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134. BOMBSHELL, 1933

A hilarious, rapid-fire screwball comedy about the trappings of being a movie star

Lee Tracy, Louise Beavers, Jean Harlow, Donald Kerr in Lola's dressing room in the first screwball comedy classic movie "Bombshell"

Boiling over with snappy dialogue, crackerjack performances, sumptuous costumes and sets, this week’s treasure, “Bombshell”, delivers zany, first-class, glamor-filled fun. Cinema’s first screwball comedy, this deliciously satirical look at Hollywood blends fact and fiction so cleverly, it feels as if it's giving a behind the scenes glimpse of how studios manufactured movie stars, including the film's star, Jean Harlow. Made by MGM (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer), Hollywood’s biggest and most powerful studio at the time, directed by Hollywood veteran Victor Fleming, and starring Harlow, one of filmdom’s most luminous and intriguing actresses, this is one of Hollywood’s best films about Hollywood. Produced in the glory days when movies were magical escapist treats, “Bombshell” dazzles and delights. Whether viewed for its show-biz insights, Harlow’s sterling performance, or purely for laughs, this movie provides one bombshell of a good time.

Jean Harlow stars as Platinum blonde bombshell sexy symbol actress in the first screwball comedy classic MGM Hollywood movie "Bombshell" Lola Burns

The film opens with an exploding bomb, out of which appears Hollywood’s alluring movie goddess “Lola Burns”. A montage follows of her face gracing magazine covers, newspaper headlines, movie clips, publicity stunts, and how she's captured the hearts and imaginations of moviegoers everywhere. It's an exciting buildup that establishes “Lola” as a superstar while setting the breakneck pace of the film. The music suddenly changes to a comedic tone and we see a milkman walk past an elegant two story home, shrewdly hinting at the main dichotomy of the film – “Lola’s” movie star fame vs. her desire for a normal life.

Leonard Carey and Jean Harlow in Lola's bedroom in the first screwball comedy classic MGM Hollywood movie "Bombshell" Lola Burns

We first see “Lola” as her housekeeper "Louise" shakes and wakes her in bed as “Lola” sleepily utters, "Oh, what did you do that for? Something kind of cute was about to happen”. “Louise” responds, “I know, but it’s six o’clock”, to which “Lola” retorts, “Gee what a business. You might as well run a milk route” – giving us our first taste of the lively repartee that permeates this film. As “Lola” craves her “nice lukewarm orange juice with seeds in it”, a barrage of people enter, including her new butler “Winters” (bearing sauerkraut juice instead of orange), and hair and makeup people who tug and pull at her to get her ready for her day’s work at Monarch Studios, only to have things end up with sauerkraut juice all over. But the fun doesn’t stop there. As her day continues, a flurry of other characters central to the story systematically appear: her pilfering secretary “Miss Mac”; her drunken father “Pops”; her good-for-nothing brother “Junior”; and most importantly, Monarch’s publicity man “E.J. ‘Space’ Hanlon”, with whom she has a love-hate relationship.

Jean Harlow and Lee Tracy in the first screwball comedy classic MGM Hollywood movie "Bombshell" Lola Burns

“Lola” became a star playing what she calls “experienced” women, and much to her disdain (and behind her back), “Hanlon” does everything he can to keep her bawdy image alive. All "Lola" wants is a personal life and “nice publicity” that will let the public know she’s not the tart she plays onscreen or that’s written about in the press. "Hanlon" has other ideas, and the film becomes a riotous struggle between "Lola" getting what she wants, and "Hanlon" preventing her from getting it. To make matters even more comical, "Lola" is the type of gal who acts on a whim. As "Hanlon" says, “She’s great copy because she don’t know what she wants and she wants something different every day”. Her whimsies include having a baby, getting married, and retiring from movies, and what emerges is an original, farcical, fast-speed romp with a wink towards Hollywood.

