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Jean Harlow’s Last Film: SARATOGA

She was born Harlean Carpenter in Kansas City, Missouri on March 3, 1911.  Her parents divorced when she was eleven.  Her mother, the first Jean Harlow, the real Jean Harlow, took her daughter to Hollywood in 1923.  “Mother Jean,” as she was known, had big plans in mind for young Harlean.  Vicarious plans.  Re-invention plans.  Big plans.

A reporter from the NEW YORK TIMES visited the set of SARATOGA as it was being filmed during the spring of 1937.  “I’m lucky and I know it,” said the second Jean Harlow, the junior Jean Harlow, by then a movie star using her mother’s maiden name and fulfilling all of Mother Jean’s dreams.  “I’m not a great actress, and I never thought I was.  But I happen to have something the public likes.”

Did she ever.

Though it received no Oscar nominations, SARATOGA was an entertaining comedy-drama about thoroughbred horse racing, made with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s usual production gloss and top stars.  That it became a huge commercial success was, unfortunately, almost entirely due to curiosity about seeing the personification of sex appeal, Jean Harlow, somehow suddenly flawed and fatally ill in her final film.  What had happened to the ill-fated star?  She was only twenty-six, a woman-child, making this movie.  There was so much speculation about the circumstances of her death.  They have long been the subject of much misinformation, and fantastic gossip.

In the 1920s Americans were entertained, principally, by movies and baseball.  Radio and boxing were lesser diversions, available to few.  Of course television did not exist.  Football and basketball were minor sports played primarily on the collegiate level and reported upon, on a delayed basis, by newspapers.

Gambling of any kind was illegal in most states.  Lotteries existed nowhere.  The tiny desert town of Las Vegas was going to open a couple casinos, but few people had ever heard of the place, much less traveled there.

The Eastern racing establishment thrived only in a few localities like Saratoga Springs in Central New York, which long had boasted the Saratoga Race Course.  Gambling, wagering, and racing were, however, not legal in California.  When those impediments were finally reversed in 1934, Hal Roach was able to open the first race track in California, as well as the nation’s single most elaborate showcase for the Sport of Kings: Santa Anita Park, located in Arcadia.  Its initial star was America’s unlikely ultra-equine, Seabiscuit.  The unorthodox turf topper ran there once a week, and his fortunes were covered by movie newsreels, newspapers, and radio.  America embraced this underdog racehorse as the symbol of their hopes.  Suddenly, downtrodden Depression victims had an opportunity to wager on favorites like Seabiscuit and win the fortune of their dreams.

Santa Anita was an immediate success and drew interest among the nearby Hollywood movie crowd, which saw how thoroughbred horse racing was challenging baseball as the country’s most popular sport.  On July 25, 1935, Robert Hopkins and Anita Loos (author of GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES) submitted a horse racing story called SARATOGA to Louis B. Mayer at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.  It was meant as a vehicle for Jean Harlow (whom Loos knew privately as “a regular girl,” one with “no vanity whatsoever – and no feeling about the sensation she created wherever she went”).  Mr. Mayer loved the concept.  His principal avocation away from the studio was fast becoming horse racing at Roach’s Santa Anita.  Besides SARATOGA, Mayer would make three other horse-racing stories in 1937: BROADWAY MELODY OF 1938, A DAY AT THE RACES with the Marx Brothers, and THOROUGHBREDS DON’T CRY with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney.  Each of these production units made location trips to Santa Anita Park.

For whatever reasons, however, instead of the popular and in-demand Harlow, the stars first scheduled for SARATOGA were to be Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, in their second picture together.  When, after several delays, Metro failed to arrange the loan of Lombard’s services from Paramount, Joan Crawford was announced as leading lady on December 18, 1936.

On March 3, 1937, Jean Harlow turned twenty-six, and was assigned to appear with Carole Lombard’s ex-husband, William Powell, in a picture to be called THE WORLD’S OUR OYSTER.  It was never made.       

The following evening marked the Oscar ceremonies (Harlow, too often taken for granted, should have won for her funny and sexy wisecracking role in LIBELED LADY, but didn’t).  Powell and Lombard were nominated for their performances in MY MAN GODFREY (1936).  The divorced couple came and sat together, but not as a couple.  Lombard was escorted by Clark Gable, while Powell brought Harlow, to whom he was “engaged,” and the four of them sat together.

