It was her trademark, her calling card and, in 1931, the name of a film for which she received third billing. Platinum Blonde had originally been intended as a vehicle for top-billed star Loretta Young but, by the time it was released, the film's title had changed and changed again until it was an outright reference to pale-haired co-star Jean Harlow. It was not Harlow's breakout picture, that had come with Hell's Angels (1930), nor is it generally cited as one of her great classics, but Platinum Blonde was pivotal - it proclaimed her stardom.
|The Public Enemy (1931)|
With an assist from New Jersey mobster Abner Zwillman who was involved with Harlow, a two-picture deal with Harry Cohn at Columbia Pictures was secured. Zwillman made sure the actress earned quite a bit more than what she eked out from Howard Hughes. Harlow's first film for Columbia was to be called "Gallagher" and was one of several films of the emerging "newspaper" genre. It was a romantic comedy about an everyman reporter who falls for a high living socialite and is blind to the love of his best friend and fellow reporter, a gal pal named Gallagher.
"Gallagher" had begun as an assignment for director Edward Buzzell (At the Circus, Go West, Song of the Thin Man, Neptune's Daughter) and development of the project was nearly complete by the time Frank Capra, then a promising director at Columbia, took over.
|Harry Cohn and Frank Capra|
On loan to Columbia from RKO-Pathé to co-star in Forbidden was recent Broadway-to-Hollywood transplant Robert Williams. With that film on the shelf, Williams was cast as the male lead, a down to earth newspaperman and charmer named Stew Smith, in "Gallagher."
|Harlow and Williams|
Another noteworthy contributor on the film was screenwriter Robert Riskin (It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can't Take it With You, Lost Horizon) who, though credited only with the dialogue, reportedly penned the script that had captured Capra's attention early on. The combination of an appealing cast, an up-and-coming director along with well honed writing, delivered a box office hit - and a film that has been called Capra's most underrated.
By the time the picture was screened for its final preview audience, it had been retitled "The Gilded Cage," referring to protagonist Stew Smith's predicament and shifting focus from the Gallagher character. At the same time, a PR-fueled craze for peroxide-blonde hair swept the country and further heightened interest in bombshell Jean Harlow, recently tagged "the platinum blonde." Within a week of the last preview, the film had a new and lasting title, Platinum Blonde, though the plot had nothing to do with haircolor...
With Platinum Blonde Harlow became a star. A few months later The Beast of the City (1932) brought her first consistently good reviews and in April 1932, aided by the maneuvering of Paul Bern and Irving Thalberg, she signed a seven-year contract with MGM. Her first film for the preeminent studio was Red-Headed Woman (1932), and it was tailored to her style and personality with added emphasis on humor to soften the perception of overt sexuality. Jean Harlow made 13 more films for MGM, all of them popular, several of them classics, and was a top Hollywood star for the rest of her short life.
Loretta Young's acting career covered more than 75 years, but her ascent to stardom only began in earnest when she signed with 20th Century Fox in the mid-'30's. She won a Best Actress Oscar for her performance in The Farmer's Daughter (1947) and later won three Best Actress Emmys for her 1950s TV anthology series.
Capra and Riskin went on to make a string of classic films together. It's significant that the primary characters and themes of Platinum Blonde would be revisited and refined in their later collaborations. The two men next worked on American Madness (1932) and then came Lady for a Day (1933) bringing Oscar nods to each of them. It was the following year, with It Happened One Night (1934), that Capra's and Riskin's reputations were made. The film won five Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Writing/Adaptation. In his career, Riskin was nominated for a total of five Oscars, all were for Capra films. Capra was nominated for six Oscars and won three; all winning films were those on which he'd collaborated with Riskin. Their first success working together had been Platinum Blonde...
I realized on first viewing Platinum Blonde that the standout performance and the heart of the film was the male lead. I wondered who Robert Williams was and why I hadn't seen his name before. He was enormously talented, facile, charismatic...and attractive enough to make the grade - yet I'd never heard of him. There was a very good reason.
When Platinum Blonde opened Williams received glowing reviews. He must have realized that he was about to break out, but he had little time to enjoy his new caché. Just as the film was opening, Williams took a trip to Catalina Island, a popular getaway for Hollywood folk in those days. While he was there his appendix ruptured and by the time he managed to return to the mainland and go into a hospital he'd developed peritonitis. He underwent surgery but died on November 3, four days after Platinum Blonde's release and on the same day Variety singled out his performance and predicted a promising future.
There isn't much available on YouTube from Platinum Blonde, but the scene below provides a moment of pre-Code mischief (if some of the dialogue seems politically incorrect remember, this film is 80 years old)...
TCM will air Platinum Blonde on Tuesday, March 29, 11:30pm Eastern/8:30pm Pacific
|Loretta Young, Robert Williams, Jean Harlow|
Darrell Rooney and Mark Vieira's new book Harlow in Hollywood: The Blonde Bombshell in the Glamour Capital, 1928 - 1937 (click here to learn more) is scheduled for release in March from Angel City Press.