Jean Harlow holds a baby at the orphanage in the first screwball comedy classic MGM Hollywood movie "Bombshell"

Many film historians site 1934’s Oscar-winning “It Happened One Night” as the first screwball comedy, overlooking “Bombshell”. It’s probably because screwball comedies came to be known as a battle of the sexes breed of romantic comedy, and while there’s a vague romance between “Lola” and “Hanlon” (and certainly a battle), it’s not what drives this film. Even so, “Bombshell” set the framework for screwball comedies with a plot revolving around a “screwy” woman, an obstacle filled romance, machine-gun delivered dialogue, outlandish events, sarcasm, satire, and hating the one you love. This fun-filled screwball film was so fresh, it prompted the Motion Picture Herald to call it "one of the funniest, speediest, most nonsensical pictures ever to hit a screen”.

Ruth Warren, Frank Morgan, Jean Harlow in a Photoplay interview in the first screwball comedy classic MGM Hollywood movie "Bombshell"

At the center of it all is “Lola Burns”, the movie star who has it all onscreen and a life of chaos off-screen, and Jean Harlow is sensational in the role. A master with a wisecrack, Harlow can spout a mile a minute dialogue with precise comedic timing, truthful, heartfelt emotion, and an innocence like no one else. A marvelous example is the sequence beginning as she finds “Pops” smelling of alcohol and they argue about her cars. They’re interrupted by “Miss Carroll” of Photoplay magazine who comes by for an interview, and again are interrupted when “Mac” tells “Lola” she has to leave immediately to do retakes on her last film. If you watch Harlow closely throughout all of this, you’ll see a fabulous actress guided by reactions to her fellow actors, effortlessly and swiftly shifting emotions. There’s a purity and frankness in her comedy that’s uniquely and endearingly Harlow.

Jean Harlow as Lola Burns dreams of having a baby in the first screwball comedy classic MGM Hollywood movie "Bombshell"

As much as “Lola” overly dramatizes, puts on airs, and speaks with an affected tone when trying to impress, she can’t get away from who she really is – a simple midwestern girl. Take the moment when she's frustrated about having to do retakes. While trying to be proper, she can't help herself and exclaims, “I ask you ‘Miss Carroll’, one lady to another, isn’t that a load of clams!”. It’s all played for fun, with Harlow letting us know that though “Lola” is a larger-than-life movie star, at heart, she's still one of us.

Platinum blonde bombshell, sexy symbol Jean Harlow stretches while on a horse in the desert in the first screwball comedy classic MGM Hollywood movie "Bombshell"

Hollywood glamour portrait photo of platinum blonde bombshell movie star sex symbol actress icon Jean Harlow bare shoulders with white feathers
Jean Harlow

It’s no surprise this role fit Harlow like a glove, for “Bombshell” was tailored for her. She found international fame in a scandalous role sleeping with two brothers and uttering the immortal line “Let me change into something more comfortable” in 1929’s “Hell’s Angels”. Her talent (or lack of) made her somewhat of a joke, but her sexy looks, free spirit, and striking platinum blonde hair made her popular with audiences and turned her into cinema’s first blonde sex symbol, earning her the moniker “The Platinum Blonde”. Critics trashed her, but every time she'd make personal appearances at movie theaters to promote a film, mobs came, and box-office records were often set. This didn't go unnoticed by MGM, who put her under contract in 1932. The twenty-one year old Harlow became a certified star with her first film under contract, "Red-Headed Woman”, and a superstar (along with her co-star Clark Gable) in her second, “Red Dust”, both in 1932. Both showed her comedic side and seemingly overnight she turned into a respected actress and comedienne. It was the height of the Great Depression, and the enormous success of those two films helped MGM emerge as the only studio that year to show a profit ($8M). Now a hot property, MGM re-teamed Harlow with Gable in 1933’s “Hold Your Man”, followed by a standout role in the all-star "Dinner at Eight" that same year. Both were giant hits and MGM was hungry for their next Harlow showcase.