Gable and Lombard would marry in 1939.  But Powell was soured on marriage after divorcing Lombard.  Despite giving Harlow a ring, he wasn’t going to marry her, and she knew it.  They fought over it.  She resented it.  She was miserable over it.  She turned to alcohol in a serious way to deal with it.  The pair’s estrangement caused Mayer to pull Harlow off THE WORLD’S OUR OYSTER.  He assigned her instead to appear with frequent co-star Clark Gable in SARATOGA, just as Anita Loos intended all along.    

Rosalind Russell knew well the situation with Powell, and reflected on the dilemma Harlow faced: “Having to be a sex symbol was the worst.  She wanted to be a housewife.”  The first film Harlow made for Hal Roach was a Charley Chase two-reeler called CHASING HUSBANDS (1928).  She always was.  Her third with Clark Gable was titled HOLD YOUR MAN (1933).  She never could.

Besides Powell, Harlow was tormented by someone else she loved, but also hated – her controlling mother, who forced Harlow to be a movie star against her will, wrecked each of her three marriages, and squandered her fortune.  “The grip she had on that girl,” Powell’s screen partner Myrna Loy recalled, “was unbelievable….I hold that woman responsible for Jean’s death.”

She also wrote that Powell “blamed himself for Jean’s death: he had loved her but hadn’t married her and taken her away from her mother.”    

Harlow was doomed by her mother’s control, but long ago at age fifteen her fate had already been sealed, and for certain, by something else entirely.  She contracted scarlet fever.  As writer-producer David Stenn has reported in his amazing, definitive and aptly titled book, BOMBSHELL, this condition led to an undetected kidney infection.  Silently it set the timer on Harlow’s premature date with death.  Unknown to everyone, her kidneys slowly, silently degenerated.  Diseased kidneys can operate even when they are ninety per cent gone.  Harlow’s began to fail at age fifteen, and no one discovered the disorder until she was dying, when it was too late.

In the subsequent eleven years, besides undiagnosed kidney disease, Harlow would suffer three broken marriages, three abortions, an appendectomy, alcoholism, and gonorrhea.  Plus she was surrounded and abused by grasping, unscrupulous parasites who preyed on Harlow in exactly the same fashion depicted so superbly in her devastating filmed satire BOMBSHELL.  (A film with the deathless line where jealous Pat O’Brien barks at Harlow he doesn’t care if her phony “Marquis” boy friend, Hugo di Binelli di Pisa, “has a royal flush in his kidneys.”)  All these factors contributed to her generally poor health, and robbed Harlow of the strength her ever-weakening body needed to combat the steadily progressing kidney disease.  All the while, Harlow was pushed by her relentless stage-mother into making forty-two movies against her will, when what she really wanted was to marry and live anonymously as a mother and homemaker.  All her true friends knew and understood this – they knew the distressing dichotomy between the sexy public persona, and the private, warm, self-deprecating Harlean Carpenter.  But they also knew they were helpless to do anything about the situation.   

Harlow’s father had remained behind in Kansas City, where he practiced dentistry.  It is a supreme irony that dental problems triggered events which led directly to Harlow’s early death.  The health troubles during her final two years had caused serious delays in shooting four different pictures, and now it would happen again.  This time Harlow was pained by impacted wisdom teeth.  Her dentist in Los Angeles recommended extracting them one at a time.  With the strain she was under, one at a time was all she could take.  Mother Jean saw matters differently.  And the last person she would turn to for a second opinion, on anything, was her ex-husband, Dr. Carpenter.  She ordered all four teeth removed at once, in a single operation.  Mother Jean went and found a plastic surgeon and then an opthamologist who would perform this procedure.  Neither specialist practiced dentistry.

On March 23, 1936, the botched operation was suspended when after three extractions the medical team lost a heartbeat.  Harlow nearly died.  Virtually no one was told.  She remained hospitalized eighteen days.  Mother Jean orchestrated a cover-up.    

