's "Rebound," which was just a moderate success. But sound had  permanently arrived, and Hollywood was desperate for stage plays, actors and writers. When RKO-Pathé bought the film rights to the play, Williams repeated his role in Rebound (1931) opposite Ina Claire. He was quickly cast in two more productions, The Common Law (1931) with Constance Bennett and Joel McCrea and Devotion (1931) with Ann Harding and Leslie Howard, and was considered "a new comedy sensation" when tapped for "Gallagher."
Another noteworthy contributor on the film was screenwriter Robert Riskin (It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can't Take it With You, Lost Horizon) who, though credited only with the dialogue, reportedly penned the script that had captured Capra's attention early on. The combination of an appealing cast, an up-and-coming director along with well honed writing, delivered a box office hit - and a film that has been called Capra's most underrated.

By the time the picture was screened for its final preview audience, it had been retitled "The Gilded Cage," referring to protagonist Stew Smith's predicament and shifting focus from the Gallagher character. At the same time, a PR-fueled craze for peroxide-blonde hair swept the country and further heightened interest in bombshell Jean Harlow, recently tagged "the platinum blonde." Within a week of the last preview, the film had a new and lasting title, Platinum Blonde, though the plot had nothing to do with haircolor...

With Platinum Blonde Harlow became a star. A few months later The Beast of the City (1932) brought her first consistently good reviews and in April 1932, aided by the maneuvering of Paul Bern and Irving Thalberg, she signed a seven-year contract with MGM. Her first film for the preeminent studio was Red-Headed Woman (1932), and it was tailored to her style and personality with added emphasis on humor to soften the perception of overt sexuality. Jean Harlow made 13 more films for MGM, all of them popular, several of them classics, and was a top Hollywood star for the rest of her short life.

Loretta Young's acting career covered more than 75 years, but her ascent to stardom only began in earnest when she signed with 20th Century Fox in the mid-'30's. She won a Best Actress Oscar for her performance in The Farmer's Daughter (1947) and later won three Best Actress Emmys for her 1950s TV anthology series.

Capra and Riskin went on to make a string of classic films together. It's significant that the primary characters and themes of Platinum Blonde would be revisited and refined in their later collaborations. The two men next worked on American Madness (1932) and then came Lady for a Day (1933) bringing Oscar nods to each of them. It was the following year, with It Happened One Night (1934), that Capra's and Riskin's reputations were made. The film won five Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Writing/Adaptation. In his career, Riskin was nominated for a total of five Oscars, all were for Capra films. Capra was nominated for six Oscars and won three; all winning films were those on which he'd collaborated with Riskin. Their first success working together had been Platinum Blonde...
Robert Williams

I realized on first viewing Platinum Blonde that the standout performance and the heart of the film was the male lead. I wondered who Robert Williams was and why I hadn't seen his name before. He was enormously talented, facile, charismatic...and attractive enough to make the grade - yet I'd never heard of him. There was a very good reason.

When Platinum Blonde opened Williams received glowing reviews. He must have realized that he was about to break out, but he had little time to enjoy his new cachet. Just as the film was opening, Williams took a trip to Catalina Island, a popular getaway for Hollywood folk in those days. While he was there his appendix ruptured and by the time he managed to return to the mainland and go into a hospital he'd developed peritonitis. He underwent surgery but died on November 3, four days after Platinum Blonde's release and on the same day Variety singled out his performance and predicted a promising future.

TCM will air Platinum Blonde on Tuesday, March 29, 11:30pm Eastern/8:30pm Pacific

Loretta Young, Robert Williams, Jean Harlow

Darrell Rooney and Mark Vieira's new book Harlow in Hollywood: The Blonde Bombshell in the Glamour Capital, 1928 - 1937 (click here to learn more) is scheduled for release in  March from Angel City Press.


  1. Whew -- definitely pre-code, very steamy clip! As I was reading your article, I was wondering who Williams was, too. What a shame. And Harlow -- well, I didn't know she had help from the mob in her career! She wasn't the first, that's for sure, and probably not the last.

    Reading about Loretta Young made me remember her TV show, where she would throw open the double doors and sweep through in a gorgeous gown every episode. I always loved her.

    Your background information on Capra, Riskin, Harlow, all of the people involved, was fascinating. Excellent and very entertaining piece of writing, Eve!

  2. It's amazing that Jean and Loretta had such mature adult lead roles in this sophisticated film, while in real life they were 20 and 18 respectively.

  3. A wonderful article Patty with much information I was personally unaware of about Harlow. Robert Williams was good here and it would have been interesting to see how his career would have went had he not died so suddenly. A sad loss. My biggest problem with PLATINUM BLONDE is Harlow and Young should have reversed roles. Harlow comes across as unsophisticated and common while Young's character is a class act. I actually thought Harlow was much better in RED HEADED WOMAN as the callous Lil' Andrews. It fit her demeanor. I agree with VP1955 that both ladies were so young at the time for the sophisticated film.

  4. You are so right about Robert Williams. This film is a testament to his talent. But, I love Harlow madly (once she hit her stride) and can't wait for the new book!