Jean Harlow surrounded by autograph hunters and fans at the MGM gate in the first screwball comedy classic MGM Hollywood movie "Bombshell"

Hollywood glamour portrait photo of platinum blonde bombshell movie star sex symbol actress icon Jean Harlow candid photo in striped shirt

MGM owned the rights to an unproduced tragic play titled "Bombshell" by Caroline Francke and Mack Crane about an exploited movie star. “Red Dust’s” screenwriter John Mahin, director Victor Fleming, and producer Hunt Stromberg were re-teamed to develop the project for Harlow and Mahin suggested they turn it into a comedy to better suit Harlow's easygoing and newfound snappy screen persona. While brainstorming the idea, Fleming spoke about his former fiancé, silent film star sex symbol Clara Bow, known as the “It Girl”. She had a drunken father, a pilfering secretary, and two Great Danes. That was all Mahin needed to hear to start writing, and he hired co-writer Jules Furthman to assist. Not only are there very thinly veiled references to Bow in “Bombshell” (such as referring to “Lola” as the “If Girl”, giving her three large sheep dogs, a thieving secretary, and lush of a father), but there are also many aspects of Harlow’s life and career.

Jean Harlow tells off Ted Healy, Una Merkel, Frank Morgan, while Louise Beavers watches in the first screwball comedy classic MGM Hollywood movie "Bombshell"

Like “Lola”, public perception of Harlow was that she was actually like her salty screen image (which she wasn’t). And like “Lola’s” lecherous family, Harlow had a monstrously overbearing mother and greedy step-father who became her business manager. “Lola” lives with her family and Harlow often lived with her mother and stepfather. Regarding being an actress, “Lola” says “It was a life I was forced into when I was too young to know any better”, and Harlow originally had no aspirations or inkling about acting and was pushed into it by her frustrated movie-star wannabe mother. And like “Lola”, Harlow wanted to be more of a homebody than a movie star.

Mary Forbes, Franchot Tone, C Aubrey Smith, Lee Tracy, Jean Harlow, Frank Morgan, and Ted Healy star in the first screwball comedy classic MGM Hollywood movie "Bombshell"

In an interview with Mike Steen in the book “Hollywood Speaks”, actress Rosalind Russell summed up things pretty well when she said, “Jean and I became very good friends. I made three pictures with her. No one would believe that she would rather have not been a picture star. She wanted to get married and have the ‘chillens’ [children], but she had a mother and stepfather who had other ideas. They wanted her to have a career, and, of course, she was having a great glamorous one at the time. She was always a sweet person, childlike almost, but I think she was rather unhappy under it all”.

Jean Harlow and Pat O'Brien do retakes on the rain barrel scene from "Red Dust" in the first screwball comedy classic MGM Hollywood movie "Bombshell"

“Bombshell” goes pretty far in blending “Lola” with Harlow, beginning with the opening montage in which we see a clip from Harlow and Gable’s “Hold Your Man” posing as one of “Lola’s” films. And the re-takes “Lola” has to do are from “Red Dust”, the film that made Harlow a megastar, with the scene to be reshot being the film’s most famous, with Harlow nude in a rain barrel, which caused quite a stir at the time. And when “Mac” hands “Lola” the script for the new scene, she says the reshoot is because “The Hayes office censored something and the picture’s got to open Monday in New York”, referring to the Motion Picture Production Code, who was always keeping a watchful eye on Harlow.

Lee Tracy and Jean Harlow star in the first screwball comedy classic MGM Hollywood movie "Bombshell"

Merging Harlow with “Lola” was a smart move, for “Lola” spends much of the time complaining about the untrue filth written about her and how she isn’t like the women she plays on screen. Because “Lola” and Harlow are just about one and the same in the film, it could be taken as Harlow letting the public know she’s not the scarlet woman they think her to be. “Lola” even quips “Is it any disgrace entertaining people? Makin’ ‘em laugh and makin’ ‘em cry?” – a brilliant way to separate Harlow from the wonton roles she's played and make her acceptable to love.