Yet a movie studio and a full cast and crew over at M-G-M in Culver City awaited Jean Harlow’s vitality and her acting services.  Whether she was ready or not, principal photography commenced on SARATOGA as of April 22, 1937.  Minnesota-born Jack Conway would direct.  He’d helmed other key Harlow hits – RED-HEADED WOMAN (1932), THE GIRL FROM MISSOURI (1934), and the delightful LIBELED LADY (1936) with inamorato Bill Powell, Myrna Loy, and Spencer Tracy.  VARIETY would point out later that it was “peculiarly appropriate that Conway should have directed Harlow’s valedictory and that the offering should be splendid and memorable for all concerned.”

Besides Clark Gable (making his sixth film with Harlow), the cast was to include Frank Morgan (Harlow’s conniving father in BOMBSHELL); Lionel Barrymore (who, incredibly, never even mentioned Harlow in his 1951 autobiography WE BARRYMORES); and the sober Walter Pidgeon, here beginning his long and distinguished career at M-G-M.  Just as Harlow was tragically ending hers.  Other reliable favorites included Margaret Hamilton (later, like Frank Morgan, to be immortalized in THE WIZARD OF OZ), Hattie McDaniel, Cliff “Ukelele Ike” Edwards, Frankie Darro as what else but a jockey, and Una Merkel, seen several times to advantage in past Harlow shows.

Gable had befriended an extra and bit player named Bud Flanagan and got him a small part in SARATOGA.  A contract resulted with the studio, whereupon his name was changed to Dennis O’Keefe.  There are many familiar character faces in SARATOGA.    

Second unit footage to use as background locations was shot in Saratoga Springs, as well as in Lexington and Louisville, Kentucky – authentic thoroughbred racehorse country.

Two weeks into shooting, Harlow answered fan mail from a Louis Samuelson of New York: “I am jittery because I have horses on all sides of me and surrounding me, practically all day long, and I am scared to death of them.  But I hope to survive.”

Her hope was not realized.  Horses should have been the least of her worries.

Yet Harlow was working, and the film was progressing.  But the troubled star was depressed over her estrangement from Powell.  She wanted to marry, he didn’t.  They were still speaking, and as so many still photos show, she wore his engagement ring.  But Powell was seeing an unknown actress, one who liked horses.  She was Bernadine Hayes, who’d just signed to make her first of several Hopalong Cassidy westerns for Paramount, NORTH OF THE RIO GRANDE (1937).  All this upset Harlow, who was drinking excessively and missing her 6 AM studio calls.  Co-workers and friends noticed she began to perspire heavily, and commented on her chalky complexion and visibly bloated figure.  Some even expressed shock over her appearance.  Her face was puffy, and close examination of stills eventually released to publicize the film reveals evidence of severe retouching to conceal Harlow’s deteriorating beauty.

On May 27, Harlow, pale and fragile, complained to a crew-member of her pained teeth, evidently still infected.  Incessant gargling didn’t seem to help.  Increasingly during production, she was so weakened and tired that she hadn’t the strength to drive home, and spent several nights in her dressing room at Metro.   

On Saturday, May 29, Harlow struggled through scenes with Gable and Hattie McDaniel in a train compartment set, until she couldn’t go on any further.  No one knew it, but her movie career ended making those scenes.  The irony was that she was supposed to play sick in the sequence, suffering from a bad cold, when in truth Jean Harlow was more sick than her screen character.  Nauseous, feverish, soaking in perspiration, she kept doubling over in pain from her stomach.  Finally she left the stage, changed into her street clothes, and in departing the studio stopped by Powell’s set where he was making DOUBLE WEDDING (1937) with Myrna Loy.  Again, an ironic title, since no wedding was the issue.  “Daddy, I don’t feel good,” director Richard Thorpe remembered Harlow telling Powell.  “I’m going home.”

David Stenn quoted another witness to this exchange that Powell “didn’t seem particularly worried.”  It was inconceivable, and to everyone, that Jean Harlow, apparently in the prime of her life, seemingly envied by every woman alive, and lusted after by every man, was about to leave the lot to go home and die!  How could that be?     

On Monday, Memorial Day, May 31, not realizing she had but a week to live, M-G-M agreed to loan Harlow’s services to 20th Century-Fox for IN OLD CHICAGO (1938).  Alice Faye, who was originally promoted in movies as Fox’s answer to Harlow, would eventually have to play that part instead.  It represented one of many movies already scheduled for Harlow in 1937 and 1938 that she was be unable to make, including TOPPER for the Hal Roach Studios.

