There are few writers who ever commented on Old Hollywood with the keen insight and exhilarating wit of Quentin Crisp. His observations about film and film stars in his fine book How to Go to the Movies uniquely combines a Queer sensibility with common sense analysis and the result, as you will see, is fascinating. Reading Quentin Crisp on film captures a similar kind of joy that I feel when I see a performer like Charles Busch at his best; good-naturedly poking fun and paying tribute simultaneously which, believe me, is a brilliant thing when it’s done with style.
“As a rule, it is a great advantage for movie actresses to die young, but in Miss Harlow’s case, this was not so.”
From How to Go to the Movies, by Quentin Crisp
Miss Harlow was largely a self-made star.
She was never given the glossy treatment lavished by producers and directors upon such superlative screen beings as Miss Dietrich and Miss Garbo. Almost at the outset of her career, she had the good fortune to be placed under contract by Mr. Hughes, but he does not seem to have valued her very highly, or not for long. Perhaps their personal relationship proved unsatisfactory to one or the other or both of them. After giving her the female lead in Hell’s Angels, he did not process her as another impresario might have done. On the contrary, he loaned her to other studios so often that gossip writers referred to her as “the borrowed blonde.” Such treatment is inevitably bad for an actress—especially if it occurs before she has learned to recognize her image, let alone gain control of it.
To be directed is merely to be told where to stand and what expression to wear; it is not an education in how to be.
When she was new to the public, even her publicity stills seem to have been carelessly taken. In them, her hair is chalky white, her lips, boot black, and her eyebrows are two penciled lines, varying neither in thickness nor in emphasis. Her postures, frequently with her terrible knees on view for all the world to see, are so awkward that they seem like parodies of glamorous attitudes. Her dresses, neither elegant nor daring, look like part of the wardrobe of a barman’s daughter who has just won a lottery. Furthermore, they are rumpled as though she had but a moment ago narrowly avoided rape. One wonders what her studios thought that they were doing. Similar defects are noticeable in the early pictures of Miss Monroe, but in her case, the result was less harmful because she was always presented to her admirers as the helpless victim of the worlds crudities.
By contrast with that perpetual waif, Miss Harlow seems tough. In repose, her features appear sullen and greedy; she looks like the most popular girl in a remand home. When she finally came into her own, it was because Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had at last settled for the fact that this was the message she was born to deliver.
A Miss Tazelaar compared her acting in Hold Your Man to the work of Miss West, who undulated onto the screen at about the same time. The comparison is, of course, absurd. Miss West ruled the movie industry not with a scowl but with a lazy, self-indulgent tyranny. She took Hollywood by the throat or, rather, by the sensitive part of its anatomy and compelled it to display her on her own terms. She was so completely self-aware that she could afford a large amount of self-mockery. Miss Harlow’s performances were full of mockery and even of contempt but rarely for herself.
Nevertheless, she eventually won over the critics who in her early films had note merely ignored her; they had stated that she didn’t exactly get the hang of motion picture histrionics. By the time Red-Headed Woman was being distributed in 1932, she was being described as “what the tired business man likes.” The press praised her “effortless vulgarity,” a quality that most stars in those days tried to hide if they originally had possessed it. The general opinion was that her acting was improving, and, doubtless in a purely technical way, it was; she was becoming accustomed to the cameras and the lights, but the real change was that she was moving or being moved nearer to the heart of her screen image. She was one of the few stars who appeal to men. There are two types who can do this; one is the sweet but not too sweet girl next door and the other is the woman who is as coarse or nearly as coarse as a man. Miss Harlow fell into this second category. She was at the best in films where her playmates were sailors or fisherman, and my guess is that it was among such men as these that she was most popular.
She died at the age of twenty-six. Between Hell’s Angels and Saratoga only seven years passed. That isn’t a long time for a woman alone to travel from leading lady to stardom, but she succeeded. As a rule, it is a great advantage for movie actresses to die young, but in Miss Harlow’s case, this was not so. In spite of her platinum hair, her appeal was not glamorous—still less exotic or mysterious. She was sexy in the coarsest way. This quality could have lasted into middle age or even old age.