Grace Hayle with Jean Harlow and a giant baked potato in the first screwball comedy classic MGM Hollywood movie "Bombshell"

“Bombshell” was another hit solidifying Harlow’s top movie star status, and it even earned her a new nickname as the "Blonde Bombshell" (the film is sometimes referred to as "Blonde Bombshell"). Sadly, she made just nine more films before her untimely death in 1937 at the age of 26. You can read more about the life and career of the imitable Jean Harlow, as well as more about the Motion Picture Production Code in my previous posts on “Red Dust” and “Red-Headed Woman”. Just click on the film titles to open those posts.

Jean Harlow as Lola Burns graces magazine covers including Photoplay in the first screwball comedy classic MGM Hollywood movie "Bombshell"

Keeping this farcical comedy grounded somewhat in reality, the film shows us the control studio's had over their movie stars and how they used publicity to build and maintain them. It also artfully blends many real-life Hollywood names, places, and situations into the story. There’s the mention of the Hays office, Photoplay magazine (one of the leading movie magazines of the day), a scene at the actual famous celebrity hangout the Coconut Grove nightclub (featuring the club's real-life bandleader Gus Arnheim and his orchestra), a scene outside the MGM studio gate, and the mentioning of many current movie stars, such as Clark Gable, Lewis Stone, Alice Brady, Greta Garbo, and Jackie Cooper.

Jean Harlow has a breakdown with Frank Morgan and Lee Tracy in the first screwball comedy classic MGM Hollywood movie "Bombshell"

Director Victor Fleming maintains a frenetically thrilling pace through camera work and editing, and things moves so rapidly I still discover new jokes every time I watch the film. One simple example of how quickly and effortlessly things move is how he transitions by using camera pans and a dissolve from when "Lola" exits her home through a door to do “Red Dust” retakes to "Alice Cole" entering a door in "Hanlon's" office. The way Fleming takes us from the first scene to the second adds humor and speed without being noticeable, and is emblematic of Fleming's impressive filmmaking savvy.

Pat O'Brien , Jean Harlow, and Ivan Lebedeff fight in the first screwball comedy classic MGM Hollywood movie "Bombshell"

Hollywood film director portrait of a younger Victor Fleming
Victor Fleming

California-born Victor Fleming worked as a photographer while serving in World War I before becoming a cinematographer of silent films. He began his steady directing career with 1919's "When the Clouds Roll By", and early silent hits followed such as "Lord Jim” and “Mantrap” (both starring Bow), and 1929's "The Virginian", which made a star of Gary Cooper. Like Harlow, Fleming was put under contract to MGM in 1932. "Red Dust" was his first film under contract and he directed many more top notch films of the 1930s, including "Treasure Island", "Captains Courageous", and two more with Harlow (“Bombshell" and “Reckless"). Instead of putting a distinct personal style on his films, he used his expertise with camera work and lenses to serve each story, and Fleming became a major Hollywood director known for his technical mastery. Because of his exceptional know-how, he was often asked to step in as director and save productions, including the certified classics "The Wizard of Oz" and "Gone with the Wind" (which earned him his only Best Director Academy Award). He had a knack for making characters in his films feel real, and a reputation for being he-man tough. A versatile director, he directed films in just about every genre, including "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, “Tortilla Flat”, "A Guy Named Joe", and his final, 1948's "Joan of Arc". He was married twice. Victor Fleming died in 1949 at the age of 59. I've mentioned Fleming in three previous posts, "Red Dust", "The Wizard of Oz" and "Gone with the Wind", where you can read a bit more about him.

