The Blonde Bombshell
What is it about these particular women? All three were successful blonde actresses of their time, they were sex symbols that played ditzy characters, each was linked personally and/or professionally with both Clark Gable and William Powell, and all three died tragically, prematurely. Of course, it is in part because they died prematurely that we remember them so fondly - there are no pictures, images, or memories of them as old, uncompelling, or unattractive. None of them were great actresses per se - only Carole Lombard was ever recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (one Best Actress nomination). However, each starred in at least four "Great Movies":
Jean Harlow, perhaps the first and arguably the stereotype's yardstick, starred in several memorable films. One was Red Dust (1932) featuring Clark Gable, with whom she starred in several films. It's a terrific love triangle comedy with Mary Astor as "the lady". Harlow showed her comic flair playing "the floozy" and the film made her a star. Another of hers is Dinner at Eight (1933) which features many of the great actors of the 1930's including John & Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery, and Billie Burke. It's a story about social climbing, with Beery & Harlow portraying a "new money" couple trying to gain acceptance in high society. In Bombshell (1933), Harlow plays a starlet whose fame and wealth are being milked by her family and friends. Apparently, this fictional role was similar to her own true story (e.g. her wannabe mother used "Jean" to gain entrance to Hollywood). The first film that I saw which featured Ms. Harlow is also perhaps her best, Libeled Lady (1936) starring Myrna Loy, Spencer Tracy, and William Powell. Powell subsequently became Harlow's real life love interest until her unfortunate death at the age 26 (uremic poisoning - caused by the platinum used to color her hair?).
Carole Lombard actually had a very long film career but didn't really make much of a splash until she was 28 and starred in My Man Godfrey (1936) with William Powell (whom ironically Lombard had divorced three years before they made this film together). This is the film for which she received an Oscar nomination (the film received six, though not for Best Picture). It's a delightful film about a dizzy socialite (Lombard) who hires a "forgotten man" (Powell). Another of her starring roles which I've seen is Made for Each Other (1939) with Jimmy Stewart. It's about two people who marry after only just meeting and the turmoil that follows (mother-in-law, job loss, birth of a baby, etc.) before they predictably fulfill "the title of the movie". Lombard married Clark Gable that same year. She also has the distinction of being in one of Alfred Hitchcock's only comedies, Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941) with Robert Montgomery, a forgettable film he "directed" for her (a close friend of his) so that she could say she had been in a Hitchcock film. Ironically, these were short-lived bragging rights. My most recent viewing of Ms. Lombard was in Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be (1942). It's a fabulous film, also starring Jack Benny and Robert Stack, about a troupe of actors playing spy games with the Nazis. It was recently featured as "an essential" on TCM. The film was released after her life was cut short (she was only 33) in a fatal plane crash.
Marilyn Monroe played some juicy bit parts in a couple of great 1950 movies, The Asphalt Jungle and All About Eve, before she really made a name herself in 1953 (the year her nude calendar appeared in Playboy) starring in Gentleman Prefer Blondes with Jane Russell and How to Marry a Millionaire, with William Powell. Both of these flicks are similar - flimsy "plots" yet enjoyable to watch for other, obvious reasons. However The Seven Year Itch (1955), about fantasy infidelity with her married neighbor (Tom Ewell), is actually a pretty good movie in its own right. It also contains the famous "dress blown above her waist" scene. In fact, it is perhaps her best film besides Some Like It Hot (1959), although playing herself (?) in the critically acclaimed Bus Stop (1956), which was released the year she married Arthur Miller, is also good. Monroe's connection to Clark Gable was her last completed film, The Misfits (1961). Gable is reported to have said "Christ, I'm glad this picture's finished. She [Monroe] damn near gave me a heart attack" on the last day of filming. And, the next day suffered a massive heart attack from which he died 11 days later. As for Norma Jean, she "died in the nude" of an overdose at the age of 36.
There certainly have been other "Blonde Bombshells" through the years, but few have captured our imagination as these three standard bearers did. In doing my research, I was fascinated by the similarities between them: their lives, careers, and the eerie connection they shared with two specific actors ... aren't you?