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Black Lamb

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Now in its 14th year of publication, this magazine was created to offer the discerning reader a stimulating selection of excellent original writing. Black Lamb Review is a literate rather than a literary publication. Regular columns by writers in a variety of geographic locations and vocations are supplemented by features, reviews, articles on books and authors, and a selection of “departments,” including an acerbic advice column and a lamb recipe.

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Harlow with a “t”

September 1st, 2003

buxomrecliningnude.jpgBY STEFFEN SILVIS

I am perhaps the last person to have discovered sex through Jean Harlow. Not the mechanics of coupling, mind you — I was raised on a farm, and so was wise to the routine at a tender age. No, what I gathered from Miss Harlow was an understanding of unbridled passion and an appreciation for sexual aids, courtesy of my poor mother.

I was an isolated child who never took to the great outdoors. I craved concrete from infancy, and could find escape only through old films on television. My mother sympathized and encouraged my love of Hollywood movies with books on the subject. Whenever she went shopping she would buy me paperback autobiographies of stars (David Niven’s The Moon’s a Balloon, Bette Davis’ Mother Goddam) or Dell originals based on recent motion pictures (Zardoz, Bank Shot, and For Pete’s Sake just to name a few of the more obscure).

One summer afternoon, my mother returned from a shopping spree in the city with a copy of a book titled Gable, Lombard, Powell and Harlow by Joe Morella and Edward Z. Epstein. It looked innocent enough with its cover design of the four stars in profile. How was my mother to know that she had just purchased for her own Sunny Jim the print version of a stag film fantasy?

Rustically, I retired to the lower branch of one of my father’s apple trees to read the book. I went up as a child and soon tumbled down a very confused young man. I read of dildos, gay sex, Clark Gable’s damaged testicle, and the tragedy of Paul Bern’s small member. But it was the epigraph for the chapter on Jean Harlow that hit me like so many rent boys beating Ramon Navarro: “‘Fuck me, fuck me,’ moaned the platinum blonde Venus to the husky truck driver.” Gosh!

From then on I stayed up for every late showing of a Jean Harlow film, eager to see this wanton in action for myself. My first erotic dreams seemed studio-derived, complete with famous players and Freudian props tastefully rendered in art deco. I awaited the periodic visit of the bookmobile to our grim, Iron Age village to rob it of any and all salacious material. (What luck that the Fort Vancouver Regional Library bookmobile stocked Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon in 1975.) Jean Harlow was my downfall.

The story of Harlow’s encounter with Dame Margot Asquith is probably apocryphal. In the numerous versions of the tale, Harlow greets Asquith at a party by her first name, which the Blonde Bombshell pronounces as Mar-Got. Asquith offers a blunt correction, “No, my dear, its Margot. The ‘t’ is silent, as in Harlow.” A mordant addition to the dumb blonde repertoire, but a tad unfair. By most accounts Jean Harlow was an intelligent woman who tirelessly fought against being typecast as light-headed. She spent her short life pleading to be taken seriously and once declared that she dreamt of leaving Hollywood to become a writer. Toward that end, in 1934 she wrote a novel.

Today is Tonight was first published by Dell in 1965 to cash in on the Harlow revival erupting at that time. Though there were rumors that Harlow’s “explosive, long-suppressed novel” was actually written by others, there’s no reason to doubt the star’s hand in the project. Torrid for its time, Today is Tonight is rather a tame affair bereft of the sweat and rutting perfected by Messrs. Morella and Epstein. The story of a rich, young wife who must nurse her husband through both the financial ruin of 1929 and a sudden bout of blindness is stock for the potboiler. The one risqué element is the presence of the husband’s best friend, whom Harlow uses to tease us with the idea of a ménage à trois. But rather than take the Coward way into threesomedom, she opts for a neat little ending celebrating monogamy and fidelity.

Today is Tonight is a monument of bad writing, full of overwrought strainings worthy of Elinor Glynn (“But the glory of her always flamed in him doubly at every gesture of the open surrender which she managed to weave into even their most ridiculous make-believe”), not to mention too many fruitless pickings from the thesaurus: “facial misgivings,” “The sophisticated cherub grinned impishly.”

Yet a surprising screwball sensibility under it all reminds one of Harlow’s best comedies where, invariably, the highbrow collides with the vulgar, such as an extended joke in which a taxi driver confuses John Bunyon with Damon Runyan. Surely proof of the privately educated and world-wise Harlow’s authorship.

Had Harlow lived she might have become a good comic novelist. Today is Tonight is, however, yesterday’s news, and is safe even thrust into the tremulous hands of impressionable farm lads. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Movie Issue, Silvis | Link to this Entry

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