Friday, June 27, 2014

Jean Harlow is Reckless 1935 Joan Crawford is Dancing

Young and Reckless in 1935

Publicity shot for Reckless, Harlow and Powell
Photo taken
to promote Reckless*
Reckless MGM's 1935 musical melodrama is the story of a Broadway singer and dancer Mona Leslie (Jean Harlow). She and a rich playboy, Rob Harrison Jr. (Franchot Tone) marry impulsively.

This is upsetting to his stuffy father. Turns out that Rob was engaged to Josephine 'Jo' Mercer (Rosalind Russell). 

It also upsets to Mona's manager, Ned Riley (William Powell). Though he'd told Harrison that he didn't have feelings for Mona, he realized that he does when she and Harrison become serious about one another. 

He tries proposing to Mona, but she's so exhausted from her late-night date with Rob, she falls asleep before he can finish asking her. Then he decides that it's too late. The movie takes a complicated turn when the emotionally distressed playboy kills himself, and Mona gives birth to his baby after his death.

Must-See Moments:

Just about anything with Granny, May Robson is a favorite of mine. We don't see Rosalind Russell as Jo Mercer until about half-way into the movie but she's worth waiting for. Jo and Mona become friends. 

She refuses to become a victim. Russell is just lovely and with Adrian providing the costumes, Jo Mercer is a beautiful bride in a spectacular satin wedding gown. Too bad that it's one of the lesser known Rosalind Russell movies.

Rosalind Russell before Mame
There's a scene at the racetrack where Mona and Rob's fancy friends meet Ned's friends and their interaction is funny. 

Before Mona goes on stage to resurrect her career, Granny crosses her and the fingers of Mona's little baby for good luck. 

Cross Your Fingers

Toward the end, Mona is giving a show to earn money to raise her son. Ned has put up all the money he has to finance the show. She's being heckled by the crowd. The scene is well played. Mona valiantly tries to get through her song before letting them have it. Watch an entire audience get told off by Jean Harlow.

"How dare you! .... If this is the last song I'm ever to sing for you please have the decency to let me finish." 

Bill Powell's character, Ned Riley watches from the sidelines with a tear in his eye. (Okay, to be fair, just about all the good guys, and gals, have a tear in their eyes during this scene.)

"Wish me good luck"
"Give 'em both barrels"

As she sings her encore, Powell is right offstage, whispering another marriage
Reckless Movie Poster Insert
14 x 36 Inches - 36cm x 92cm
proposal. "You usually fall asleep when I propose to you." This time she hears him and reaches back to take his hand. 

Powell and Harlow

Coincidentally the story Powell gave newspapers was that Jean Harlow had fallen asleep in the car on their first date. She'd said it was a compliment to him and that she just liked to sleep. 

There is a poignancy to this movie for fans who assumed that in real life the couple would, if not get married, probably spend their lives together. This didn't happen because of Harlow's tragic death.

When Harlow was dating Powell, she went from wearing a diamond on her engagement finger, to a huge 152-carat sapphire ring. 

People suggested both were engagement rings and friends said they were engaged when she died.

In Reckless, Powell proposes to her twice. In Libeled Lady they pretended to be married. The perfect double feature is Reckless with Libeled Lady, particularly if you haven't seen either. Libeled Lady is fantastic.

Harlow's performance:
Reckless magazine photo, 3 stars
"Trouble brews between
Bill Powell and
Franchot Tone..."
Even though this movie may be a bit soapy for some, it's one of Jean Harlow's more serious performances and for that it is noteworthy. She's a 'good girl' who got swept up in the bad publicity surrounding the death of her on-screen husband. 

She asks her new father-in-law, "What do you know about my reputation?" When he assumes the worst based solely on her job, her appearance and how quickly she and his son were married.

Watch how good Powell is with the young actors, Mickey Rooney and Allen Hoskins aka Farina both around 13 at that time. Reviewers mentioned this, too. Powell's own son was about nine years old. "Always keep up a good front," he tells Rooney's character, Eddie.

Reckless can be streamed or it's available in some DVD sets, you may find it in a library. The movie is also shown with some regularity on various movie channels. 

The film trailer talked about Harlow and Powell, the two most talked about stars in Hollywood. Powell was shown inside a heart.

Before Filming Began, The Backstory:
Harlow gets Billed, Crawford gets Toned

In 1933 a young Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, May Robson, Franchot Tone, Ted Healey, The Three Stooges and many others made Dancing Lady. Joan Crawford was a big MGM star and an experienced dancer. It was released late October 1933. Her first film of 1934 ended up being Sadie McKee with Franchot Tone and Gene Raymond. This wasn't the plan, though.

Dancing Lady movie poster 1933
Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Franchot Tone
22 x 28 Inches - 56cm x 72cm
Filming of Reckless took place November 1934-February 1935. Franchot Tone, William Powell, Rosalind Russell and the popular Joan Crawford were set to play the four lovers in this movie.

In what all the papers had called a secret wedding, Crawford and Tone had been married just that past October. Word is that Tone had given Crawford a big sapphire engagement ring.

Powell was known for playing Philo Vance. He and Myrna Loy would soon release The Thin Man. It would be the first in a franchise of very successful films.

Basis of the story:

The movie was thought to be based on actress and torch singer Libby Holman who dated both men and women, including a young Montgomery Clift. She lived what was called the reckless lifestyle. In 1932 there was a highly publicized story about the death of her husband, tobacco heir Zachary Smith Reynolds II. People asked, was it a suicide or murder? You can still read a Libby Holman biography and decide for yourself.

Ned proposes to Mona while she's singing
this time she's awake
The public was fascinated with the Holman/Reynolds story and the court case. Films such as Brief Moment starring Carole Lombard and Gene Raymond and Sing, Sinner Sing starring Leila Hyams and Paul Lukas were both from 1933. 

Written on the Wind from 1957 with Rock Hudson and Lauren Bacall was also said to have been based on or inspired by the Holman/Reynolds case. It shows, then and now a juicy Hollywood scandal may be bad for those involved but can be good for those who try to cash in on it. Suicide stories were packed with drama, even fictionalized.

It's said that ten writers and screenwriters had their hands in this movie, not all credited. Screenplay is from a story by Oliver Jeffries, a pseudonym for David Selznick who was also producer.

Victor Fleming, the director had been wanting to make a musical. He supposedly said that he wouldn't have planned one for Jean Harlow. If you're looking for a musical, this isn't one of the greats on that score. But it's great looking and fun.

Two weeks before the premiere of Reckless, MGM publicity chief Howard Strickling wrote Howard Dietz, his New York counterpart and a friend of Holman's, assuring him there was "nothing ever done here to connect the Holman case with Reckless and will be doubly careful in the future." Numerous books have been written about Libby Holman, about Reynolds and his death. 

Strickling was one of the ones who came out in the mid-1960s to speak against some of the biographies and films that were being made about Jean Harlow. In the movie, Hollywoodland, Joe Spano plays Howard Strickling. Ben Affleck stars in this 2006 film, playing actor George Reeves who starred in The Adventures of Superman. Adrien Brody is a fictional character, a private detective hired to look into the actor's apparent suicide. 

In 1985 Time Magazine reported that Madonna was in talks to star in a movie about Libby Holman. The director would be movie directed by Herbert Ross, known for Goodbye Mr. Chips and Funny Girl.

clipping of Reckless review, similarity to Smith-Reynolds case
Reckless review sees similarity to Smith-Reynolds case
excerpt from 1935 St. Petersburg Times

A short time before filming began, the press was buzzing with stories of a blossoming romance between Jean Harlow and William Powell. Harlow had recently separated from her third husband. Powell had divorced second wife, actress Carole Lombard, the year before.

The studio decided to use this to their advantage and switched leading ladies from Crawford to Harlow. Was the studio also hoping to cash in on the interest in the death of Harlow's second husband, Paul Bern? He had been found dead with a gunshot wound to the head also in 1932. His death was mysterious, its circumstances still debated to this day.


Harlow wanted to do a picture with Powell but she was no singer and dancer.
Jean Harlow and William Powell in Reckless
Harlow has found the one
who has her "all atwitter"
She didn't want to do a storyline that mirrored the situation with Paul Bern. She had been cast in the role and in those days, people were under strict contracts. The studio told actors what pictures to make. 

You were suspended (without pay) from working if you declined to make a movie. There were other consequences.

William Powell suggested that she go ahead. Declining to make the movie and getting suspended would be worse for her career than stepping up and playing the part. It would
look bad for her personally.

Some of the audience interest in this movie has always been the story behind the film. Like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor working on Cleopatra, Powell and Harlow were new lovers while making Reckless. Reporters soon began calling Powell her constant companion and asking when they would marry.

Powell would work with Joan Crawford in 1937 when they made The Last of Mrs. Cheyney. Franchot Tone made four films with his wife, Joan Crawford.

As with any other movie, we can take almost anything we hear about things that happened off-screen or behind the scenes with a grain if not a whole shaker of salt. And really the behind the scenes things don't matter as much as what we see on the screen. 

I heard a chat not long ago about film as being a business rather than an art form. The movie is a product, something different from the way painting is a piece of art. I'll give credit to Turner Classic Movies (TCM) since there's a good chance I heard this conversation there.

Leo the MGM Lion is proud of his new hit!
He's roaring louder than ever about its songs,
beauty thrills romance and
Powell and Harlow ... the two most talked about stars!
Powell and Harlow the two most talked about stars

Who's that I hear?

Betty Halsey was Jean Harlow's dancing double. Virginia Verill is said to have dubbed some if not all of Harlow's songs here and in the Cary Grant movie, Suzy. Margaret Booth was the editor on Reckless and getting all of this as good as it was in the early thirties is laudable. 

This is a good place to mention that copies of Reckless that I've seen are not spectacular. I've seen it shown on TV and seen it streamed. I don't know if the film hasn't been restored or if we're just spoiled by the high quality of most of the movies we get to see from sources such as Turner Classic Movies. It isn't bad, but .... you may notice that the film is from 1935. I would give it a B grade. (Full disclosure: I later received a refund for the streamed viewing of Reckless due to quality of video and transmission issues. This was not expected or requested.)

May Robson gives Powell a swat on his backside
Great Cast:

The film has an incredible cast. Its love triangle was Franchot Tone, Jean Harlow and William Powell. Also in the film, Rosalind Russell, May Robson and Allan Jones. Russell's first film had been Evelyn Prentice, with Myrna Loy and William Powell just the year before. In 1936 Irene Hervey married Allan Jones. They're the parents of singer Jack Jones.

Carl Randall danced with Flo Ziegfeld's Follies in the late 1920s. The papers said he was being brought from Broadway to dance with Jean Harlow. 

Ted Healy had appeared the year before with Harlow in Bombshell. In 1923, as a vaudevillian he started the act Ted Healy & His Stooges. The Stooges were Moe Howard and his brother, Shemp Howard. The brothers went on to form their own group, The Three Stooges.

Nat Pendleton was in the 1933 Frank Capra film, Lady for a Day which starred May Robson as Apple Annie. Libby Taylor is maid at Granny and Mona's house. Taylor is said to have been discovered by Mae West.

Mickey Rooney and Allen Hoskins aka Farina (from Hal Roach's Our Gang aka The Little Rascals) who were in their early teens have small roles. Apparently back in the day of Our Gang, Farina could be portrayed as a girl or a boy, the name was chosen to be gender-neutral. 

At the beginning of the film, Hoskins is credited as Farina and they say "Used to be a her."  He was the first African American child actor, the first in the Our Gang series. The character of Buckwheat, played by Billie Thomas (remember too the SNL skits with Eddie Murphy?) came after Farina.

Similar situation with child actors Norman "Chubby" Chaney and Joe Cobb. The makers of the series also wanted a heavyset actor. When one Little Rascal outgrew the role, he had to be replaced. Contests were held to win the roles.

In 1936 Powell and Harlow teamed up again, this time with Myrna Loy and Spencer Tracy in Libeled Lady 

Nina Mae McKinney is a chorus girl. In the beginning of the film she's credited and they say, "Remember Hallelujah?" In 1929, Hallelujah was one of the first films by MGM, a major studio to have a cast of all African Americans actors.

As it's a film from the early 1930s, there are a few references and stereotypes that may not be pleasant to contemporary audiences. Included in the cast are three notable African American actors of the day. Libby Taylor is Granny and Mona's maid, Miss McKinney is a chorine/showgirl and young Mr. Hoskins plays a jockey. As Irving Thalberg is reported to have said, "movies are a good record of how we once lived."

You can play "Spot Margaret Dumont" while watching Reckless. If you see her before anyone else in the room, a duck will fall from the ceiling, you'll get 30 points -- and two hard boiled eggs.

Those who like sports, especially horse racing and wrestling will enjoy this one. Powell plays a sports promoter. We see great old wrestler Man-Mountain Dean, of course appearing in the wrestling ring. If you're familiar with old wrestlers' names, you'll know him. He was, uncredited, in some other movies like Mighty Joe Young

There's a short video of a wrestling match between Dean and Jumping Joe Savoldi from the 1940s at the end of this article.

The story is about acceptance and overcoming adversity. It's about picking up the pieces and moving forward. There's a lot to read into this movie if you want to do so. If you're a fan of Powell and Harlow it's great to see the two of them together at the beginning of their relationship. 

The reviews that I found were all across the board. There are high and low points, some depends on your taste. See it if you're a fan of Rosalind Russell, May Robson or the designer, Adrian. This movie gets overlooked but it ought to be included and enjoyed by fans.

"Who is That Way about Which?"
Cute little feature from 1936. Even though we see Harlow & Gable on screen,
in real life now Gable likes Lombard and
Harlow likes her ex-husband, Powell...
James Stewart remembers Jean Harlow:

When they made Reckless both Powell and Harlow were big stars. There is a funny quote from James Stewart about acting with Jean Harlow. The quote has been in different books and magazines and I think he's talking about one of her last and best films, Wife vs. Secretary with Clark Gable, Myrna Loy and May Robson.

"She really kissed. Some actresses fake it. Not Jean. I did quite a love scene with her -- long before it became the thing to do on screen. I remember it to this day - we did it six times. And that dress. Yes she was braless and she didn't seem to wear anything under the dress. Well I forgot my lines. That's what I did." 
 -- A wonderful life the films and career of James Stewart by Tony Thomas

Harlow was and is far from the only actress to do this. Tallulah Bankhead was also well known for going without underwear.  Apparently in 2002, actress Glenn Close received a trunk load of lingerie from Armani after she said that she'd attended the label’s Moscow store opening underwear-free.

Ned's First Proposal to Mona: 

"You know how I'd do it, if I was going to do it. I'd cut out all that business about love and can't live without you. Any girl with any sense would know all that anyway. I'd simply say, 'How 'bout it, kid?' Well, how 'bout it, kid? Mona, how 'bout it?" (By now she's fallen asleep and doesn't hear him.)

* Posters, the William Powell, Jean Harlow Reckless promo photo at top of page and some other photos of the stars are available on Amazon.

Popular Books about the subjects:

Libby Holman: Body and Soul by Hamilton Darby Perry

Rosalind Russell Life is a Banquet. There's also a very interesting Life is a Banquet documentary narrated by Kathleen Turner.

 Kid Carolina: R. J. Reynolds Jr., a Tobacco Fortune, and the Mysterious Death of a Southern Icon by Heidi Schnakenberg
This is available on Kindle 

Dreams That Money Can Buy: The Tragic Life of Libby Holman by Jon Bradshaw 

Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood by Donald Bogle

Encyclopedia of African American Actresses in Film and Television by Bob McCann 

And since there are horses in the film...
Sgt. Reckless: America's War Horse and also:

They Called Her Reckless ... "In skirmishes and firefights, and ultimately in the savage Battle for Outpost Vegas, Reckless showed her bravery and resilience. In that last bloody fight, surpassing all expectations, she hauled ammunition for three days and nights wherever it was needed. For wounds sustained, she was awarded two Purple Hearts. .... She was promoted to sergeant by the commander of the First Marine Division."

 Find books on Harlow, Powell and Lombard listed on pages linked below....

One of Libby Holman's hit songs was Am I Blue?  

Related Pages of Interest:

Sapphire & Emerald Engagement Rings, Princesses Diana and Catherine; Joan Crawford and Elizabeth Taylor, Halle Berry and Penélope Cruz ....

William Powell, Jean Harlow and a diamond ring (Part of a series on Harlow, Powell and Carole Lombard)

The Death of Jean Harlow: Goodnight, my Dearest Darling   

Hume Cronyn: One Life, a Boatload of Characters; Tallulah Bankhead and a situation that arose on the set of Hitchcock's Lifeboat

Jean Harlow was a living doll

Image of Jean Harlow from Reckless
Jean Harlow as Mona Leslie
being questioned by the press

This discontinued doll is from 1993 and apparently kicked off the Barbie Hollywood Legends Collection. She's got platinum hair, said to have all the glamour of a 1930s film star. Jean Harlow sure looked like a living doll in the movie, Reckless.

Tonner gives Joan Crawford some equal time. Robert Tonner Woman of Passion in a chiffon and lace gown with faux leather shoes.  Great 1940s hairstyle, victory rolls.

Especially for the movie memorabilia or Barbie collector, the Barbie Hollywood Premiere Movie Star Collection complements this doll. She looks like Marilyn Monroe and comes in different Marilyn Monroe costumes.

The 1994 introductions to the Hollywood Legends collection were Barbie as Scarlett O’Hara from Gone With the Wind in the Green Drapery and Red dresses. Perfect for this 75th anniversary of Gone With the Wind. 1995 saw more Scarlett O'Hara dolls and the addition of  Barbie Doll as Maria in The Sound of Music and Barbie as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, a film also having its 75th anniversary in 2014.

Looking for Barbie and Ken? Mattel created different Rhett Butler dolls. One is Ken as Rhett Butler, and one is sculpted to look more like Clark Gable as Rhett Butler. There are three dolls in all, in different costumes fashioned after the movie. These are discontinued and only available on the aftermarket.

Mattel makes other dolls, like their Grace Kelly series, sculpted in the likeness of the stars, themselves, fashioning the clothes in great detail just like what both the characters and the actors wore in real life. In Grace Kelly's case, the costumes are modeled after those designed by Edith Head.

Among the many popular new Barbie dolls are the Mad Men dolls, Roger Sterling, Joan Holloway, Don Draper and Betty Draper.

This article is part of the MGM Blogathon: MGM Celebrating 90 Years of Entertainment Read all of the entries!

William Powell shakes hands with Mountain Man Dean in Reckless

Jumping Joe Savoldi played football for Notre Dame and wrestled.
Here he's wrestling  a bearded Mountain Man Dean in the 1940s. Old professional wrestling match.

Sources not cited above

Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master by Michael Sragow
The American Film Institute


  1. This is certainly one of Harlow's overlooked roles. A lot of critics seem to see it as a flop, but I think that has more to do with the film being a mish-mash of so many genres and the fact that the plot is a little... thin... rather than her actual performance.
    Adrian's gowns in this are simply spectacular!

    1. Thanks for your comment. You make a good point, it can come across as a kind of mish-mash partly because of all that happened with re-casting and, probably assuaging some sides and maybe slightly taking advantage of others. You end up with a film to celebrate for what it has to offer, the great cast, the moment in history, the performances shine above the work as a whole as you said, then there is how it looks. :)

  2. Can't believe I haven't seen this film! I'm dying to see it now, after reading your fab review. Thanks for introducing me to another Jean Harlow gem. :)


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