Happy 106th Birthday, Jean Harlow!

Jean Harlow, the original Blonde Bombshell, was born Harlean Harlow Carpenter 106 years ago today in Kansas City, Missouri. Here are 10 JH Did-You-Knows:

  • Harlow, the daughter of a dentist and his wife, left home at 16 to marry Charles McGrew, a businessman seven years her senior. The pair moved to Los Angeles, where Harlow was soon garnering assignments as an extra in pictures.
  • Her marriage to McGrew ended after just two years, allowing Harlow to focus on her career. She soon graduated from extra work to bit parts in features and shorts.
  • Harlow’s big break came in 1930 when she was cast in Howard Hughes‘ World War I epic, Hell’s Angels. The picture’s premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood was reported to have drawn a crowd of 50,000 people.
  • Hughes sold Harlow’s contract to MGM, where her star continued to ascend. Her work in Frank Capra‘s Platinum Blonde (1931) was very well received, and the following year she was paired with Clark Gable in John Ford‘s Red Dust, the second of six pictures she and Gable would appear in together during her short career.
  • Harlow is said to have turned down lead role in Freaks (1932) and King Kong (1933).
  • Harlow served as godmother to Millicent Siegel, the daughter of gangster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel. She also dated mobster Abner “Longie” Zwillman, who advanced her career by loaning Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia Pictures, $500,000.
  • In 1935, Harlow demanded more money from MGM, refusing to work until they assented, and while she was on strike, she wrote a novel, Today Is Tonight. It wasn’t published until 1965, early thirty years after her death.
  • Both Harlow and Marilyn Monroe starred opposite Gable in their final pictures—Harlow in Saratoga (1937) and Monroe in The Misfits (1961). Monroe idolized Harlow and refused the chance to play her in a biopic because she felt the script was not respectful to Harlow.
  • At the time of her death, Harlow was engaged to actor William Powell (and had been for two years). Had the pair married, Powell would have been Harlow’s fourth husband.
  • Though rumors long persisted that her mother, a Christian Scientist, refused medical care for her daughter, or that Harlow died of alcohol abuse, sunstroke, poisoning due to her platinum hair dye or any of a number of other causes, Harlow’s passing, at the young age of 26, came as a result of kidney failure.

Happy birthday, Jean Harlow, wherever you may be!

Jean Harlow

Happy 116th Birthday, Jean Arthur!

The wonderful Jean Arthur was born Gladys Georgianna Greene 116 years ago today in Plattsburgh, New York. She was a reluctant and, some say, unlikely star, but she was one of the true greats in the genre of screwball and romantic comedies. Here are 10 JA Did-You-Knows:

  • Arthur was of Norwegian and English descent. Her father was a photographer, and her family relocated frequently as she was growing up; she would spend time in Jacksonville, Florida; Schenectady, New York; Saranac Lake, New York; and Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood (the building she lived is still there, at 573 West 159th Street).
  • In the early 1920s, Arthur worked as stenographer. She also did some commercial modeling, and it was via her modeling work that she was discovered by Fox Film Studios, who thought she could be remade into a “flapper” type. She made her debut in Cameo Kirby (1923), directed by John Ford.
  • It’s said that she took her stage name from two of her heroes: Joan of Arc and King Arthur (we are skeptical of this, to be honest, but we are merely reporting what’s long been claimed).
  • Arthur’s trademarks as an actress were her comic timing and her distinctive voice, which Frank Capra described in his autobiography as “low, husky—at times it broke pleasingly into the high octaves like a thousand tinkling bells.”
  • Arthur was named one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars of 1929, along with Anita Page, Helen Twelvetrees and Loretta Young, among others.
  • Her film career floundering in the early 1930s, Arthur returned to New York City to hone her acting chops in a series of Broadway productions. Having gained confidence in her abilities, she returned to Hollywood in 1934, signing a five-year contract with Columbia Pictures that brought her financial stability. She also went blonde and would remain so throughout her career.
  • Arthur was convinced her left side was her best side, and she insisted on being filmed from that side whenever possible.
  • Arthur made three pictures with director Frank Capra, all of them very successful: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), You Can’t Take It with You (1938) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Capra once named her as his favorite actress.
  • The borderline reclusive Arthur was reluctant to participate in publicity efforts for her pictures. she was not active in the Hollywood social whirl and was hesitant to give interviews.
  • Arthur received one Academy Award nomination, in the Best Actress in a Leading Role category for The More the Merrier (1943). A year earlier, she won the Sour Apple Award from the Hollywood Women’s Press Club, which was given to the year’s “Least Cooperative Actor/Actress.”

Happy birthday, Jean Arthur, wherever you may be!

Jean Arthur

Happy 141st Birthday, J. Farrell MacDonald!

If you’re an old-movie aficionado, you’re familiar with the face of J. Farrell MacDonald, born 141 years ago today in Waterbury, Connecticut (at least one source says MacDonald was born June 6, 1875, and we honestly don’t have a clue which is correct, but we’re going with today). Even if you only occasionally tune to Turner Classic Movies when nothing else is on, there’s a good chance you’ve encountered MacDonald’s mug in a motion picture or two.

MacDonald is one of those actors who turns up in seemingly every third film of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, and though his range may have been limited (at least, the range he was allowed by those in charge of casting), he was always memorable. J. Farrell MacDonald played tough guys—sometimes amiable, some times grumpy, sometimes they were good guys, sometimes not—who were frequently, like MacDonald himself, of Irish descent.

Lest you think we’re exaggerating MacDonald’s ubiquity, consider this: Over the course of his 41-year career, he appeared in more than 325 motion pictures (he also directed 44 flms from 1912 to 1917—in fact, he was the principal director for L. Frank Baum‘s Oz Film Manufacturing Company, a short-lived studio that aimed to make family-friendly pictures in an era when children were seeing mostly shoot ’em-up westerns.

J. Farrell MacDonald

MacDonald attended Yale University, where he played football and graduated with a B.A. in 1903. He then continued on to study law and geology at Stewarttown University in Ottawa. His first job after graduation found him taking part in a government geological survey through Mexico, Colorado and into the Rockies.

Farrell began his acting career as a minstrel performer before touring in legitimate theatrical productions for two years. He made his first appearance in a motion picture in 1911 and didn’t stop until shortly before his death in 1952. He frequently played cops, but he appeared in a good number of westerns too. He was seen frequently in the films of Frank Capra (for whom he appeared in four pictures), Preston Sturges (eight pictures) and John Ford, for whom MacDonald appeared in more than twenty pictures from 1919 through 1946.

As one might expect of someone who worked so frequently, not all of MacDonald’s pictures are well-remembered today, but he appeared in a number of films that are considered classics, among them Topper, It’s a Wonderful Life, My Darling Clementine, Sullivan’s Travels and even Superman and the Mole Men. His film appearances were frequently (though not always) brief, but nearly always memorable.

Happy birthday, Mr. MacDonald, wherever you may be!