  5. Becky - Yes, that was a sexy little scene, wasn't it? Apparently Zwillman the mobster (who met a terrible fate years later) also gave Harry Cohn an enormous cash loan when Harlow's 2-picture deal was cut. I remember Loretta's entrances on her TV show, too...she was famous for them.
    VP - I agree. If I'm not mistaken, the use of teenage girls as leading ladies in film started with silents and had something to do with the lighting (apparently leading men didn't need to look as dewy as their co-stars). Carole Lombard was also very young when she became a leading lady.
    John - Some thought Williams could have developed the career of a better-looking Spencer Tracy. He's fortunate, tho, that he had the lead in a Capra/Harlow film - otherwise he'd be entirely forgotten. I agree that Harlow and Young were more suited to each other's roles - except no one would've believed a plot in which the leading man was oblivious to a blonde bombshell like Harlow - and at that point in her career, no studio was going to put her in anything but slinky, low-cut dresses. By the time she made "Red-Headed Woman" for MGM, Thalberg figured out how to capitalize on her allure and celebrity but also showcase her comedic ability. Worked like a charm.
    FlickChick - Harlow (luckily) was a star long enough to create a lasting impression through several certifiably classic movies. But still - she was just 26, 8 yrs. younger than Robert Williams, when she died.

  6. An exellent write up, Eve - really informative and entertaining. I think Harlow's platinum blonde hair really was a perfect fit for the silver screen of those days. The black and white photography and lighting really made her seem to glow - she looked incandescent. I've never seen the film "Platinum Blonde" but that was an evocative clip and Williams came off considerably more natural in his acting than many others of that era (I'd like to see more of him). I loved all the details on Loretta Young who I've always found to have a somewhat angelic presence on screen - she was a classic beauty in a much more timeless way than Harlow, who was VERY much the 1930's in looks and demeanor. Your article had so many details, I'll have to read it again.

  7. great post EVE..lots of background secrets and info...thanx for the "shout out" to LORETTA of my fave actresses, who did a lot of pre-code "nasties" that were light years away from THE FARMER'S DAUGHTER (which I love)

  8. I only know Jean Harlow from 'The Public Enemy' a movie in which he isn't featured that prominently, but still gives an okay performance.

    I'm glad I stumbled on your blog because of all the references to these movies I have yet to see. this article alone is a great starting point.

  9. Motorcycle Boy - Yes, Harlow was a kind of iconic cinematic vision of the '30s (tho what the toxic concoction that made her platinum did to her hair is scary). So many became super-blonde in her wake. Even Bette Davis in her early days. You (and the doctor) might like this anecdote: I was at an event, the 50th anniversary of Coit Tower, years ago and Loretta Young was there (she wasn't expected but created quite a stir). I was with a group that was introduced (en masse) to her. She was around 70 at the time and wearing a scarf wrapped close to her head so that her hair wasn't visible. All I remember is that face - surrounded by kleig lights, flashbulbs and TV cameras. Even at 70 she was absolutely stunning, Madonna-like. Will never forget it.
    Edgar - so glad you stumbled upon my blog - if you watch TCM you can catch up on Harlow's filmography - the channel is spotlighting her as "star of the month" for March. And thanks...

  10. What a wonderful article and clip. I definitely have to catch this one and thank you for pointing out when it will be on TCM this month.

    Very interesting about leading man Robert Williams. It always surprises me to hear about actors like this with minimal screen credits.

    A while ago I was watching "Tarzan Escapes" (1936) and wondered about an actor named John Buckler who is the film's male lead (after Johnny W. of course). He didn't seem familiar to me and I wondered what else he was in. I was surprised to learn it was his last film, and he was killed in a car accident that year. He was only 30.

    The one-film appearance I've always wondered about Leonard Ceeley, who plays Mr. Whitmore in "A Day at the Races" (1937). This was his only major screen credit yet he died in 1977. IMDB lists an appearance on the television show "Believe It or Not" in 1950 as his only post "A Day at the Races" screen credit. I wonder what happened there?

  11. Kevin - Thanks for joining the conversation. I realized, reading your comments, that I have a developed an interest in those who have delivered astouding performances and...disappeared. The first of such actors about whom I wrote was Robert Walker who turned in the performance of his life in Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train" - and then was gone just as the film opened. His career was far more developed than Robert Williams who was just breaking out with "Platinum Blonde." In both cases, there is something of "what might have been" that intrigues me. And yet, in the end, one has to accept that what might have been never was and that the reputation of the performer in question rests on what they have left behind.

  12. The Lady Eve, What a wonderful review. I'm really looking forward to watching the Jean Harlow, films on TCM this month. I have only seen a handful of her films. So, it will be a real treat for me. Thank you, for posting the movie clip. You know me.. I love a good movie clip. :)

  13. Dawn - I wish there had been more clips to post. There are two others at YouTube, one is a bit with Williams and a butler on puttering - in English plus English subtitles for some reason, and it ends abruptly. The other is of Harlow and Williams getting cute with each other as husband & wife, but it has Spanish subtitles...

  14. Marvelous post. Great details on a film that I sadly have not seen. I love Harlow in Red-Headed Woman and am a fan of Loretta Young. I haven't seen many of Young's earlier works, so this one sounds like I would enjoy it very much. Thank you for the post!

  15. might try to watch or record "Platinum Blonde" when it airs on TCM on March 29 - I hope you have the chance. Would like to mention sources that provided info/insight for this post: Bombshell by David Stenn, a Capra biography, The Catastrophe of Success by McBride...Thalberg by Flamini was also helpful (not to mention many Internet resources).