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Platinum Doll


Platinum Doll

The real Harlean Carpenter was born on March 3, 1911, in Kansas City, Missouri. By the time she was in her late teens, the platinum blonde actress, who later changed her name to Jean Harlow after her mother, had blossomed into a full-blown Hollywood sex symbol. Harlow only lived to be 26. But over the course of her 10-year career, she starred in upwards of 36 movies, married three times, and performed alongside some of Hollywood’s most debonair leading men, including Clark Gable and William Powell.

Harlow’s short life wasn’t all signing autographs and glamour, however. Like many underage starlets of the time, she suffered from near-crippling bouts of insecurity about her acting abilities, became entangled in more than a few wayward romances, and fought against a studio-backed image that championed flawless beauty over intellect. First and foremost, PLATINUM DOLL, historian and novelist Anne Girard’s fictionalized biography of Harlow, presents a portrait of an often troubled but free-spirited and whole-hearted woman who was beloved by many, but who sadly had little control over her own life.

"[P]erhaps what makes Girard’s nuanced storytelling stand out is her choice to render Hollywood’s first blonde bombshell --- a precursor to Marilyn Monroe --- as not just star struck and driven, but conflicted and, more importantly, human."

As in her previous book, MADAME PICASSO, a fictionalized retelling of Pablo Picasso’s affair with a Moulin Rouge seamstress during the Belle Époque era in Paris, Girard focuses on the lesser-known details of Harlow’s life, mainly the starlet’s first marriage to Chuck McGrew at the tender age of 16. Though Girard goes to great lengths to make it clear the two loved each other, the McGrews’ union was fraught from the get-go. Chuck had a wild temper, especially when he drank, and Harlow was no match for his jealousy. The attention she received from other men infuriated Chuck, and his wife’s desire to become an actress instead of a devoted homemaker was often too much for him to bear.

Harlow’s close relationship with her mother, who eventually became Harlow’s manager, was also a persistent problem. Jean Bello --- often referred to as “Mommie” in PLATINUM DOLL --- never quite took to Chuck and did everything she could to cause friction in his and her daughter’s marriage. Having once tried and failed to become an actress herself, Mrs. Bello even went so far as to force her “Baby” to have a “miscarriage” when the unplanned pregnancy threatened to put an end to her daughter’s burgeoning career.

In contrast to her thorough descriptions of Harlow and Chuck’s squabbles and divorce proceedings, which take precedence throughout the book, Girard’s treatment of the abortion incident feels underdeveloped, given the gravity of the situation. The specifics of what actually happened and an examination of Harlow’s feelings before and after the ordeal take up not even five pages, for example. So, too, Girard’s implication that Harlow was more worried about Chuck’s reaction to a few nude photographs she had taken than she was upset by the “loss” of her baby seems too simplistic a telling given how young and inexperienced Harlow was at the time. Still, Girard does a fine job portraying Harlow not just as a girl trapped in an abusive marriage, but as a naïve young woman who doesn’t quite grasp just how cruel the world --- and her loved ones --- can sometimes be.

Beyond its focus on Harlow’s progression from starry-eyed adolescent to an increasingly confident, buxom young woman with romance aplenty, PLATINUM DOLL is a smorgasbord of the sights and sounds of Hollywood during the Roaring Twenties. Clearly having done her research, Girard infuses the narrative with tantalizing details. The elaborate costumes that flappers typically wore to nightclubs, the names and clientele of famous speakeasies, and references to popular songs and dance styles of the time all feed into a glorious picture of what it must’ve been like to love, drink and perform during the Jazz Age.

While some Harlow fans might look for more information about what happened after the young actress became successful, Girard instead focuses on tracing the course of Harlow’s first few years in show business. From the moment she’s “discovered” in the parking lot of Fox Studios while accompanying a friend to her audition, to her short-lived stint on director Hal Roach’s The Fun Factory with comedy legends Laurel and Hardy, to her breakthrough starring role in Howard Hughes’ epic picture Hell’s Angels, each stepping stone in Harlow’s early career is dutifully examined.      

PLATINUM DOLL isn’t a complete picture of Jean Harlow’s life --- it’s a novel, after all. But perhaps what makes Girard’s nuanced storytelling stand out is her choice to render Hollywood’s first blonde bombshell --- a precursor to Marilyn Monroe --- as not just star struck and driven, but conflicted and, more importantly, human. “She believed, if she studied more, practiced more --- if people looked beyond her beauty and gave her a real chance, she could absolutely shine,” Girard writes. “But the predicament remained; she couldn’t get work without being alluring, but she would have to fight to be taken seriously because she was beautiful. She had to use her assets, whether she liked it or not.”

Reviewed by Alexis Burling on January 26, 2016

Platinum Doll
by Anne Girard