Color, 1965, 125m.
Directed by Gordon Douglas
Starring Carroll Baker, Red Buttons, Angela Lansbury, Raf Vallone, Peter Lawford, Mike Connors, Martin Balsam, Leslie Nielsen
Olive Films (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)


"You're a dirty animal of a person!" Yes, folks, that's just one of the many, many juicy lines of dialogue awaiting you in this, another lesson in the ways Hollywood chews up all but the strongest and most ruthless of players. It may seem hard to believe now, but a successful, scandal-mongering biography of '30s platinum blonde screen icon Jean Harlow made enough of a dent on the bestseller lists to inspire not one but two biopics about her in 1965. One was an eight-day cheapie shot in eight days on primitive TV equipment starring Carol Lynley and Ginger Rogers, rushed inHarlowto theaters to compete with this other version of the same title, a lavish scope concoction from bigwig producer Joseph E. Levin. This film was designed as a showcase for Carroll Baker, who was hot off the success of the trashy The Carpetbaggers and would go on to become a giallo and horror favorite with films like The Sweet Body of Deborah, Paranoia, So Sweet... So Perverse, A Quiet Place to Kill, Knife of Ice, and Baba Yaga. This was actually one of two films Baker made that year with director Gordon Douglas, the other being the more critically-respected Sylvia; of course, Douglas is no stranger to cult film fans either thanks to his helming of Them!, In Like Flint, Slaughter's Big Rip-Off, and Viva Knievel!

Anyone interested in an accurate depiction of Jean Harlow's life won't get very far here, but if you're up for a '60s-style take on Depression-era Tinseltown glamour and drama, you've come to the right place. Decked out in a platinum wig, Baker plays Jean from her early days being coached by her strong-willed Mama Jean Bello (Lansbury) to dealing with her money-leeching, lecherous stepdad, Marino (Vallone). Her road to stardom forces her to navigate past the advances of a number of casting couch-loving men, such as a date-raping director named Richard Manley (Leslie Nielsen!). She finally thinks she's found happiness with another big-shot movie director, PaulHarlow Bern (Lawford), but he can't get it up on their wedding night and has a nasty self-destructive streak. What's a girl to do? Keep trying, of course, thanks to her faithful agent Arthur (Buttons), and while Harlow eventually does make it to the top of the ladder, she's ultimately destined for tragedy.

Penned by former Hitchcock screenwriter John Michael Hayes, Harlow is really part of a string of dramatic female-centric character studies with soapy overtones he specialized in at the time, ranging from Peyton Place to BUtterfield 8 to the previous year's outrageous Where Love Has Gone. Despite the obviously indulgent nature of the film, he still had to ignore or soft pedal several aspects of her life (the rumors about Bern's death, for one); likewise, the filmmakers make only vague concessions to the period, giving it all a '60s bachelor pad sheen that will create a definite sense of pop culture disorientation for some viewers. A good actress who must have had a truly insane agent that decade, Baker manages to exude her usual potent sex appeal and charm, neither of which are particularly Harlow-esque but certainly appreciated by her fans. You also get some shimmering window dressing courtesy of costumes from the legendary Edith Head and a smoky music score by Neal Hefti, better known to TV viewers for Batman and The Odd Couple.

Paramount kept this film more or less in circulation for years on both VHS and TV via a very soft, brutally cropped transfer, so the Olive DVD will come as something of a shock for anyone who couldn't see it first run in a theater. The wide, wide compositions are finally restored, including the stylish end credits (probably the visual high point), and the original elements appear to have been kept in fine shape. It's a no-frills disc as usual, but wisely the feature itself is allowed to breathe on a dual-layered disc with careful compression allowing the sometimes challenging visuals to pop as they should. Likewise, the original mono track sounds fine, about as good as possible for a dialogue-heavy film from the period. If you like your movie star biopics fast and loose with a star turn by a future genre queen, this should certainly fit the bill.

Reviewed on August 4, 2012.