I suppose there will always be discussion and debate over which movie was the ‘original’ screwball comedy: TWENTIETH CENTURY? THEODORA GOES WILD? perhaps one of the late silent-era vehicles for Marion Davies??
The debate will probably never be settled, especially as esoteric older films are forgotten, never released on home video.
(To quote filmmaker Chris Marker in the brilliant essay-film, SANS SOLEIL: “History always throws its empty bottles out the window…”)
One film which seems in constant peril of extinction is the 1933 Jean Harlow comedy, BOMBSHELL, which was cablecast in April on TCM and will be shown again during the first week of May.
BOMBSHELL was one of those unorthodox and self-reflective pieces of heightened cinema which managed somehow to be released under the aegis of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, perhaps the stodgiest of classic era film studios. Other works that fall in this category include GOING HOLLYWOOD and HOLLYWOOD PARTY, all three released between Fall of 1933 and Summer of 1934. (One possible reason these dissident and eccentric films ever got beyond a three-martini lunch meeting could be that M-G-M Studio Chief Irving Thalberg had suffered a heart attack in December, 1932, and on doctors’ orders had spent the majority of 1933 recuperating in Europe.)
How irreverent is BOMBSHELL? Well, before we get to dialog or plot points or performance, the film’s maverick concept situates the movie in a tug o’war between fiction and reality. The ‘bombshell’ character in the film is Lola Burns, a wildly popular movie star ballyhooed by her studio as the ultimate sex symbol and whose life is a string of media-obsessed scandals. Lola Burns is played by Jean Harlow, a wildly popular movie star ballyhooed by her studio as the ultimate sex symbol and whose life is a string of media-obsessed scandals. In BOMBSHELL, Lola is finishing a film called RED DUST: RED DUST was a film Harlow had done with Clark Gable in 1932. On the RED DUST set of the movie within a movie, the director (played by Pat O’Brien, in a rare non-Warner Brothers role) exchanges dialog with the cinematographer, whom he calls “Hal.” Hal Rosson had been the director of photography for the real movie of RED DUST, and was also the ex-husband of Jean Harlow.
BOMBSHELL‘s source material was an unproduced play which was doctored by a good team of writers including the exceptionally gifted Jules Furthman (SHANGHAI EXPRESS, TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, THE BIG SLEEP, RIO BRAVO), who produced some surprisingly en vogue dialog including sassy comebacks delivered by the African-American maid, industry-related wisecracks (how many films have a funny — and accurate — crack about Second Assistant Directors?), and copious double-entendres.
As the movie explores the substrata of the Hollywood, the film itself is a hothouse of film history rhizomes; e.g., when Lola Burns decides to adopt a baby, she is interviewed by a representative from the orphanage (played by Ethel Griffies: the craggy-faced ornithologist sitting on a stool in the besieged diner of Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS). Lola’s interview is interrupted by the entrance of her brother (played by Ted Healy, the originator of the 3 Stooges) and his floozie pick-up played by GWTW-featured actress Isabel Jewell. (When a fistfight erupts during this scene and reporters swarm in with cameras flashing, floozie Jewell frowns, nudges dowager Griffies, and slurs, “I’m gettin’ sober, aren’t you??”)
Perhaps even more intriguing is to see how many actors were deleted from the final cut (according to IMDB), including singer Etta Moten, for whom Gershwin wrote PORGY AND BESS and who — the same year as BOMBSHELL was released — became the first black celebrity to entertain at the White House (for a Democratic president, of course), and silent movie leading-man Nils Asther, whom the media dubbed “the male Greta Garbo.”
And as the perfect cinematic after-dinner mint, actor Leonard Carey plays Lola’s butler (Carey made a 30 year career out of playing butlers in the movies…did any other thespian top his dominion of the role?).
The leading man is the forgotten fast-talker performer, Lee Tracy. Atlanta-born Tracy was big box-office when movie dialog began to crackle with smart-assed wit, but soon after BOMBSHELL, while filming VIVA VILLA! in Mexico, he created an international incident by peeing from his hotel balcony onto a passing military parade.
Tracy’s act of urination really…er…pissed off Louis B. Mayer, Tracy’s boss. It killed his career until his role in both the 1960 play and consequent film version of Gore Vidal’s THE BEST MAN which garnered him both Broadway’s Tony Award and Oscar nominations.
How much of BOMBSHELL is constructed satire and how much is Hollywood letting its hair down and blowin’ off steam? It’s a question that — in addition to the appreciation of the manifest talents apparent on the screen — keeps me returning to this resplendently outrageous movie.