Franchot Tone woos Jean Harlow with bad poetry in the first screwball comedy classic MGM Hollywood movie "Bombshell" I want to walk barefoot through your hair

Actress platinum blonde bombshell sex symbol Hollywood movie star Jean Harlow and husband cinematographer Harold Rosson
Jean Harlow and Harold Rosson

Another Hollywood heavyweight is “Bombshell’s” cinematographer Harold Rosson. Known for imaginative lighting, he photographed Harlow in all her previous MGM contracted films except "Dinner at Eight", and was able to showcase her sex appeal and stunning blonde locks to their utmost. This includes "Bombshell", in which Harlow glistens while donning giant hats and sizzles while playing with her messy hair in bed. Rosson and Harlow became increasingly friendly during the shoot, Harlow proposed, and they married the day after filming ended (September 1933). It's been said to have been a studio arranged wedding, with MGM pushing Harlow to marry someone to avoid a scandal from her affair with separated but still married boxer Max Baer. Rosson and Harlow separated in 1934 and divorced in 1935. He also photographed Harlow's next film, 1934's "The Girl from Missouri".

Jean Harlow wakes up in bed early for another day's work in the first screwball comedy classic MGM Hollywood movie "Bombshell"

Hollywood cinematographer director of photography MGM Harold Rosson portrait photo
Harold Rosson

New York born Harold Rosson started as an actor in silent films before working odd jobs behind the camera. He began as a cinematographer with 1915's "David Harum”, and amassed over 150 film credits in a fifty year career (largely at MGM). Along the way he earned five Best Cinematography Academy Award nominations ("The Wizard of Oz", "Boom Town", "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo", "The Asphalt Jungle", "The Bad Seed”), and was awarded an Honorary Academy Award for his color work in 1936's "The Garden of Allah" (which I briefly mention in my "A Star is Born” post). Among his countless other classics are "Singin' in the Rain", "On the Town", "Treasure Island", "The Docks of New York", "Captains Courageous”, "Duel in the Sun", and "Command Decision". He retired in 1958, returning to shoot a final film, "El Dorado" in 1966. It’s also believed he filmed the burning of Atlanta sequence in "Gone with the Wind". He was married three times (his marriage to Harlow was his second). Harold Rosson died in 1988 at the age of 93.

Lee Tracy visits the set in the first screwball comedy classic MGM Hollywood movie "Bombshell"

Lee Tracy stars as "E.J. "Space" Hanlon", the man with only one thing on his mind — publicity. "Hanlon" is watchful, fast-talking, and knows just what to say to make people do what he wants, and with a talent for playing sincere, hard-boiled heels, Tracy disappears into the role. Watch how effortless he sweet-talks "Jim", "Hugo", "Pops", and "Lola", on the “Red Dust” set without batting an eye. Then there’s his nonstop snappy banter with Harlow, such as when they argue about her publicity, and he tells her, “You’re international tonic. You’re a boon for repopulation in a world thinned out by war and famine”. Tracy’s sales pitch is so persuasive, he even makes us believe his despicable behavior is justified.

Jean Harlow and Lee Tracy in the first screwball comedy classic MGM Hollywood movie "Bombshell"

Hollywood movie star Broadway actor portrait photo of young Lee Tracy
Lee Tracy

Seeking a theater career, Atlanta-born Lee Tracy began in vaudeville and debuted on Broadway in 1924's "The Show Off". After more back to back Broadway shows, he hit it big starring as the fast talking "Hildy Johnson" in the original 1928 Broadway production of "The Front Page". Tracy began appearing in films in 1929 while sound was new to movies, and his Broadway training and talent to masterfully handle speedy dialogue helped him quickly land film roles often as agents, salesmen, and reporters. By 1932 Tracy was starring and costarring in films that include "Doctor X" and "Blessed Event”, and in 1933, he signed with MGM, and along with Harlow, was one the stars in the all-star cast of 1933's "Dinner at Eight". According to the Hollywood Reporter, when “Bombshell” came about, Tracy wanted out of the film because he felt his part was much smaller than Harlow’s.

