Jean Harlow

Author: 

Jean Harlow captured movie audiences’ hearts from her first major film. Her acting, a combination of sensuousness, vulnerability, and even naiveté made her a star. Although she died in 1937, she remains a legend and a film icon.

Born Harlean Carpenter in Kansas City, she attended the Barstow School, located on Westport Road. Her mother’s ambition to be a movie actress led her to divorce Harlean’s father and move to Hollywood, where Harlean was enrolled in the Hollywood School for Girls. Harlean’s mother remarried and they moved to Chicago, where Harlean attended high school. At age 16 Harlean eloped with the son of a millionaire, but the marriage ended a year and a half later. While Harlean was visiting a friend in Hollywood, she met film director Hal Roach, who put her in his silent comedies. It was at this time that she changed her name to Jean Harlow.

In 1930, Howard Hughes, who had made a fortune in the Oklahoma oil fields, was finishing a silent World War I movie, entitled Hell’s Angels. It was nearly complete when sound revolutionized films. Hughes decided to shoot the film again with a sound track, but the voice of the leading lady did not record well. He searched for someone to play the lead. The star of the film, who had worked with Harlow, brought her to the set. Hughes immediately cast her as the leading lady and the film made her a star. Harlow made over 20 films and was labeled a "screen siren" for her sensational dialogue and revealing costumes, but audiences, directors and producers appreciated her flair for comedy and drama.

In 1932 Harlow married one of her MGM producers, Paul Bern, who killed himself shortly after their marriage. Mystery still surrounds his death. Five years later, Harlow unexpectedly died at the age of 26, probably of kidney failure.

Acknowledgement: 

A previous version of this article appears on kchistory.org: http://kchistory.org/content/biography-jean-harlow-1911-1937-film-actress

KANSAS CITY PUBLIC LIBRARY | DIGITAL HISTORY
Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict,1855-1865.
The Pendergast Years, Kansas City in the Jazz Age & Great Depression.
KC History, Missouri Valley Special Collections at the Kansas City Public Library.