Jean Harlow (1911-1937), born Harlean Carpenter, rose to screen fame in the early 1930s playing characters with an unaffected, uninhibited, spontaneous sexuality. [See Figure 1.] Dubbed the “Platinum Blonde” by producer Howard Hughes, who hired her for a starring role in the aviation epic Hell’s Angels (1930), Harlow’s intense white-blond hair was a signature feature of her star persona; indeed, it became synecdochic shorthand for her popularity and unique appeal. Blondes in Hollywood were nothing new, but Harlow’s style represented an unprecedented, rarefied version of a look that laid bare many of the often contradictory assumptions associated with female blondness, which signified beauty, modernity, pleasure, sensuality, naughtiness, superficiality, and artifice – but also discipline, suffering, and even a new kind of “brain power.” Employing fan magazine collections available online and rare press clippings in the Howard Hughes Motion Picture Records at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, this article investigates the public discourse surrounding Harlow’s eponymous hair, focusing on the period in which she emerged as a star, 1930-1931.
In 2018, artists John Lucas and Claudia Rankine interrogated the meaning of blondness in their interactive installation Stamped. [See Figure 2.] As the description for the exhibition notes, “Historically, blondness has been a signifier for desirability and beauty. It speaks to ‘purity’ and whiteness . . . like no other bodily attribute except, perhaps, blue eyes. In the twenty-first century, blondness is the look desired [by many figures in popular culture, including our president].” Lucas and Rankine portray blondness as a journey in which Americans celebrate or choose it for a variety of reasons, such as defying age or expressing an individual style. They explain, “For each user of blonde dye, the journey is personal. Only the blondes know where the blondness sends them. In this way, they are stamped, but it is also their freedom.”1
Yet that journey, that experience of blondness, can be public as well as personal, and a distinctive version of blondness became an integral part of Jean Harlow’s star persona in twentieth-century Hollywood. Just as Lucas and Rankine’s installation problematizes the notion that twenty-first century blondness is solely about whiteness or beauty, so too did the career of Jean Harlow illustrate that intense female blondness, though coded racially and sexually, was not simply a straightforward articulation of existing stereotypes.
THE BIRTH OF A BLOND STAR
In 1929, Harlow was unknown to the public, though she had played small, uncredited roles in shorts and a feature, The Saturday Night Kid. She began to appear in the press when Howard Hughes selected her to replace star Greta Nissen, whose voice was deemed unsuitable for the sound version of the troubled film Hell’s Angels, which had been in production for two years. “Unknown Girl to Portray Lead in Epic Production,” small news items announced in December 1929.2 At first, Harlow’s hair color was not highlighted or mentioned in discussions of her nascent stardom, even though her scenes in Hell’s Angels as a blonde had already been shot when her casting was revealed. [See Figure 3.] “Announcement of Miss Harlow’s elevation to stellar parts was withheld until the completed picture could be viewed and her work judged,” explained the Kansas City Star. “When this was done, her face and voice were found to have screened perfectly.”3 The newspaper congratulated Harlow on receiving stardom as a “Christmas present” in late 1929. An early citation of Harlow’s blondness in connection with her stardom occurred on January 19, 1930, when a publication called The Critic profiled the actress in a short piece titled “Jean Harlow Arrives.” [See Figure 4.] The article refers to Harlow as “Hollywood’s newest Cinderella” and praises her striking beauty and brilliant performance in Hell’s Angels (which had not yet been released), but does not call attention to her hair color until the final line, which briefly notes that she is a “natural blonde.”4 Initially, Harlow was “sold” to the public not as a blonde but as a beautiful society belle who was willing to forego wealth for a career as an actress. [See Figure 5.] Variations of the headline “She Gave Up a Fortune for a $55 Movie Contract” appeared in dozens of publications in mid- to late January 1930. The press described Harlow as a disinherited heiress and a “new film beauty.” Blondness was not yet a signature element of her identity.