Lee Tracy at a desert resort in the first screwball comedy classic MGM Hollywood movie "Bombshell"

Hollywood movie star Broadway actor portrait photo of young smiling Lee Tracy
Lee Tracy

It was during this time Tracy began drinking heavily and his growing bad boy reputation and temper were getting the best of him. While filming in Mexico in 1934, he either urinated on a military parade from a balcony or made an obscene gesture (there are conflicting reports), leading to a scandal and his arrest. He was fired from the film and dropped by MGM. Though he continued to work independently, Tracy's career never recovered. In 1947, he stopped making movies, returned to theater, and began appearing on television, including a starring role in the 1959 series "New York Confidential". Earning a Best Actor Tony Award nomination for his role in Broadway's "The Best Man" in 1960, he returned to the big screen one last time to reprise the role in the 1964 film version, earning his one and only Academy Award nomination (Best Supporting Actor). His other films include "The Strange Love of Molly Louvain", "Liliom", and "High Tide". He was married once, until his death. Lee Tracy died in 1968 at the age of 70.

Jean Harlow with Frank Morgan in the first screwball comedy classic MGM Hollywood movie "Bombshell"

Portrait photo of Hollywood movie star character actor Frank Morgan
Frank Morgan

“Bombshell” features many popular actors in supporting roles, several of whom I’ve already written about. First and foremost is Frank Morgan as “Pops Burns”, “Lola’s” money-hungry, often inebriated father and business manager. Morgan is always entertaining and convincing, and his work in “Bombshell” is no exception. An actor familiar to just about every classic moviegoer, he gained immortality in the title role of the eternal classic, “The Wizard of Oz”. A prolific actor who appeared in many classics, including “The Shop Around the Corner”, also featured on this blog, and you can read more about Frank Morgan in my posts on both those films. Be sure to check them out.

Jean Harlow with Franchot Tone in the first screwball comedy classic MGM Hollywood movie "Bombshell"

Portrait photo of young Hollywood leading man movie star actor Franchot Tone in sweater
Franchot Tone

Franchot Tone plays “Gifford Middleton”, a sophisticated gentleman and poet who has never heard of movie star "Lola Burns" and doesn’t like movies. He meets "Lola" when she escapes Hollywood for Desert Springs (Palm Springs), they fall in love and he woos her with bad romantic poetry such as “Your mouth is like a gardenia opening to the sun”, or the film’s most famous, “Your hair is like a field of daisies. I want to run barefoot in your hair”, all which “Lola” eats up, telling him, “Not even Norma Shearer or Helen Hayes in their nicest pictures were ever spoken to like that”. Tone began in films in 1932 (“Bombshell” was his seventh), and he quickly became a leading man. This was the first of four movies he made with Harlow (the others being "The Girl from Missouri", "Reckless", and "Suzy"). You can read more about the life and career of Franchot Tone in my post on "Mutiny on the Bounty".

Jean Harlow with Pat O'Brien in the first screwball comedy classic MGM Hollywood movie "Bombshell"

One actor I haven’t yet written about is Pat O’Brien, who plays “Jim Brogan”, the film director in love with “Lola” who shoots retakes for “Red Dust”. With his tough guy manner and soft vulnerable edge, O’Brien is perfect in the role. Though he'd only been appearing in films since 1930, "Bombshell" was already his 23rd film. He soon became a big star, often playing fast-talking, wisecracking guys, priests, and cops, sometimes as the lead, sometimes the second lead.

