Imagine you are in Macy's Jewelry Department. There are three counters to choose from: one that offers cheap but irresistibly shiny and huge imitation rings and bracelets, another that offers real glittering gems and gold, all just a little too bold for the average consumer, and lastly, a counter filled with tiny, understated 10k gold pieces, just perfect for the shy and demure. For those who are attracted to bright shiny objects, counters 1 and 2 beckon.
Similarly, there were three Jean Harlows. The first was the cheap platinum blonde draped in clingy satin and covered in jewels. This was the Jean of "The Public Enemy" and "Iron Man." She was tawdry and outrageously trashy, but like the cheap hardware, she dazzled. Her electroplated hair was her crowning glory, her face a canvas of cosmetic bravery, her clothes barely masking a rock candy swizzle stick form. Maybe her acting was not so great, but she was mesmerizing.
Unlike the "natural" beauties that came before (and after) her, Jean Harlow was a gal who freely embraced product. There was no effort to make believe this was real. This just didn't happen. This took effort. She bleached, painted and plucked and made it clear that she was most pleased with the results. She adorned her natural self with platinum hair, makeup, jewels and satin lounging pajamas. Her message was clear: Forget about what God gave you. You can make yourself over. And you can have fun.
The second Jean was a refinement of the first. She was still a tart, but the MGM cleanup crew was clearly at work. She was no longer cheap. She was now glamorous. This Jean made her first appearance as the " Red-Headed Woman," and, combined with "Red Dust"," she was the trollop deluxe made acceptable because she was fun. She reached her apex in "Dinner at Eight" and "Bombshell" and the images of her in those films are unforgettable. White hair, white feathers, white satin, white shag rugs, deco jewels, black (presumably red) lips, bonbons and the ever present mirror. A goddess for the age of electricity.
The third Jean is an example of messing with success. There are reams written about this, but the toning down of the hair and makeup and sexuality was a mistake. Jean Harlow would never be Mary Astor. And why bother?
For me, Jean Harlow defines the phrase "you go girl." She slapped on her makeup and checked the mirror before bravely sailing out to conquer the world, armed only with cosmetics, big jewels and nerve. My hero!