Directed by Victor Fleming, Bombshell stars Jean Harlow as movie star Lola Burns, Lee Tracy as her studio publicist Space Hanlon, and Franchot Tone as love interest Gifford Middleton
This post is part of The Jean Harlow Blogathon, hosted by Musings of a Classic Film Addict and The Wonderful World of Cinema
Based on an unproduced play by Caroline Francke and Mack Crane, Bombshell is a fascinating look at the pressures felt by the stars of early Hollywood – ones not unlike those faced by stars today. Lola has had enough of the false stories about her being fed to the press by her studio – in the form of publicist Space Hanlon – who want to cultivate an image for her as a sexy and glamorous vamp. This is in direct conflict with the persona Lola wishes to craft for herself, as a demure and ladylike homebody. Further complicating her situation is her family, who rely on her for financial support, and are not shy about asking her for what they feel they are owed.
Unwilling to deal with her circumstances any longer, Lola runs away, and soon meets the handsome and wealthy Gifford Middleton. Part of his appeal to her is that he has no idea she is a movie star, as he doesn’t watch them, and thus treats her with neither the reverence nor the entitlement which she experiences from most people. He proposes to Lola and takes her to meet his family, but their impending marriage is thwarted when Hanlon arrives and tells everyone who Lola really is. The Middletons want nothing to do with movie people, and Gifford ditches Lola immediately. Stinging from the betrayal and nursing a broken heart, she agrees to return to Hollywood with Hanlon, unaware that her ex-fiancé and his family were all actors hired by Hanlon in an elaborate trick to lure her back to the movies and keep her on the front page.
Although said to be based on the life of Clara Bow at the peak of her career – she and Victor Fleming had been engaged, and Lola is explicitly referred to as the It Girl – there are also parallels with Harlow’s own life in Hollywood. Her breakthrough role was in The Public Enemy (1931), and by the time she made Bombshell, Harlow was on her way to becoming one of MGM’s top stars. Almost every aspect of both her personal and professional lives were micro-managed by the studio, and anything that wasn’t fell under the watchful eye of her mother. The pair had moved to Hollywood in 1923, as her mother dreamed of becoming an actress, but she found that she was considered too old, and was forced to put her dream to one side until her daughter became a star of the silver screen. In 1927 the elder Jean married con-man Marino Bello, who reportedly stole from his step-daughter over the course of several years, under the guise of ‘investing’ her money on her behalf. Further parallels with the real-life Harlow are drawn in a sequence that seems to show the filming of Red Dust (1932), also directed by Fleming.
Though billed as a screwball comedy, it can be somewhat difficult to laugh at some of the manipulation and psychological abuse which Lola is subjected to by Hanlon, particularly when viewed through a modern lens with the knowledge of how impactful this manipulation was on the mental health of stars working under the studio system. Harlow is fantastic in the role, however, and is entirely believable as the firecracker Lola Burns, who despite her best efforts cannot escape the gilded Hollywood cage in which she lives, as too many of the people around her have a vested interest in keeping her there.
My favourite sequence in Bombshell is towards the end, when Lola (having learned of Hanlon’s Middleton plot and her family’s financial meddling) has finally had enough. Harlow’s physicality in this scene is fantastic – hands on hips, platinum blonde hair flicking defiantly – as she berates them for the way they have treated her:
“A glamorous bombshell eh? A glorified chump, that’s what I’ve been. Well I’m through, you understand? With the business, with everybody. You can get another It Girl, a But Girl, a How, When and Where Girl, I’m clearing out. And you can stay here in this half paid for car barn and get somebody else to pull the apple cart! I’m going where ladies and gentlemen hang their hats and get some peace and quiet. And if any of you try to interfere with me, I’ll complain to the authorities!”
And with that, Lola gathers her skirts and stamps up the stairs, having delivered a tongue-lashing one can only imagine her fellow stars had often dreamed of unleashing upon their publicists and hangers on.