On the same Monday, carefree Mother Jean was gallivanting around Catalina Island, but cut short her holiday and returned after speaking with Powell.  “The Baby” (which everyone from Gable and Powell to studio janitors called her) had the flu, or a severe cold, or something.  Harlow’s mother summoned a doctor to their home at 512 North Palm Drive in Beverly Hills.  He ordered round the clock care, but misdiagnosed the patient’s condition as a gallbladder inflammation.

Tuesday, shooting resumed.  Harlow phoned director Jack Conway to say she couldn’t work.  His widow later told David Stenn, “She was hysterical, because she knew they’d have to shoot around her, and a professional hates to do that.”  Jean Harlow wouldn’t live to see another Tuesday.

By Thursday, Harlow seemed to have survived the crisis.  She sat up in bed and started to read GONE WITH THE WIND (in private, she wore glasses).  The LOS ANGELES HERALD quoted Mother Jean, “This Baby of mine is much improved.”  But she wasn’t improving, she was dying.  The newspaper story indicated the studio expected Harlow to resume work on SARATOGA Friday or Monday.  All the while theater marquees across the nation were carrying Harlow’s name in lights; her film PERSONAL PROPERTY was still playing to packed houses of adoring, unsuspecting movie fans, ignorant of the bigger, real life drama being played out in Beverly Hills.     

As always, attempting to exercise total control, Harlow’s mother discouraged all visitors.  But some few got through.  When disturbing reports from those who’d actually seen Harlow’s degraded condition reached Jack Conway, he phoned her mother, suggesting hospital care.  “We are Christian Scientists,” objected Mother Jean.  This was what led to the subsequent myth that Harlow was being denied medical care owing to her mother’s religious beliefs.  In fact, a host of nurses was there around the clock, and medical care was being administered by a physician all right, but by one who failed to understand what was making Harlow ill.

No one knew.  In her 1974 book KISS HOLLYWOOD GOOD-BY, Anita Loos remembered sitting around the studio at this very time with Clark Gable and several others.  Talk turned to Harlow and they speculated on what her latest ailment could be.  “Probably drunk again,” joked Gable, but with great affection.    

Hours later when Conway informed Gable how serious this was getting, the star stormed the house, horrified to see how Harlow was suffering intense pain, and that her body had ballooned and actually doubled in size!  Then Gable was shocked by something he’d never experienced before: he smelled urine on her breath.  “It was like kissing a dead person, a rotting person,” he explained later.  “It was a terrible thing to walk into.”

Harlow’s true medical condition was acute nephritis, or kidney disease.  This led to uremia whereby she could not urinate, and the toxic waste product was being excreted through her breath and her sweat.  Those able to visit Harlow at the end, including Louis B. Mayer, said the poison stench was intolerable.  Mayer wanted his own physician to examine the stricken actress, but her mother disliked and distrusted Mayer, and his physician.  They knew each other.  She refused any help.  Back in his office, Mayer said to his secretary, “This is nothing but legalized murder.”

Mother Jean did seek a second opinion, that of the attending physician’s junior partner, Dr. Leland Chapman.  He was the one who correctly diagnosed Harlow’s grisly condition at last.  The situation was fatal.  But there was nothing Dr. Chapman could do.  The antibiotics over-prescribed by so many physicians and taken for granted today, did not even exist in 1937.  And, dialysis and kidney transplants were procedures that remained many years away.  Besides, as Dr. Chapman lamented of Harlow, “She didn’t want to be saved.  She had no will to live whatsoever.”

More irony: this same physician successfully protected his senior partner, the one who had misdiagnosed Harlow’s condition.  The tragic mistake was never made public until David Stenn’s book was published in 1993.

Anita Loos wrote in 1974 that “after Bill’s rejection, Jean seemed to lose interest in everything; and, when stricken, she refused to put up a fight.  It was as if Jean took advantage of a minor ailment to escape from life.”  Back then Ms. Loos did not know it wasn’t a minor ailment.     

The soon to be guilt-stricken Powell, meanwhile, was busy with B-western actress Bernadine Hayes, and didn’t visit Harlow until Sunday, June 6.  That evening she was finally admitted to Good Samaritan Hospital.  There Dr. Harold Barnard commented, “Her face looked like Fatty Arbuckle.”

