It's hard to imagine that an actress with such obvious radiance and allure as Jean Harlow, had to battle it out with thousands of other starlets and chorus girls for extra and bit roles. It seems her star quality was not as clear to film moguls of the late 1920s as it is to contemporary viewers.
Surprisingly, Harlow had an interesting and varied time before her appearance as the sultry Helen in Hells Angels (1930) and even up until the beginning of her MGM years in 1932. Whether it was studio indecision or Harlow's colourful personal life, her career didn't really get on track until Red Dust (1932). Her films roles before 1932 consisted of a strange array of vamps, gangster’s molls and blonde bimbos. Most Harlow-lovers will know of her early performances in The Secret Six (1931), Iron Man (1931) and Public Enemy (1931), but several of her more fleeting film appearances are not so well-known. Below are my top 5:
5) Why Be Good? (1929)
A great example of a Jazz era flapper film, Why Be Good? (1929) was not only a triumph for silent star Colleen Moore but a chance for film audiences to have a 'blink-and-you'll-miss-it' glimpse at a young Jean Harlow. Aged 18 and already with her signature platinum blonde hair, Harlow, was an obvious chose as an extra in the popular film. Harlow plays the dubious role of 'Blonde on Rooftop Bench at Junior's Second Party' and can barely be seen at the top right of this scene:
4) City Lights (1931)
Despite her breakthrough role in Hells Angels (1930), Harlow still appeared as an extra in subsequent films. One included in a nightclub scene in Charlie Chaplin's City Lights (1931).
She is barely visible but seemed to make an impression on the maverick director according to a piece from a 1933 Liberty magazine found on the Discovering Chaplin website:
"While City Lights was in the making, Charlie became interested in a young woman, an extra. The peculiar colour of her hair attracted him. She was provocatively alluring.
"At the same table at which this extra girl was seated was an older woman. I learned they were mother and daughter. He instructed me to have the older woman promoted! She should play the bit of the indignant matron who sits upon the burning cigar in that sequence. It was only when he discovered that the woman her hair cut in a boyish bob that he changed his mind.
"At the time I made a note that the name of the mother and daughter was Pope--a Mrs. Pope and Jean Pope. Later I discovered that the girl had blossomed forth--in Hell's Angels - as Jean Harlow! The mother was now Mrs. Marino Bello."
("The Private Life Of Charlie Chaplin" by Carlyle Robinson, Liberty, 1933)
3) Scarface (1932)
During her years playing mainly 'gold diggers' or 'gangster molls', Harlow made a surprise cameo appearance in iconic gangster film, Scarface (1932). Playing 'Blonde at Paradise Club', she appears more like the Harlow that would later become a box office favourite in Bombshell (1933) and Red Dust (1932). I should say there is still uncertainty whether or not it is in fact Harlow or a Harlow-look-a-like. Biographer David Stenn claims it is her while Mark Vieira said she was out of Hollywood at the time of the shoot. Take a look: