The Bombshell

Much like Marilyn Monroe in the 1950s, Jean Harlow occupied a brief period in Hollywood history, but her star shone long after her untimely death.

Oct. 28, 1933 cover by Rea Irvin.

Adam Victor’s The Marilyn Encyclopedia draws all sorts of weird parallels between the actresses: both raised by strict Christian Scientists, both married three times, both left school at sixteen to marry their first husbands, both acted opposite Clark Gable in the last film each ever made. Most importantly, Monroe idolized Harlow, so it was no coincidence that she sported her own version of “platinum blonde” hair.

ART IMITATES LIFE…In 1958 Marilyn Monroe posed as Jean Harlow for photographer Richard Avedon in a Life magazine feature. (Flickr)

The term “Bombshell” was affixed to the 22-year-old Harlow after the 1933 film’s release, and was later used to describe Monroe and other sex symbols of the 1950s and early 60s.

Harlow’s character in Bombshell, Lola Burns, satirized the stardom years of the silent era sex symbol Clara Bow, who was director Victor Fleming’s fiancée in 1926. Although critical reviews were mostly positive, New Yorker critic John Mosher found the film “mossy with verbiage.”

TAKE A BOW, CLARA…Bombshell satirized the stardom years of silent era sex symbol Clara Bow, who was director Victor Fleming’s fiancée in 1926 (photo at left is of the couple on the set of 1926’s Mantrap); in Bombshell Jean Harlow portrayed a sex symbol who, like Bow, wanted to live a normal life. In real life, Bow made her last film in 1933 and retired to a ranch at age 28.
A STAR IS BORED…In Bombshell, movie star Lola Burns (Jean Harlow) dislikes her sexy vamp image and wants to live a normal life, but her studio publicist E. J. “Space” Hanlon (Lee Tracy) insists on feeding the press endless provocative stories about her. Clockwise, from top left: Lee Tracy and Louise Beavers in a scene with Harlow; Harlow and Una Merkel, who portrayed Lola’s assistant, Mac; Harlow in a scene with Mary Forbes, C. Aubrey Smith, and Franchot Tone; Harlow in a scene with Ruth Warren and Frank Morgan—the latter portrayed Lola’s pretentious, drunken father. (IMDB)

Harlow would die at age 26 on June 7, 1937. Her heavy drinking didn’t help, but neither did the misdiagnosis she received as her kidneys were rapidly failing. While filming Saratoga with Clark Gable, Harlow was stricken with what she believed was the flu, and her persistent stomach pain was misdiagnosed as a swollen gallbladder. Just two days before her death another doctor finally diagnosed her kidney disease, but in 1937 nothing could be done—kidney dialysis would not be available for another decade, and transplants would not be an option until the mid-1950s.

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Second City Sanctimony

The New Yorker rarely missed an opportunity to take a dig at the square-toed ways of the Second City and its flagship newspaper, the Tribune. In his “Notes and Comment,” E.B. White (who enjoyed gin martinis) found the newspaper’s sanctimonious stance tedious:

The 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, aka “A Century of Progress,” received scant attention from The New Yorker, unless it provided opportunities for parody. Musicologist Sigmund Spaeth (1885-1965), well-known in the 1930s and 40s for his NBC radio programs, offered this take on the Windy City’s exposition:

WONDERS NEVER CEASE…In addition to its more high-minded attractions, the Chicago World’s Fair also featured such sideshow attractions as Ripley’s Odditorium, which featured “The Fireproof Man” among other novelties. (

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Big, Bad Earworm

It seems quaint that nearly 90 years ago one of the most popular songs in America was “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” To Frank Sullivan, there was no escaping “that lilting tune”…

SIMPLER TIMES…”Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” was a huge hit during the second half of 1933. One of the most well-known Disney songs, it was covered by numerous artists and musical groups.

Sullivan concluded that a trip to Vladivostok might be the only way to escape the catchy melody…

Briefly jumping to the Nov. 4 issue, “The Talk of Town” took a closer look at the song and the 1933 Disney Silly Symphonies cartoon in which it was featured—Three Little Pigs. Written by Frank Churchill and Ann Ronell, the song launched a market for future Disney tunes, with Irving Berlin securing the sheet music rights over Mickey Mouse and the Silly Symphonies. 

WE’RE IN THE MONEY…The 1933 Disney Silly Symphonies cartoon Three Little Pigs helped to launch the Disney juggernaut nearly 90 years ago.

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Le Corbusier, aka Charles-Édouard Jeanneret (1887–1965), was known as a pioneer of modern architecture and design in the early and mid-20th century, but as this review by Lewis Mumford suggested, he was also a talented modernist painter.

WAYS OF SEEING…Le Corbusier’s early paintings followed the ideas of something he called “purism”—at left is an example from 1920, Still Life. Later on his work become more abstract, including Menace, at right, from 1938. The horse head in the painting seems to reference Pablo Picasso’s 1937 painting, Guernica. (Wikipedia/Art Basel)

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Dear Papa

Following the high praise Ernest Hemingway received in 1926 for The Sun Also Rises, Dorothy Parker feared for the novelist’s next book: “You know how it is—as soon as they all start acclaiming a writer, that writer is just about to slip downward.” Seven years later Parker’s colleague Clifton Fadiman detected some slippage, finding Hemingway’s latest output a bit stale. Rather than pen a negative review, Fadiman shared his concerns by way of an open letter:

PHONING IT IN…Clifton Fadiman (right) found Ernest Hemingway’s Winner Take Nothing to be “stuck fast in yesterday.” (AP/Wikipedia/Pinterest)

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From Our Advertisers

Until the 1920s all car bodies were framed in wood, preferably ash, but by the end of the 1930s all-steel car bodies became the standard…Packard made the switch beginning around 1938…

…ah, the good old days when you could smoke in the “rarefied atmosphere” of an airplane, the pilot so close by you could tap him on the shoulder…

…Brooklyn’s Hittleman-Goldenrod Brewery opened in late 1933 promising beer in the finest English tradition…sadly, it closed in 1937…

…the Waldorf-Astoria announced the re-opening of its Empire Room with entertainment by Xavier Cugat and his tango orchestra, featuring the dancer Margo…this was just the sort of “juvenile” entertainment Lois Long detested (see my previous post)…

…according to this ad, “His Lordship” drank a pot of decaf Sanka at midnight “and never winked an eye all night”…it doesn’t mention that he probably also wet the bed…

…on to our cartoons, we begin with Peter Arno and the woes of the monied classes…

…on to Helen Hokinson, and the charms of the precocious…

Gardner Rea gave us a toff absorbed in historical fiction…

Alain (aka Daniel Brustlein) offered up a flautist who found beauty in his routine life…

…and we close with Perry Barlow, and motherhood among the smart set…

Next Time: Radio City…


Published by

David O

I read and write about history from the perspective that history is not some artifact from the past but a living, breathing condition we inhabit every moment of our lives, or as William Faulkner once observed, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." I read original source materials, such as every issue of The New Yorker, not only as a way to understand a time from a particular perspective, but to also use the source as an aggregator of various historic events. I welcome comments, criticisms, corrections and insights as I stumble along through the century.

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