In January 1931, a few months after Hell’s Angels was released, fan magazines and newspapers began to use the adjective “platinum” to describe Harlow’s hair. Platinum is one of the earth’s rarest and most valuable metals, and publicity that celebrated Harlow as a “platinum blonde” suggested that she was a one-of-a-kind find whose beauty was enviable and influential and difficult to emulate. In “The Platinum Girl,” Screen Book noted, “Little did those kids [who grew up with Harlow] reckon that the naughty little Nordic with the white hair would, before the thrifty thirties were far misspent, become a meteoric phenomenon, to wit, but not to boot, the Platinum Princess. . . . If one would be properly dazzling and seductive, now one must have platinum hair, thanks to Jean, who started this rage. The near blondes are lucky, for with the assistance of a few acids that desired silvery sheen can be obtained.”5 [See Figure 6.] Screen Romances described Harlow as “the blonde extreme of feminine loveliness . . . whose silvery tresses are such that the shade touches that of platinum.”6 [See Figure 7.] Some authors explicitly connected Harlow’s beauty to an expression of whiteness, as when Dorothy Manners in Motion Picture Classic referred to her as “[the] whitely exotic Harlow girl.”7
Because Harlow’s “silvery tresses” represented an ultimate version of blondness and perhaps of whiteness itself – an extrapolation of feminine beauty as it was conceived in early twentieth-century America – rhetoric about her hair took on a defensive, corrective quality, maintaining that the depth of her talent, personality, and mind were much “more” than audiences might expect. [See Figure 8.] Laura Benham of Silver Screen explained that Harlow had been “grievously misunderstood” and was not just “another dizzy blonde,” but “a charming, cultured girl with a sane, sincere outlook on life.”8 Such discourse attempted to recuperate and celebrate the value of female whiteness, suggesting that major signifiers of it, such as blond hair, could connote wisdom and substance, and should not be easily dismissed as vacuous or superficial.
In 1931, wire service articles with the headline “Queen of Flicker Blonds Done with Bad Girl Roles” appeared in major newspapers across the country. The version published in the St. Paul News describes Harlow’s hair as her defining feature, noting that when one meets her, one “immediately forgets everything except platinum blond hair.” Yet the article also contends that Harlow’s hair had undeservedly earned her a reputation as a “huzzy”: “Despite the ‘bad girl’ roles she has portrayed on the screen, Jean really lives a very quiet life. She is seldom seen at Hollywood’s social functions and does practically no entertaining herself. And she works hard all the time.”9 In September 1931, Modern Screen argued that although Harlow’s “platinum hair has pulsed like a candle flame across a thousand footlights,” she is “the star that nobody knows.” She is not a “party girl” and has “good sturdy American qualities. The one thing she hates above all else is hypocrisy. The one thing she loves most is work.”10 A related headline in the Missouri State Journal noted, “Platinum Blonde Movie Actress Is Biggest Surprise in Hollywood; She Reads Books and Prefers Tennis While Waiting Chance for Straight Dramatics.”11 “Jean Harlow No Lowbrow,” echoed the Sioux City (IA) Journal.12 Because hair color became the foundation of Harlow’s identity, publicity about her had to recuperate and defend her intellect in a way that was not necessary for other stars, who were not “extreme” blondes or whose stardom did not seem dependent upon hair color. Thus, for Harlow, public discourse actively worked against stereotypes of female blondness.
Perhaps the most remarkable example of that impulse was in a full-page newspaper article reprinted across the country in March 1931, “Newest Ideas about Brain Power.” [See Figure 9.] The caption beneath Harlow’s photograph reads, “Jean Harlow of the platinum-blond hair. Such blonds are usually thought of as aggressive, active, changeable, in a word, ‘dizzy.’” But, the article asserts, “Blonds are just as apt to be brainy as brunets.”13 Harlow was chosen as the exemplar of unfair stereotypes about blondes because she was the era’s whitest blonde and the star whose persona was associated most directly with her blond hair color.
Harlow’s distinction and intelligence were defended whether she was described as a natural blonde or a star who heroically suffered through the toxic procedures that were necessary to produce the silvery shade that became her trademark. The notion that Harlow’s platinum hair was the result of dyeing implied that whiteness was a constructed quality that could be created by those with conviction and dedication. Readers were continually warned of the dangers of pursuing extreme blondness, hinting that there was an undercurrent of fear at the prospect of large numbers of American females being able to pass as white, or even “ultra white.” The exclusivity and power of whiteness were something to be defended, as is evident in the slightly hysterical tone of headlines that decried the potentially damaging effects of pursuing white-blond hair.
