Wednesday, June 25, 2014

"Platinum Blonde and Beyond" Revisited for MGM's 90th Birthday


From June 26 - 28, in honor of the 90th anniversary of the founding of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Silver Scenes is hosting the MGM Blogathon. This post, originally published in 2011, has been updated and re-published as my contribution for the blogathon. Click here for links to all participating blogs. 

 


It was her trademark, her calling card and, in 1931, the name of a film for which she received third billing. Platinum Blonde was originally intended as a vehicle for top-billed star Loretta Young but, by the time the film was released, its 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 came in 1930 with Hell's Angels, nor is it among her well-known classics, but Platinum Blonde was pivotal - it proclaimed her stardom.

Cagney and Harlow, The Public Enemy
In 1931, the 20-year-old starlet was still under an oppressive five-year contract with Howard Hughes, producer/director of Hell's Angels. She had proven her appeal in the film, but Hughes had no projects in the works for her and most Hollywood insiders believed he was mismanaging her career. Harlow's then-friend/future husband Paul Bern arranged for her loan to MGM for The Secret Six (1931), an underworld drama with Wallace Beery and not-yet-famous Clark Gable. Immediately after, she was loaned out to Universal for an unsympathetic role in The Iron Man (1931), a boxing drama with Lew Ayres. While still on that project, she went back to MGM for retakes on The Secret Six and began work on her next film, this time on loan to Warner Brothers for the gangster classic The Public Enemy (1931), with James Cagney. Her fourth film in five months was for Fox, Goldie (1931), a comedy with Spencer Tracy. Of these films only The Public Enemy was an unqualified hit, and it was a blockbuster, but it was Cagney who became the overnight star...Harlow's allure was noted, but her performance was widely panned.

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 and marries a high living socialite, but is blind to the love of his best friend and fellow reporter, a gal pal named Gallagher.
 
Loretta Young
Contracted to star as Gallagher, was luminous Loretta Young, already a movie veteran at only 18. She'd started in pictures at age four with an uncredited bit part as a "Fairy" in The Primrose Ring (1917) starring Mae Murray. At eight she'd appeared as an "Arab Child" in Valentino's The Shiek (1921) and at 15 co-starred with silent screen legend Lon Chaney in Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928). In 1929 she, along with her sister Sally Blane, Jean Arthur and others, was named one of Hollywood's "WAMPAS Baby Stars." By the time she came to Gallagher Young had already appeared in more than 30 films.

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.

Columbia studio head Harry Cohn with director Frank Capra
Capra was on his way up in 1931, but still a few years away from the streak of Oscar nominations and wins that would mark his career. He had been scheduled to make Forbidden with Barbara Stanwyck, but that project was shelved for the time being and he moved on to Gallagher. Considering the filmographies of Buzzell and Capra, this was fortuitous.

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.

Jean Harlow and Robert Williams
Williams had been on the New York stage for nearly ten years when Hollywood beckoned. He'd starred in the great hit of the era, "Abie's Irish Rose," the longest running play (1922 - 1927) in Broadway history up to that time. In 1930 he was cast in Donald Ogden Stewart's "Rebound," which was a moderate success. But sound had  permanently arrived, and Hollywood was desperate for stage plays, actors and writers. When RKO-Pathé bought the film rights to the play, Williams repeated his role in Rebound (1931) opposite Ina Claire. He was quickly cast in two more productions, The Common Law (1931) with Constance Bennett and Joel McCrea and Devotion (1931) with Ann Harding and Leslie Howard. At the time he was tapped to co-star in Gallagher, Williams was being called "a new comedy sensation."

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 dialogue, reportedly penned the script that had captured Capra's attention early on. The combination of an appealing cast (shimmery, sexy, pre-code Harlow is an eyeful), an up-and-coming director, along with a sharp script, delivered a box office hit - 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 its final preview, the film had a new and lasting title, Platinum Blonde, though the plot had nothing to do with hair color and Harlow was still billed third, behind Young and Williams.

Red-headed Woman (1932)
With Platinum Blonde, Jean 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 Hollywood's preeminent movie studio was Red-Headed Woman (1932), and it was tailored to her style and personality with some added emphasis on humor to soften the perception of her overt sexuality. Jean Harlow made 13 more films for MGM, all of them popular, several of them classics, and was a top movie star for the rest of her very 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 RKO's The Farmer's Daughter (1947) and later won three Best Actress Emmys for her long-running (1953 - 1961) anthology series on TV.

