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:
2) Laurel and Hardy shorts
While she was under contract to Hal Roach, Harlow had several bit parts in popular Laurel and Hardy shorts. All made during 1929, she is featured in Double Whoopee, Liberty and Bacon Grabbers. Harlow is slightly less polished and styled than in her later films but she always performs well in a comedic role. Plus several cute stills of Harlow with Laurel and Hardy are available in good quality on the internet.
|ABOVE and BELOW: Harlow with Laurel and Hardy in Double Whoopee (1929)|
1) Saturday Night Kid (1929)
Harlow's first speaking role came in Clara Bow vehicle Saturday Night Kid (1929). A fun film which made up for what it lacked in the plot department with great performances from leading ladies, Bow, and a very young Jean Arthur. Harlow played Hazel, one of Bow's young party-loving 'gang'. I did read somewhere that Bow was apparently very jealous of Harlow during the making of the film. Even that Harlow being the younger, conventionally prettier and thinner of the pair, was given a dress to wear originally intended for Bow. But that could be just recycled gossip. David Stenn, in his biography 'Clara Bow: Running Wild', wrote about Harlow's first day on set: "When the crew ogled the visitor (Harlow), Clara summoned Jacobson (assistant director Artie Jacobson) to her dressing room, "Who the hell is that?""
According to Stenn this meeting began the tension between Bow and Harlow. Bow apparently requested Harlow be taken off the set which was refused by the casting office. The biographer continued, quoting costume designer Edith Head as saying Bow was also fascinated by the voluptuous Harlow as well as jealous.