The first line of defense was to explain that Harlow’s hair was completely untreated, and therefore trying to recreate her noteworthy hue was a goal doomed to failure. “The one drawback about [Harlow’s] present screen success,” explained a columnist in the Tulsa (OK) Tribune, “is that since she has become known as ‘The Platinum Blonde,’ the rage for platinum blondeness has caused three women that I know of to try experimenting with the natural color of their hair until each ruined her hair and had to have her head shaved.” The author cites Harlow herself, who says, “I have been in beauty shops in Chicago and Detroit where I was told that they provided a platinum rinse that is just the same as Jean Harlow uses. Now, it happens that I do not use any artificial treatment to color my hair. I guess I am just a natural tow head.”14
Overall, publicity about Harlow was split on the origin of her platinum tresses, with a nearly equal number of sources attributing them to nature or to artifice. “Regarding that head of platinum hair, Jean swore up and down to me that it was not dyed,” one newspaper article assured readers. “Regardless of the fact that her hair is colorless, both in shade and story, she [Harlow] is directly responsible for a new craze because of it. Possibly you have noticed girls who used to be redheads, blondes, and brunettes, arranging dates for platinum rinses.”15 The Atlanta Journal explained that Harlow “rinsed her hair in a bluing solution” to create its glossy whiteness,16 and the New York Graphic revealed that “Harlow is one of the new platinum blondes and has to visit the hairdresser every three days.”17
Some sources that focused on Harlow’s coiffure celebrated the wave of eager tow-headed fans that followed in her wake, but most warned ardently against the dangers of trying to imitate her tresses. “Don’t Go Platinum Yet! Read Before You Dye!” cautioned Photoplay dramatically in November 1931. [See Figure 10.] “Here is the stark truth about the new fad. . . . [Platinum blondness] is suitable to only one woman in a thousand, and, inexpertly done, is a hazardous proceeding which may be followed by the keenest regret.” The article insists that Harlow’s hair is completely unaltered and therefore very difficult to emulate with synthetic means. Harmful chemicals (such as ammonia and peroxide and a final platinum rinse) must be employed in any attempt to mimic it – and will not have the desired effect for those who do not start with the “right” hair. A large photo of Harlow in the article includes a caption that explicitly attempts to reserve platinum blondness for (very) white Americans: “Beauty specialists warn women . . . that only those gifted with her [Harlow’s] naturally light coloring, transparent skin, [and] white teeth should consider it.”18 A related argument was that platinum blond hair could be attempted – and even achieved – by anyone, but that it would ruin the looks of those who were not suited to the shade. “There can be no denying that her [Harlow’s] influence has been baneful in the extreme,” complained one columnist. “Hollywood is being corrupted with bottles of the pernicious fluid that converts otherwise normal girls into platinum blondes. The stuff, whatever it is called, is rank poison. Its distillation ought to be prohibited by law. . . . I have seen plenty of maidens converted into monstrosities by whatever form of dye it is that gives the platinum effect.”19 Thus, girls who were not “white enough already” were advised to avoid the goal of platinum hair for their own protection, lest they risk becoming caricatures of themselves.
“Platinum” became a successful mark of distinction for Harlow as a blonde because it intersected with the social and cultural dynamics of the era. Platinum blondness could be especially reserved for white women, and thus signified a particular rarity, a level of beauty few could truly achieve. It was an inadvertent means of demonstrating the exclusivity of “pure” whiteness, feeding into eugenic undercurrents of the 1920s and 1930s. One had to be born with it, or be one woman in a thousand who could successfully achieve it. The word “platinum” also signified modernity and the innovation of the machine age, suggesting that whiteness was not an element of nostalgia for the past, but a crucial ingredient of a favored, dynamic future, a reassuring prospect for white audiences. Describing Harlow appearing at a nightclub, the Hollywood Filmograph enthused, “Up rose the platinum-haired sensation of Screenland. In the spotlight her gorgeous loveliness shown like a new comet flashing suddenly athwart the blue flame of heaven.”20 One newspaper even described an “ultra-modern” electrical device that “proved” Harlow’s hair was the exact shade of platinum metal.21 [See Figure 11.]