Pat O'Brien plays a movie director in the first screwball comedy classic MGM Hollywood movie "Bombshell"

Hollywood movie star Irishman in residence actor portrait of young Pat O'Brien
Pat O'Brien

Wisconsin-born Pat O’Brien started his career on Broadway, and began appearing in films in 1930. By 1931 he starred as "Hildy Johnson" (the role created by Tracy on Broadway) in the film version of “The Front Page”, and from then on continued working steadily in about 100 films through the 1940s. He predominantly appeared on television come the 1950s, where he earned two Daytime Emmy Awards for a 1974 episode of "The ABC Afternoon Playbreak”. He is best remembered for his roles in "Knute Rockne, All American”, "Angels with Dirty Faces”, and as “Agent Mulligan” in “Some Like It Hot”. His other films include “The Last Hurrah", "The Fighting 69th”, "The Boy with Green Hair", "The Irish in Us", "San Quentin", "The People Against O'Hara", and “Ragtime”. He worked opposite James Cagney (one of Hollywood’s biggest stars and on-screen tough guys) in nine films. Of Irish descent, O’Brien played many Irish or Irish-American characters and inherited the nickname "Hollywood's Irishman in Residence”. Starting in the late 1930s, he met regularly with several other Irish-American actors, such as Cagney, Spencer Tracy, George Brent, and Frank McHugh, who called themselves “The Boys Club” (the press called them the “Irish Mafia”). They’d talk about movies and life. He was married once for just over 50 years, until his death. Pat O’Brien died in 1983 at the age of 83.

Una Merkel is Miss Mac the secretary on the phone in the first screwball comedy classic MGM Hollywood movie "Bombshell"

Portrait photo of young movie star Hollywood character actress Una Merkel
Una Merkel

Another cast member who can hurl quips at 100 miles an hour is Una Merkel as “Miss Mac", "Lola's" conniving secretary. She wears "Lola's" clothes, has parties in "Lola's" house, steals from her, takes a cut of her money, complains, mentions she's not trusted with "Lola's" financial records, and it’s because of Merkel's sassy personality that we can believe "Lola" would ever keep her around. Merkel makes the most of her handful of scenes, painting a portrait of a complete human being with very few brush strokes. She worked with Harlow in four films, the others being "Red-Headed Woman", "Riffraff", and "Saratoga", and she and Harlow occasionally socialized offscreen. Merkel enjoyed a prolific career lasting until the late 1960s. She's appeared in two films already on this blog, "Red-Headed Woman" and "42nd Street", where you can read more about her life and career. Click the film titles to open the posts.

Louise Beavers handles three sheep dogs in the first screwball comedy classic MGM Hollywood movie "Bombshell"

Louise Beavers plays “Loretta”, “Lola’s” maid, who takes care of "Lola" and her three sheep dogs. While “Louise” is a maid who speaks in the offensive “yessum” dialect, she is more than your stereotypical Black housekeeper seen in most movies from this era. For one thing, she is a strong woman who won’t be pushed around by anyone, witnessed as she tells “Mac”, “Don’t scald me with your steam woman. I knows where the bodies’ buried”. “Loretta” also has her small share of comedy, such as in the opening, when she and “Lola” discuss her evening wrap. In these brief scenes, Beavers is not only funny, but makes “Louise” a highly sympathetic individual. “Louise” is the only sane one around, and the only person not taking advantage of “Lola”.

Louise Beavers wearing Jean Harlow's evening wrap in the first screwball comedy classic MGM Hollywood movie "Bombshell"

Portrait photo of young Black character actress Hollywood movie star Louise Beavers
Louise Beavers

