Let’s start with the similarity in the two women’s names: Norma Jeane and Jean Harlow, your basic no-brainer. As Marilyn’s career developed many people in the industry and some people in her private life compared her to Jean Harlow, also a tragic Hollywood actress who died too young. Harlow was Hollywood’s first blonde bombshell. Marilyn took this advice to heart and modeled herself after the iconic actress: Marilyn’s platinum hair echoes Harlow’s image. As a child Norma Jeane was in awe of Harlow. She watched movies in which Harlow starred and pretended to be the actress when she played. She stated when she was a child she wanted to grow up “to be just like Jean Harlow.” In fact, she almost chose the name Jean Adair as her screen name. Both women suffered from a myriad of health problems, although Harlow’s medical issues were far more serious than Marilyn’s. Marilyn’s appeal and appearance has often been compared to that of a baby, or a child. Her vulnerability and soft facial features defined this image. Harlow was also considered to be a vulnerable girl. Her nickname at home was Baby. Unlike Marilyn however Harlow was a pampered, protected Baby. Her relationship with her mother wasn’t without its peculiarities but she certainly didn’t lack for a mother or father. Marilyn’s legendary performance of Every Baby Needs a Daddy is an odd parallel to Harlow’s Baby name. In spite of the relative stability of her family life, Harlow had her own emotional demons: loneliness and depression, exactly like Marilyn. Both women were married and divorced three times, and their first marriages took place at the age of 16. Both actresses divorced their first husbands over disagreements with their acting careers. It was as though Marilyn was destined to become Harlow as she had once predicted. In fact, Harlow and Marilyn chose their screen surnames because they had been their mothers’ maiden name. Marilyn once stated “I don’t want to be rich. I want to be wonderful.” About Harlow, Clark Gable stated, “She didn’t want to be famous. She wanted to be happy.”
In one of her earliest films, Double Whoopie, Harlow played a socialite who was partially disrobed (from the bottom down) when her dress is caught in the door of a car. The result was a scene that showed her underwear and long legs, encased in silk stockings. Marilyn’s subway scene where she shows her panties, albeit briefly, echoes this funny scene. Marilyn Monroe, as Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was a coy gold-digger, out to seduce a millionaire’s son into marrying her. Harlow played two gold-digging blondes. Goldie was a film where she played a carnival performer out to get as much money from each of her suitors as she could.In Platinum Blonde, the focus of the film was unmistakable. Even the name Gentlemen Prefer Blondes alludes to Marilyn and her platinum blonde hair..
The love of Harlow’s life, Paul Bern, seemed more attracted to this blonde bombshell for her intellectual ability and personality than for her beauty. He became her knight in shining armour and a father figure to her. it was Arthur Miller who appreciated Marilyn’s intellectual strengths and her ability to play dramatic roles.It is undeniable that his appeal as a father figure was another lure for Marilyn. The sad suicide in Harlow’s life however was not her own, but that of her husband Bern. He was impotent and after two months of an unconsummated marriage, he committed suicide. Years later Harlow married another man older than her: MGM’s head cameraman Harold Rossen. Sixteen years her senior, Rossen was yet another father figure in Harlow’s life. As for her part, Marilyn never married men younger than her. DiMaggio had thirteen years on her, and Miller, eleven. Harlow parodied herself in a movie called Blonde Bombshell, quite like the brief metadrama about Marilyn in Seven Year itch when her name is mentioned by Tom Ewell, “what if the girl upstairs is Marilyn Monroe?”
As her career continued, Bern spoke to Louis B. Mayer about buying out Harlow’s contract with Hughes and signing her to MGM. MGM’s leading ladies were seen as elegant, while Harlow possessed a “floozy” screen image. Bern urged the production head of MGM, to sign Harlow, noting her popularity. After initial reluctance, Thalberg agreed and, on March 3, 1932, Harlow’s twenty-first birthday, Harlow joined the studio on April 20, 1932. Marilyn too had a powerful fan in the form of Johnny Hyde, who managed to secure her the pivotal role of a mistress in the movie Asphalt Jungle. It was to be a turning point in Marilyn’s career and also helped to get her two more subsequent roles.
At this point MGM began trying to distinguish Harlow’s public persona from that of her screen characters, changing her childhood surname from common “Carpenter” to chic “Carpentier”, claiming that writer Edgar Allen Poe was one of her ancestors and publishing photographs of Harlow doing charity work to change her image from that of a tramp to an all-American girl. This transformation proved difficult: once Harlow was heard muttering, “My God, must I always wear a low-cut dress to be important?” How many times had Marilyn felt the same way? Certainly her famous line “I’m so sick of being treated like a thing!” suggests the same sentiment. Marilyn’s professional image however was an opposite struggle. Where Harlow’s studio worked hard to alter her image into a superior lady, Fox intended to keep Marilyn as a “dumb blonde” and a sex goddess, believing that was her greatest value. Marilyn had to form her own production company, Marilyn Monroe Productions Inc in order to make Bus Stop, one of the crowning, dramatic achievements of her career.
During the making of Red Dust, Bern was found shot dead at their home, creating a lasting scandal. Initially there was speculation that Harlow had killed Bern, but Bern’s death was officially ruled a suicide, as it should have been, especially as evidenced by his suicide note. It hardly takes a brain scientist to note the eerie coincidence in Marilyn’s death. She was found dead and ruled a probable suicide, yet, despite the lack of a suicide note, for decades the speculation of her murder continues, as does the striking similarities between the two platinum blonde female sex symbols of the 20th Century.