In addition to signifying scarcity and high value, platinum, a white metal often compared to its expensive but more common counterpart, gold, was a whiter version of standard (golden) blondness, making Harlow the embodiment not only of ultimate blondness, but also whiteness, extrapolated to its most extreme incarnation. [See Figure 12.] In November 1930, Screenland declared, “There’s absolutely nobody like her – on or off the screen. . . . Jean Harlow’s hair is white. I mean it. It’s so blonde, it’s white. . . . Her eyes are blue, shockingly, electrically blue.”22 Here, the magazine highlights the two features that most clearly code Harlow as “ultra-white” – her silvery tresses and her intensely blue eyes.
The task of historians is to dig deeply and discover the reality beyond the illusive shadows in Plato’s cave, though they necessarily work with evidence that is incomplete. The fan magazine discourse cited here may suggest that Harlow’s star persona was reductive, grounded in little more than the shade of her hair, but the reality was more complex. In the early 1930s, her persona was the sum total of all her publicity, appearances, performances, and interviews, many of which have left no traces for current historians to examine. Yet what remains suggests that her platinum blond hair, created at producer Howard Hughes’s urging, embraced the anxieties and ideals of her age.
Interestingly, Harlow’s reign as a platinum blonde was brief. Her extreme blondness implied that she might also harbor an intense sexuality, bringing her under the scrutiny of the Catholic Legion of Decency, which in the early 1930s was attempting to combat what it viewed as Hollywood’s production of immoral motion pictures. Hollywood responded by enforcing a restrictive Production Code and adjusting the personas of stars like Harlow, whose characters especially irked the Church because of their apparent enjoyment of sex. In 1935, MGM, which had become Harlow’s studio after buying her contract from Hughes, altered her famous hair, partly to tone down her sexuality, but also to combat the damage done by constant bleaching. Instead of being the screen’s signature platinum blonde, she sported a medium brown rinse termed “brownette” and became a reinvented, more modest sex symbol before tragically dying of kidney failure in 1937, at the age of 26.
- “Stamped,” John Lucas and Claudia Rankine, pioneerworks.org, July 20-August 26, 2018. [↩]
- “Unknown Girl to Portray Lead in Epic Production,” Yakima (WA) Herald, December 22, 1929. [↩]
- “From Here to Stardom,” Kansas City Star, December 21, 1929. [↩]
- “Jean Harlow Arrives,” The Critic, January 19, 1930. [↩]
- “The Platinum Girl,” Screen Book, January 1931. [↩]
- Jean Harlow Photograph with Caption, Screen Romances, January 1931. [↩]
- Dorothy Manners, “White-Haired and – Red-Hot?” Motion Picture Classic, July 1931. [↩]
- Laura Benham, “Hell’s Smartest Angel,” Silver Screen, January 1931. [↩]
- Dan Thomas, “Queen of Flicker Blonds Done with ‘Bad Girl’ Roles,” St. Paul (MN) News, July 19, 1931. [↩]
- Curtis Mitchell, “The Star Nobody Knows,” Modern Screen, September 1931. [↩]
- Jessie Henderson, “Two Kinds of Men, Jean Harlow Says,” Columbia (MO) State Journal, August 14, 1931. [↩]
- Jessie Henderson, “Jean Harlow No Lowbrow,” Sioux City (IA) Journal, August 16, 1931. [↩]
- Marjorie Van De Water, “Newest Ideas about Brain Power,” Pittsburgh Press, March 1, 1931. [↩]
- Rosalind Shaffer, “Jean Harlow at Her Goal After Fight,” Tulsa (OK) Tribune, August 30, 1931. [↩]
- “Platinum Reform Begins,” Los Angeles Herald, September 5, 1931. [↩]
- Photo caption, Atlanta Journal, June 28, 1931. [↩]
- “A Blond Pleasure Seeker,” New York Graphic, June 1, 1931. [↩]
- May Allerton, “Don’t Go Platinum Yet!” Photoplay Magazine, November 1931, 30-31, 100+. [↩]
- Robert Sherwood, “Jean Harlow’s Blonde Influence Abominated by Mr. Sherwood,” South Bend Tribune, June 26, 1931. [↩]
- “Browsing Around with the Night Hawk,” Hollywood Filmograph, June 28, 1930, 6. [↩]
- “Platinum? Machine Proves It,” Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, December 11, 1931. [↩]
- Thomas Talbott, “Meet the New Blonde!” Screenland, November 1930, 27. [↩]