Monday, since it didn’t call for much of a detour, Powell visited Harlow on his way to the studio.  Nurses had shaved her head; her skull was swelling and doctors nearly drilled holes to relieve the pressure.  She received two blood transfusions.  Then was placed in an oxygen tent.  Jack Conway remembered, “She looked like a bag of bones.  I never would have recognized her.”  At last Powell broke down, couldn’t take Harlow’s cries of pain, and came out of the hospital room crying himself.

Later that same day, Monday, June 7, 1937, while suffering terribly, Jean Harlow slipped into a coma and died.  Newspapers printed extra editions with the shocking news, and bulletins poured over radio stations across the globe.

All week at M-G-M, people ate lunch in the huge commissary without a word.  Dead silence.  What had happened to Jean Harlow was unthinkable.  Totally unexpected.  The entire industry was stunned.  And puzzled.  Harlow was sincerely mourned because everyone in Hollywood from the least studio employees to the biggest stars knew she was regular, warm, vulnerable and humble.  Jean Harlow was beloved by all who knew her, and all who knew of her.  She was a sex symbol, she was a pal.     

There is an unnerving scene in SARATOGA showing George Zucco as a physician attending Harlow as she reclines on a bed, wearing a pink silk negligee.  “This is absolutely ridiculous, Doctor,” Harlow says in character, “I told you there’s nothing the matter with me!”  Two-plus weeks after that scene was shot, Harlow was buried in that same negligee on June 9.

The funeral was an enormous spectacle to rival anything M-G-M ever put on film.  Every star, director or movie executive one could name from that era was there.  More than ten thousand uninvited spectators gathered outside the church at Forest lawn.  During the service, Jeanette MacDonald sang INDIAN LOVE CALL, then Nelson Eddy followed with SWEET MYSTERY OF LIFE.  William Powell, now filled with remorse, was stunned in a state of virtual collapse (his own health deteriorated almost immediately thereafter and he was stricken with rectal cancer which he battled for the next two years – he despaired to the point of confiding suicide to Myrna Loy).  The only person at the service without tears streaming down his or her face was Harlow’s mother; she smiled the whole time.  For the rest of her life, because of her faith, she refused to admit her daughter was gone.

Certain Hollywood vultures were smiling too, the ones who scrambled to reissue Harlow’s pictures and cash in on the incredible notoriety.  Columbia re-released PLATINUM  BLONDE (1931), Universal brought back THE IRON MAN (1931), and Howard Hughes (who himself died of chronic kidney failure) revived HELL’S ANGELS (1930).  Warner Bros. sought to reissue PUBLIC ENEMY (1931) but abandoned its plans when the Catholic Legion of Decency condemned the film.

Metro sought the high ground, at least for appearances’ sake.  Unfinished, SARATOGA could not be issued as it was, they declared in a press release, since key scenes that required Harlow remained to be filmed.  When Carole Lombard showed the sense and good taste to refuse re-shooting all of Harlow’s footage, the project was shelved.  The studio had incurred costs in excess of $300,000, and for public consumption at least, was prepared to write it all off rather than exploit Harlow’s death for profit.  Or so it appears they wished everyone to believe.  The strategy – if such it was — was so clever and calculating, the public felt as though it was being deprived of seeing something that was being unfairly withheld.  People decided they wanted to say goodbye to Jean Harlow and to see – even examine — her last performance, no matter what!  Newspapers immediately took up the cause, and exhibitors demanded M-G-M find a way to salvage SARATOGA.  Jack Conway’s widow remembered, “The public went wild.  They wanted to see (Harlow) to the very end.”

Director George Sidney hastily tested starlets who could serve as Harlow lookalikes – someone who could convincingly appear in those key unshot scenes, but remain partially hidden under hats and behind binoculars, or be photographed from the back.  Seen today, unfortunately, after awhile these scenes become obvious, and border on the ridiculous.  Virginia Grey, Rita Johnson, Harlow’s double Jean Phillips, and several others were tested for this grim task.  As it turned out, Geraldine Dvorak and a dancer named Mary Dees were hired to appear as Harlow’s body doubles.  The voice would be supplied by a radio actress named Paula Winslowe.