Capra and Riskin went on to make a string of classics together. It's significant that the primary characters and themes of Platinum Blonde would be revisited by the pair. 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...

Robert Williams
Watching Platinum Blonde for the first time, I quickly realized that the male lead delivered the standout performance and provided the heart of the film. I wondered who Robert Williams was and why I hadn't seen his name before. He was clearly talented, charismatic and at ease in front of a camera - yet I'd never heard of him. There was a very good reason.

When Platinum Blonde premiered Williams received glowing reviews. He must have realized that his career was about to soar, but he had little time to enjoy his new cachet. Just as the film was opening, Williams took a trip to Catalina Island, a popular getaway for movie folk in those days. While he was there, his appendix ruptured and by the time he managed to return to the mainland and get 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 Hollywood future.

Loretta Young, Robert Williams and, in the background, Jean Harlow in Platinum Blonde

14 comments:

  1. This film is so interesting due to the participation of so much mega-watt talent.Harlow is so alluring that you can barely take your eyes off her (but a tad uncomfortable as a society gal). Loretta Young was top notch and Williams was just so good.It was such a shame that his career was cut short. Interesting that Harlow's home studio had to loan her out for a good role, but they sure knew what to do with her when she came home, didn't they? She is so unique among MGM stars, as most were presented as what passed for high class. Harlow, bless her, always shined brightest when she got her pretty little hands dirty.

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    1. She doesn't really pass muster cast as a member of high society in Platinum Blonde, but Harlow is so fascinating to watch that we're happy to suspend our disbelief and go along with the fiction.

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  2. The movie is charming and the early loss of Williams is tragic. Jean was still coming into her own and we're lucky Hollywood gave her that chance to grow.

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    1. Hi CW, I just saw this comment in the "awaiting moderation" section. My apologies for missing it when you actually commented.

      Yes, "Platinum Blonde" is charming, a nicely done early Capra film. It's also an enjoyable glimpse into the pre-stardom work of two future headliners, as well as the work of one who "might have been."

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  3. Great review Lady Eve of Harlow's early career and Platinum Blonde. And what a pair she made with Robert Williams. He was as magnetic as Gable, but more at ease with himself and his acting. What a career he would have had if he had lived.Thank you for returning this classic post from your blog.

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    1. Brief as his film career was, Williams was fortunate. Because Platinum Blonde endures as the Capra film that launched the star of a mega-watt movie legend - he gained his bit of immortality. But you are so right, what a career he might've had, if only...

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  4. Williams would have had a great career ahead of him had he sadly not died right after the film’s release. Personally, I would have picked Loretta Young over Harlow, she had more class, but that is just me. Great historical information making this a great read.

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    1. Williams's character, Stew Smith, had a choice any man might wish for - Harlow or Loretta Young. And, he managed to have them both! Talk about "the stuff of dreams."

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  5. Can't believe I've never seen this film...and I call myself a classic movie blogger. Sheesh!

    I am not at all familiar with Robert Williams, and will do some online researching. This film sounds like it has a terrific cast!

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    1. I think this one has shown up on TCM a time or two, but lately it is airing fairly often on the Get-TV classic film network. I imagine it must be available elsewhere, too, and hope you have a chance to see it soon. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.

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  6. Very good review! I hop I can see this film soon, considering that I admire Jean Harlow a lot. And, wow, Robert Williams' sotry left me shocked and sad :(
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)
    KIsses!
    http://www.criticaretro.blogspot.com.br/2014/06/garbo-gilbert-mgm-um-triangulo-amoroso.html

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    1. Thanks for stopping by, Lê, I think you will like Platinum Blonde very much, it's a Pre-Code gem.

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  7. Since I am new to your site I don't know whether you are mainly a reviewer or a researcher or both. I was wondering if you've come across any new documents, belongings or other material relating to Harlow and Bern? It's nice to see these movies promoted and so many people still interested in them.

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    1. I'm a writer who does a lot of research on the pieces I post here. But I'm not primarily a researcher. I haven't come upon anything new related to Jean Harlow and Paul Bern lately. Glad you had a chance to stop by - thanks!

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