With a mother who taught voice, Ohio-born Louise Beavers began singing at a young age. She and her family moved to Los Angeles when she was 11, and after high-school, decided to pursue acting. To earn money, she worked as a personal maid and assistant to silent film star Leatrice Joy while performing as part of the Los Angeles-based group the Lady Minstrels. A talent agent saw Beavers perform and urged her to try her hand in movies. Because of the stereotypically racist roles she saw Blacks play onscreen, she warily auditioned and was cast in the 1927 silent version of "Uncle Tom's Cabin”. Thus began a prolific movie career, albeit mostly in bit parts as maids, cooks, and other domestics. But Beavers did her best to make her characters dignified and human. In 1934, she was cast in a major role opposite Claudette Colbert in the 1934 classic tearjerker "Imitation of Life”. It was the first major Black role (nearly a lead) in an A list Hollywood film. Her moving performance garnered rave reviews (and upset some that she wasn't nominated for an Oscar). Also notable was her starring role as a probation officer in 1939's "Reform School". In just over 30 years, Beavers appeared in over 150 films (many classics) and a dozen TV shows. Her other films include "She Done Him Wrong", "42nd Street", "What Price Hollywood?", "Holiday Inn", "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House”, "Hold Your Man" (with Harlow), "The Jackie Robinson Story", and her final, 1960's "The Facts of Life". Her TV appearances include the title role in the final season of the 1950's sitcom "Beulah". She was married twice. Louise Beavers died in 1962 at the age of 60. In 1976, she was posthumously inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame.

Mary Forbes as the uptight Mrs. Middleton in the first screwball comedy classic MGM Hollywood movie "Bombshell"

Portrait of Hollywood character actress movie star Mary Forbes
Mary Forbes

Mary Forbes plays “Gifford’s” snooty mother, “Mrs. Middleton”. The English-born, British-American Forbes is another prolific, recognizable character actress who appeared in about 140 films (and a handful of TV shows) between 1919 and 1958, often in bit parts as uptight society women. If you're watching the films on here, you've already seen her as James Stewart's mother in "You Can't Take It With You", and as an actress in a play with Katharine Hepburn in "Stage Door". Her other classics include "A Farewell to Arms", "Cavalcade", "The Painted Veil", "Roberta", "Anna Karenina", "Captain Blood", "The Awful Truth", "Ninotchka", "The Picture of Dorian Gray”, and her final, 1958's "Houseboat". She was married three times. Mary Forbes died in 1974 at the age of 91.

C Aubrey Smith as the snobbish Mr. Middleton in the first screwball comedy classic MGM Hollywood movie "Bombshell"

British Hollywood character actor movie star portrait photo of C. Aubrey Smith
C. Aubrey Smith

A quick mention of C. Aubrey Smith, who plays "Mr. Middleton", "Gifford's blue blood father who's worried about carrying on the family name through proper breeding. Smith is yet another recognizable character actor who has appeared in over a hundred films, including many classics such as "Rebecca" and "Queen Christina", both already on this blog, and you can read more about his life and career in my post on the latter.

Franchot Tone romances Jean Harlow in the first screwball comedy classic MGM Hollywood movie "Bombshell"

Other familiar names credited on “Bombshell” my readers should recognize include Douglas Shearer, who oversaw the film’s sound recording (whom I’ve mentioned in many posts, particularly “Mrs. Miniver”), Adrian, whose designs for Harlow's ravishing gowns helps create mood and glamour (you can read about him in my post on “The Philadelphia Story”), and Margaret Booth, whose editing maintains a wonderfully frantic pace (you can read about her in my post on “Camille”).

Lee Tracy watches Jean Harlow put on a diamond bracelet in the first screwball comedy classic MGM Hollywood movie "Bombshell"

So many hands go into the making of a movie, and when by chance the perfect people end up in the perfect jobs, a movie gets made that can be watched over and over and over again. And this week’s uproarious romp is one of those joyous wonders. Enjoy the irresistibly enjoyable, “Bombshell”!

This blog is a weekly series (currently biweekly) on all types of classic films from the silent era through the 1970s. It is designed to entertain and inform movie novices and lovers through watching one recommended classic film a week. The intent is that a love and deepened knowledge of cinema will evolve, along with a familiarity of important stars, directors, writers, the studio system, and a deeper understanding of cinema. I highly recommend visiting (or revisiting) the HOME page, which explains it all and provides a place where you can subscribe and get email notifications for every new post. Visit THE MOVIES page to see a list of all films currently on this site. Please leave comments, share this blog with family, friends, and on social media, and subscribe so you don’t miss a post. Thanks so much for reading!



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