On Monday, June 14, filming resumed but five days after Harlow’s funeral, and lasted through June 22.  Three weeks later came the key test – a sneak preview at the Alexander Theater (now beautifully refurbished as “The Alex”) in Glendale on July 13.  Imagine sitting in that theater when M-G-M’s top brass strolled onto the stage to announce they planned to test-screen SARATOGA for the first time!  When Harlow’s name was displayed on the credits, the house rocked with its approving reaction.  The nearly delirious audience cheered and applauded when Harlow first appeared, and also on several other occasions following exceptional comedy passages.  The studio entertained the notion of having Lionel Barrymore appear in an introduction to explain how the movie’s unfinished scenes were completed using other talent, but then thought better of it.   

Ten days later on July 23, M-G-M rushed the picture down the stretch into general release.  Promotion was an unusually delicate problem.  The theatrical prevue trailer, whether out of respect, or simply to tease audiences, does not show Jean Harlow.  Instead, in a variant of the abandoned introduction by Barrymore, Lewis Stone, who similarly isn’t in SARATOGA, emerges through parted curtains as though addressing patrons in person from the theater’s stage.  Looking ever so grim and solemn, he explains how, in response to an avalanche of insistent requests, the studio has worked day and night to complete and present “the unfinished love story” starring Jean Harlow and Clark Gable.  Piles of letters and telegrams – pleading, demanding to see the film – are shown, and so is Anita Loos, working at her typewriter.  But not Harlow, and not Gable.   

Most critics were kind to SARATOGA, but saddened at Harlow’s loss.  “Glib, forthright, knowing and adroit,” was the assessment of TIME magazine.     

Screening the picture filled the reviewer for the NEW YORK HERALD TRIBUNE with “a premonition of disaster (for Harlow).  Looking ill much of the time and striving gallantly to inject into her performance characteristic vigor and vibrancy, the result, in face of subsequent events, is grievous.”

Nobel Prize winner and novelist, Graham Greene, whose works have been turned into such big films as THIS GUN FOR HIRE (1942) and THE FUGITIVE (1947) wrote a critique for the SPECTATOR that was equally harsh.  He actually denounced SARATOGA as “tough and conscienceless.”  Of Harlow, however, in final tribute, Greene wrote that “she toted a breast like a man totes a gun.”       

Weekly VARIETY’s capsule assessment: “Posthumous Jean Harlow starrer, with Clark Gable opposite.  Surefire boxoffice and tastefully produced.  Timely as the latest racing extra.”  Daily VARIETY’S review concluded, “Audience seemed after the first few scenes to accommodate itself to the fact that it was witnessing a posthumous performance and to give it the same laughter and enjoyment and completely absorbed attention any other meritorious production would command – a genuine tribute to the artist who, gracing the screen for the last time, transcended the circumstance of untimely death.”

SARATOGA had been an expensive undertaking, in more ways than one.  The final negative cost added up to $1,144,000.  But the public had demanded to see this film, and certainly paid to do so.  During a year when the average ticket price was a mere twenty-three cents, the worldwide gross revenue generated by SARATOGA totaled the prodigious sum of $3,252,000.  Gable and Harlow’s best picture together was the robust RED DUST (1932).  Exemplary.  A classic.  Who couldn’t look at that once a week?  Yet, incredibly, the gross on RED DUST, plus no less than that of the mighty KING KONG, together, did not eclipse the rental figure on SARATOGA. House attendance records fell in theaters all over the country.

What a smash this was.  VARIETY reasoned people “generally genuinely wanted to see Miss Harlow, an actress widely liked, and that this desire was not mere morbid curiosity but a legitimate tribute to one of the screen’s memorable names.”       

The net profit on SARATOGA amounted to a whopping $1,146,000.  This constituted an amazing Depression-era return on investment of greater than 100%!  Clearly playing the ponies had paid off – though even studio executives conceded nothing could compensate Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for the loss of Jean Harlow from atop and among its stable of glittering stars.

Her obsessive mother lived until 1958.  She died of heart disease, and was interred next to her daughter.  Mont Clair Carpenter retired from his dental practice in 1951.  He succumbed in 1974.

Dr. Mont Clair Carpenter died at the age of ninety-six, after a productive and fulfilling life.

Sad, and too bad, what happened to Jean Harlow.  Because, as she said, she really did “happen to have something the public likes.”