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|
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.
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|
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|
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)|
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...
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|