Film Feuds: Dueling Harlows

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Ask anyone who knows me and they’ll tell you I’m not a huge fan of biopics. This isn’t exactly true though; some biopics I really love once I separate the person being portrayed from the film. A lot of them are campy fun. I frequently see a lot of backlash against the actresses who play the stars of yesteryear, and wondered how vintage biopics’ actresses were received.

1964-65 were just weird years for Jean Harlow fans. 1964 saw the release of Irving Shulman’s Harlow, probably one of the worst biographies ever written, as well as John Pascal’s The Jean Harlow Story, an infinitely better biography that didn’t make near as much of a splash. Shulman’s book received some backlash and William Powell publicly denounced it, but as with all salacious celebrity bios, it took off like wildfire. Of course, the books’ releases brought forth the inevitable biopics–two in 1965. Both are based on Shulman’s book, both movies are titled Harlow, both women playing Jean were named Carol in real life and both just suck.

I’m not going to go into plot lines; both movies slam Jean Harlow’s memory (Carol Lynley stars in the first Harlow, released in May, while Carroll Baker’s Harlow came out in July). Instead, I’m presenting reviews for each woman. Spoiler alert, neither actress received universal glowing reviews:

Carol Lynley’s Harlow

Ginger Rogers exclaims why she wouldn’t read Shulman’s book–yet had no problem participating in Jean’s slandering via Lynley’s Harlow. Detroit Free Press, April 9, 1965
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San Francisco Examiner, May 13, 1965
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Oakland Tribune, May 13, 1965


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The News Journal, May 14, 1965

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Dayton Daily News, April 23, 1965

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Carroll Baker’s Harlow

Detroit Free Press, June 25, 1965
The News Journal, July 15, 1965
The Evening Sun, July 23, 1965
Carroll explains her thought process being the role. Santa Fe New Mexican, August 1, 1965
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Ottawa Journal, August 21, 1965

So, there you have it. Actresses received the same cutting remarks in 1965 as they do today. Will the inevitable backlash anyone will receive for portraying an icon stop Hollywood from producing biopics? No. Do biopics have their place with the movie going public? Yes. I do appreciate how biopics can bring new people to fandoms, but I struggle with the inevitable self proclaimed experts who think biopics are like moving biographies. If you enjoy them, go read a few reputable books on the subjects portrayed to get the real story.

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