TCM Pick for March: Pre-Code

Jean Harlow and Lee Tracy create comedy gold.

Jean Harlow had a gorgeous face, a knockout body, a head full of striking white-blonde hair, and a flair for comedy – and she demonstrated them all to great advantage in Bombshell (1933), my favorite Harlow film. In addition to Harlow, this movie serves up fast-paced direction, witty dialogue, outstanding performances by Lee Tracy, Frank Morgan, Ted Healy, and Una Merkel, and a series of screwball-type situations that keep you entertained from the opening credits to the final reel. For these reasons and more, Bombshell is my hands-down, no-brainer pick for the must-see pre-Code airing on TCM this month.

The plot:

Bombshell doesn’t really have a plot, in the real sense of the word. Instead, it gives us a peek into the life of Lola Burns (Jean Harlow), a Hollywood film star beset by her freeloading father and brother; an unprincipled studio publicist, Space Hanlon (Lee Tracy), who feeds lies to the press to boost her popularity; a stalker who insists that he’s her husband and the father of her (non-existent) three children; and a frequently frantic and frustrating work schedule – when all she really wants (she thinks) is a normal, proper life.

This scene, featuring Harlow, Pat O'Brien, and Ivan Lebedeff, is laugh-out-loud funny.

Favorite scene:

Lola is visited by two gravely conservative dowagers from a local orphanage, who are there to give the actress the once-over in consideration of her request to adopt a baby. Lola dons a demure outfit and prepares refreshments in her effort to impress the ladies, but the interview is constantly interrupted – first, Lola’s brother (Ted Healy) returns from a Tijuana trip, boisterous and drunk, accompanied by Lily (Isabel Jewell), a gum-chewing chippy he picked up in San Diego. Next, Lola’s director and would-be lover Jim Brogan (Pat O’Brien) arrives, followed by her ex-boyfriend, the Marquis de Pisa (Ivan Lebedeff), and the two promptly get into an hilariously chaotic, house-wrecking brawl that is punctuated by barking sheepdogs, a smashed fish bowl, and Lola’s father chasing the fighters, shouting, “This is medieval! It’s medieval!” In the scene’s funniest moment, Lily stands with the ladies from the orphanage, observing the scene, and wryly remarks, “I’m gettin’ sober, aren’t you?”

Lola and her sheepdogs strike a pose.

Favorite quote:

“’Stone-Age Stuff!’ ‘Mad with Desire!’ ‘Lovers’ Brawl!’ Is that the way you prove that you just more than care for me? 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 through, do you understand? With the business and everybody! You can get another ‘It Girl,’ a ‘But Girl’ or a ‘How, When and Where Girl.’ I’m clearing out, and you can all stay here in this half-paid-for car barn and get somebody else to pull the apple cart! I’m going where ladies and gentlemen hang their hats and get some peace and quiet – and if any of you try to interfere with me, I’ll complain to the authorities!” (Jean Harlow as Lola Burns)

Other stuff:

  • The film was based on an unproduced play by Caroline Francke and Mack Crane. The play was a tragic tale of a poor girl who becomes a big star – screenwriters John Lee Mahin and Jules Furthman turned the material into a comedy, using actress Clara Bow as their inspiration. Mahin also wrote the screenplay for Harlow’s film Red Dust (1932), whose rain barrel scene is referenced in Bombshell

    It's not from the film -- I just love this picture!

  • Bombshell was the first of four films in which Harlow appeared with Franchot Tone (The others were The Girl From Missouri, Reckless, and Suzy). In Bombshell, Tone played a poetry-writing society gent – Swedish actor Nils Asther was originally cast in the part, but he felt the role was too small for an actor of his stature. 
  • The Three Stooges – Moe and Curly Howard and Larry Fine – reportedly were supposed to be in the movie, but only the founder of the popular group, Ted Healy, made the cut. Healy died four years after the film’s release, at the age of 41. According to reports, the actor was out celebrating the birth of his son and got into a fight at a nightclub on the Sunset Strip, the famed Trocadero.  A heavy drinker, Healy died from kidney failure several days later. 
  • Watch for this little goof in the film. During the fight between Jim Brogan and the Marquis, a bowl containing Lola’s large pet fish, Fanny, falls to the floor and breaks. Lola scoops up Fanny and dashes about, desperately trying to find a place to deposit her. She finally finds a pitcher of water and plunks the fish inside. A few seconds later, Lola’s father wanders by, in search of a much-needed drink to calm his frazzled nerves and spots the pitcher – if you look closely, you’ll see that the water level is noticeably lower than it was when Lola left it.
  • The cinematographer on the film was Harold Rosson. Jean Harlow married him the year that Bombshell was released. The marriage lasted seven months.
  • Lee Tracy’s career took a nosedive within a year of the release of Bombshell. He was cast in Viva Villa (1934), but during location shooting in Mexico, Tracy reportedly urinated on a passing parade and was fired from the film. His career never recovered.

