TCM Pick for March: Pre-Code
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.
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.
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?”
“’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)
- 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.
- 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!