Harlow, Daffy and Ken Kesey’s Magic Trippers

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Jean Harlow

Every Tuesday, we shine a light on a few big, worthy or just plain weird DVD releases.

Jean Harlow 100th Anniversary Collection

A famous anecdote has Jean Harlow meeting Margot Fonteyn and mispronouncing the ballerina’s name “Mar-got.” “No, my dear, the ‘t’ is silent,” Fonteyn is supposed to have said. “As in ‘Harlot’.” Never mind that the dancer was just 18 when the movie star died—in 1937, at 26—and could not have met her; the joke meant to show a well-bred lady of the high arts cutting a Hollywood tramp down from big-screen size. Harlow’s image certainly exuded sexuality of the most precocious sort (she was just 20 when Platinum Blonde made her a star), emphasized by her appraising stare, her sassy line deliveries and her fondness for the no-bra look. The closing moments of the 1933 Dinner at Eight drive home the harlot connection. At a fancy party, Harlow observes, “Do you know that the guy said that machinery is going to take the place of every profession?” Doyenne Marie Dressler does a double take and replies, “Oh, my dear, that’s something you need never worry about.”

In her brief span, Harlow ran through three husbands: a local beau when she was 16 (that lasted two years), cinematographer Hal Rossen (six months) and, between them, the MGM studio executive Paul Bern, who committed suicide two months into their marriage amid rumors of his impotence. Her back-lot story, which included an affair with MGM star William Powell and early death from kidney failure, was lurid enough to have inspired two sensational bio-pics, both in 1965. But if Harlow were just the sum of her scandals, the Warner Archive Collection would not be issuing this commemorative seven-disc set. She was no cartoon of worldly concupiscence, like her pre-Code counterpart Mae West. What Harlow projected was a knowing, nonchalant earthiness about Topic A. And sealed the deal with a comic timing that said, of all bedroom matters, it is to laugh.

(MORE: The All-TIME 100 Movies)

Born Harlean Carpenter in Kansas City (though her diction suggested the Lower East Side), she took her mother’s name on entering movies and lucked into the female lead in Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels when the silent aerial epic was reshot as a talkie and the original leading lady, the Norwegian Greta Nissen, couldn’t manage the dialogue. Harlow’s reading of the line “Would you be shocked if I changed into something more comfortable?”—less a flirtation than a fait accompli—set the Bijou wolves barking; and her toxic silver hair style had women across the country begging to be platinum blondes.

Hughes, who had signed Harlow to a five-year contract, lent her out to Columbia for a Frank Capra newspaper comedy in which the actress was improbably cast as the rich girl to beautific Loretta Young’s struggling reporter. Hughes certified Harlow’s signature look by insisting that the title be changed to Platinum Blonde, and soon she found a new home at MGM. Known as the Family Values studio, MGM bent its own rules to accommodate Harlow. In the 1932 Red-Headed Woman she screws her way to the top of society and at the end is canoodling with chauffeur Charles Boyer. She made six pictures with reigning MGM lion Clark Gable—who was as sure of his sex appeal as Harlow, and as pleased with it—including the humid melodrama Red Dust, the Depression love story Hold Your Man and the churning, charming China Seas.

There: I’ve mentioned seven top Harlow films, none in this no-frills collection. (They’re available elsewhere, and Turner Classic Movies is dedicating part of next Wed. and Thurs., Nov. 9 and 10, to her, showing Platinum Blonde, Dinner at Eight and a documentary about the star.) But the set offers more than 10 hours of slick vehicles for the Harlow chassis, and bright repartee with such costars as Car Grant, Spencer Tracy and Robert Taylor. One of the movies is a gem: the sizzling, cynical comedy Bombshell, with Harlow playing herself, more or less, as a Hollywood sexpot eager to elope with besotted playboy Franchot Tone, who tells her, “Your hair is like a field of silver daisies. I’d like to run barefoot through your hair.” She’s weary of the studio publicists who are, she says, “Treating me like a strip act in a burlesque show! A glamorous bombshell, eh? A glorified chump, that’s what I’ve been! Well, I’m sick of it, you understand? With the business and everybody! You can get another It Girl, a But Girl or a How-When-and-Where Girl.”

The real Harlow was a team player whom MGM kept working hard: 16 films in six years. She was teamed again with Gable for her last film, Saratoga, but died before completing it. A stand-in, averting her head or hiding behind binoculars, replaced the star in the final scenes, as Gable spoke merrily to the shade of a dead woman. Now that’s acting. So is Harlow’s comic ease in the midst of her fatal illness. In the movie, she’s romancing Gable but engaged to stuffy Walter Pidgeon. In one scene Pidgeon bursts in and finds a cigar (Gable’s) on the coffee table. Harlow quickly picks it up and puffs away. “I’m trying to obey doctor’s orders,” she says blithely. “He said no more cigarettes.” Even at the end of a short, dark life, Harlow never lost her light, saucy touch.

The Essential Daffy Duck

In 1998 the TIME editors were winnowing their selection of 100 Persons of the 20th Century and wanted one or two impish choices. Somehow, they came to me. I suggested one of the greatest comic actors in movie history: a peerless exemplar of mania and depression, who overcame a chaotic youth and a speech impediment to express the futility of man’s condition. Daffy Duck. My bosses liked the notion of a cartoon character gracing their august list, but went with that eternal 10-year-old, Bart Simpson. I admired Bart too, and wrote the tribute.

Chuck Jones, the Warner Bros. director who had shepherded the lisping Daffy from wild childhood in the 1930s to mature and desolate duckhood a decade later, was devastated to hear that Daffy had come so close to glory, only to be defeated. Then again, that was Daffy’s pathetic fate from 1937 to 1963 in a hundred or so mostly-fabulous Warners cartoons, 15 of which appear on this two-disc set.

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