Don’t miss Bombshell, airing on TCM on March 5th. You only owe it to yourself!

~ by shadowsandsatin on March 4, 2012.

10 Responses to “TCM Pick for March: Pre-Code”

  1. I love Bombshell. Recently came out on DVD and I now own it. But I’m going to play correction police again. Una Merkel plays Lola’s secretary. The part of Lily, the trampy “girlfriend” of Lola’s brother is played by Isabel Jewell, who would go on to work at RKO in the 40’s most notably as Laury Palmer, who is killed by Lawrence Tierney in Born to Kill as well as her appearances as the fortune teller in The Leopard Man and the hairdresser involved in the Satanic cult in what I consider the masterpiece of the Val Lewton unit, The 7th Victim.

    • Thank you so much Officer Charles — what would I do without you? I will have to put you on the payroll, LOL. (Or at least promote you to Captain!) I certainly knew that Una Merkel did not play the part of Lily — but I will sheepishly admit that I ALWAYS mix up these two. The way I remember them correctly (when I remember them correctly) is that Isabel Jewell played Emmy Slattery in Gone With the Wind, and Una Merkel appeared in a number of my favorite pre-Codes (including one I watched just yesterday, They Call it Sin).

      • Well I’ve learned quite a bit from you reading your blog. I’ve never seen They Call it Sin…great title! As for Bombshell, though it’s based on Clara Bow, there’s certainly a lot of Harlow’s real life in it as well. Harlow advised Frank Morgan on how to play her father, telling him what her step father Marino Bello was like around the house which Morgan used in his portrayal.

  2. Another great post on pre-code Hollywood. Every time I watch this movie, I am amazed to think that “talkies” had only been around since ’28 and yet the dialogue is so sophisticated. Here’s a question for you, Karen. When they were shooting silent films, did the actors actually speak the dialogue as written in the sub titles or did they just speak an approximation? Always wondered. Anyway, thanks for the insight into Jean Harlow’s best film.

    • Thanks, Greta! I totally agree about the sophisticated dialogue in pre-Codes — and Bombshell is such an excellent example of that. As for your silent film question, goodness knows I’m no expert (although I do plan on watching a Greta Garbo silent tonight on TCM!), but I’m fairly certain that they did not speak the dialogue the way it appears in the subtitles. I’m assuming that only because they seem to be saying a lot more than what you see. In fact — and I don’t know if other people do this, or if it’s just me — when I watch silent movies, I often make up the dialogue in my head. Is that weird?

      • About a month ago I read a biography of John Gilbert by his daughter Leatrice Gilbert Fountain and she mentions that for silent films, actors did have dialogue to memorize before filming…they weren’t improvising when they were mouthing lines and the scripts they studied wouldn’t necessarily end up being the title cards. The biography is out of print, but you might find it at a local library, it’s well worth reading especially if you’re interested in Hollywood of the 20’s and 30’s.

  3. Can i ask a question about the goldfish?
    Harlow explains she calls the goldfish Fanny because it is a fantail.
    I notice that twice while talking about the goldfish, the sound does not synchronise with the lip movement and the voices may be dubbed.
    Am I correct and if so why would that be.
    Thanks a lot.

    • Hi, Rowland — You are so perceptive! I’ve seen Bombshell I-don’t-know-how-many times, and never noticed that dubbing! I played it over and over, but I couldn’t tell what Harlow said originally, and haven’t yet been able to find any reference to it. I will keep looking, though, and I will be sure to let you know if I find out!

  4. Thanks very much for your reply.
    I happened to be watching using headphones for convenience at the time, so it was rather easy to pick up.
    In the time since I asked the question I have wondered if the original audio had been damaged and needed to be replaced, but twice for the same name for a goldfish seems a bit far fetched.
    Which leaves the theory that it was an offensive racist or sexual term either then or when remastered.

    (By the way. I have heard other instances of overdubbing in othe classic movies before. A rare but not an uncommon practice.)
    Thanks agin for the response.

  5. […] Jean Harlow again – this time she’s in a comedy that seems to offer a peek inside the actress’s real life. In fact, though, the script bore more than a passing resemblance to the world of actress Clara Bow, complete with freeloading relatives and a duplicitous assistant that called to mind Bow’s personal secretary Daisy DeVoe. More on this fun, freewheeling film can be found here. […]

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