Monday, 9 January 2012

Pristine Jean Harlow! Bombshell (1933) Remastered

Santa bought an extra present, a little late and with a note from the customs fairy asking for some import duty but… it was most welcome none-the-less. I’ve wanted to watch Bombshell again for some time and here it now was not just on DVD but remastered to boot. Hurrah!!

Reputedly one of Jean Harlow’s best films and long unavailable save on second hand VHS or dodgy DVD, Bombshell is indeed a treat. It’s from an era when talkies became almost "shouties" such was the determination to quick fire as much dialogue as possible into the eager ears of the watching throngs. As if the density of sound had to match the impact of the images or at least to make Warner Brothers feel it had its money’s worth of microphones!

The script is very witty and knowing in its relentless spoofing of not just Hollywood but also its stars (ultimately us watchers as well). It is directed with panache by the great Victor Fleming purveyor of superior films from Fairbanks Senior to Oz and beyond.

Supposedly based on Clara Bow, the film is just as applicable to Harlow herself, especially when she's shown in film with Gable and gets called on set to do some Red Dust re-takes (the barrel scene naturally enough!).

Events mirror life and there’s certain sadness in watching her Lola Burns being abused by the studio, her publicist and her dipsomaniacal family. But Lola gives as good as she gets in spite of being heavily outnumbered.

It’s as if she knows this is the price to be paid for the satin gowns, the house and the fame. Plus ca change.

Lola’s tormentor in chief is the studio’s PR guru E.J. "Space" Hanlon, played by Lee Tracy, a man of relentless ingenuity who always has a plan to keep the ball rolling. He and Lola are in hate but the film’s too smart to take the easy way out for these two.

There’s an unresolved conflict at the heart of Bombshell and that is to do with having cakes and
wanting to eat them too: career can’t come without compromise. Given economic circumstances, maybe audiences of the time wanted their stars to be human, hard working and, above all, grateful for their success?

Lola’s father, Pops Burns (the Wizard himself: Frank Morgan) is keen to take as much credit (and on credit) as he can to help lubricate the watching of horse racing, betting and pursuit of unlikely female companions. Her brother Junior (Ted Healy), is a chip of the old sleazy block and isn’t seen sober throughout the film.

Even Lola’s girl Friday, Mac, played by a young Una Merkel, is asset stripping and borrowing her clothes: “your day off is sure brutal on your lingerie”, wisecracks her boss.

Lola’s life is lived as fast as the dialogue is delivered. She’s made up and driven through adoring crowds and a stalker, to the film lot – an office not dissimilar to that used in Sunset Boulevard… While she’s getting even more made up, Space is firing more ideas at her through the window. Then she gets the call to do those Red Dust re-takes… so far, so post-modern.

Her euro-trash boyfriend arrives, Hugo, Marquis Di Pisa Di Pisa (Ivan Lebedeff) annoying the director, (Pat O’Brien), who then gets really wound up once Pop arrives. Space manages the chaos…just.

Lola thinks she may adopt a baby and escape the mad whirl…but her Brangelina moment is wrecked by familial intrusion and a neatly scheduled scrap between O’Brien and the Marquis.

She runs away to Palm Springs where we see some rare outdoor shots. Lola goes horse riding and Jean looks so relaxed on horseback it reminds you what a sporty person she was…more at home in jodhpurs than the silken gowns she wore so well.

There's some great dialogue, again all-knowing and deliberate. Lola is romanced by the seemingly-moneyed, Gifford Middleton (Franchot Tone) who comes out with the corn: "Your hair is like a field of silver daisies. I'd like to run barefoot through your hair!"

Space fits her up in grand style but it’s only for her own good…. Lola and he are made for each other…or are they?

Ultimately, Lola ain't dumb and she tells everyone exactly what she thinks of them. She knows you need to be genuine to be a real phoney and we're sure she'll survive whatever they throw at her with good grace and some cussing'!

This remastering, as part of the centenary box set from Warners, is superb and the print looks pristine: far better than the clips I’ve seen of this film before and proper tribute to one of the greats. Harlow is so obviously having a ball in this film and you can spot the odd moment of genuine Jean as she laughs along...

This is indeed up there with the best of Harlow alongside, Dinner at Eight, Red Headed Woman and Red Dust. She was a natural comic actress with great timing and delivery – able to match the wildness of Tracy as much as Gable’s mix of smarts and sexuality. Her beauty is also an unique mix of homeliness and …stunning art deco curves, whilst her platinum hair and complexion were perfect for monochrome.

Ultimately, Jean Harlow was someone of honest likability, who seemed to be down to earth and working hard to make the most of the chances she was getting.

In the box set there are also remasters of Reckless and the Girl from Missouri and it is to be hoped that a similar process is extended to the superb Red Dust: just about the only major Harlow film not on DVD as bemoaned elsewhere on this blog.

Bombshell is available from US stores as part of the box set marking the centenary of Jean’s birth. It's worth it for the great job done on this one film alone but you can also get it on its own here.

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