Silver Screen Standards: Bombshell (1933)
Played a different way, Bombshell (1933) would be a tragic drama about the relentless pressures and manipulation faced by a young actress in 1930s Hollywood, and certainly that was a reality that many stars, including Jean Harlow, knew all too well. I find it difficult sometimes to watch Harlow, as sparkling and vivacious as she is, without being constantly aware of the devastating brevity of her life, but we owe it to her to celebrate her comedic genius by laughing at her salty, feisty characters, especially the impulsive, hard-working Lola Burns. Bombshell tells a lot of ugly truths about Hollywood, but it does so with satiric glee, and it features a wealth of crackerjack supporting performances that Harlow keeps pace with like a true champ.
Harlow plays a semi-autobiographical role as Hollywood It Girl Lola Burns, who makes five pictures a year and supports an extravagant retinue of relatives, parasites, and pets. Her problems are compounded by the studio’s unscrupulous publicist, Space Hanlon (Lee Tracy), who torments Lola with his lies and setups but also jealously undermines her relationships with other men. Fed up with her household and Space’s manipulative plots, Lola flees to a desert resort, where she soon falls into a romance with handsome, aristocratic Gifford Middleton (Franchot Tone), who claims he has never even heard of the famous movie star.
The action of Bombshell never lets up; it approaches comedy in a manner appropriate to its title, with gags blowing up every scene and conversation. It’s stuffed with wacky characters, played by iconic comic actors, and each of them seems determined to steal every scene. Fast-talking Lee Tracy leads the pack with his trademark wisecracks and patter, but Frank Morgan gives him stiff competition as Lola’s incorrigible father, blustering his way through whoppers and looking absurdly dapper in his striped trousers. The equally sharp Una Merkel plays Lola’s opportunistic secretary, Mac, who holds her own against Lola’s male relatives in both hilarity and crookedness, while Louise Beavers plays the loyalist of the lot as Lola’s maid, Loretta. Beavers’ role might have been just another stereotypical maid part for a Black actress, but Loretta gets some very good scenes early on, especially her bit about the ruined negligee and her bold retort to Mac about knowing where the bodies are buried. Even small roles are filled by top-notch players like Pat O’Brien, Ted Healy, C. Aubrey Smith, and Isabel Jewell.
It would be easy to get lost in such a whirlwind, but Harlow shines throughout. Her Lola is a woman of endless variety; she’s glamorous in spangled gowns, sweet for the orphanage committee, furious with Space, and gaga for Gifford, but Harlow makes each mood memorable. Her pining for a baby is noteworthy among the picture’s more dramatic moments, especially when Space’s machinations crush her dream. Just when we’ve decided that she’s really a victim and sensibly done with the movie business, Harlow reveals the truth about Lola’s ambition and vanity, with some help from the ever-scheming Space, of course. Lola thinks she wants retirement and domesticity, but she also wants to sign autographs, beat out her rival for a role, and have her disappearance talked about in all the newspapers. She isn’t charmed that Gifford has never heard of her; she’s shocked. She careens from romance to romance and from one urge to the next, making her departure from Hollywood just another mercurial whim. Only in the middle of the chaos does Lola look like the grounded one. Outside it, we realize that the whirlwind suits her. Harlow, known for her bad girl roles and sex appeal, makes both the softer side and the zaniness of Lola appealing, investing the character with her own tremendous screen presence.
Victor Fleming is uncredited for his directorial work on Bombshell, but he also directed Harlow in Red Dust (1932), the film Lola Burns is supposed to be shooting retakes for with the famous barrel scene. For more of Harlow’s most memorable roles, see The Public Enemy (1931), Dinner at Eight (1933), and Libeled Lady (1936). Lee Tracy also appears in Dinner at Eight, but you can see more of him in Pre-Codes like Doctor X (1932), The Half-Naked Truth (1932), and Blessed Event (1932). The delightful Una Merkel also teams with Harlow in Red-Headed Woman (1932), Riffraff (1936), and Saratoga (1937), while Franchot Tone reunites with her in The Girl from Missouri (1934), Reckless (1935), and Suzy (1936). I like Harlow in all of her pictures, but I’m especially fond of Hold Your Man (1933) and Wife vs. Secretary (1936).
— Jennifer Garlen for Classic Movie Hub
Jennifer Garlen pens our monthly Silver Screen Standards column. You can read all of Jennifer’s Silver Screen Standards articles here.
Jennifer is a former college professor with a PhD in English Literature and a lifelong obsession with film. She writes about classic movies at her blog, Virtual Virago, and presents classic film programs for lifetime learning groups and retirement communities. She’s the author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and its sequel, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching, and she is also the co-editor of two books about the works of Jim Henson.