Hollywood's pre-code era yielded some rather raunchy masterpieces that have recently resurfaced as part of the 'golden age' canon of classic movies. Given our own current laissez faire cultural climate the concerns and constraints imposed upon the film industry then by the Hayes/Breen offices at the behest of the Catholic League of Decency seem laughable. But at the time there was a very fervent morality that wholly believed movies were capable of corrupting the masses. (They may have been on to something there!)
One of the cinema's most popular attractions then was Jean Harlow - a brassy unabashedly crass young lass (at least on screen) whose escapades inside a rain barrel in Red Dust (1932) prompted a targeted outrage. Although sympathetic to the cause of propriety, MGM's Louis B. Mayer was not about to turn Harlow out from his stable of stars. After all, she was a top money maker. And Harlow's screen image was diametric to the rather naive and fun loving girl behind the scenes.
Nevertheless, Harlow's early on screen persona was that of a loud mouthed, sexually promiscuous tease, unapologetically perverse and in search of sin where and whenever it could be found. In many ways, Victor Fleming's Bombshell (1933) seems to foreshadow the coming of the production code while still getting away with slinging its mud - its underlying 'pity the poor misunderstood trollop' narrative thread pitched low as a sort of subliminal apology for Harlow's more gregarious on camera antics.
In Bombshell Harlow is Lola Burns - a Hollywood star cut in the image of Paramount's Clara Bow - her 'It girl' status in constant danger of being capsized by sleazy press agent, E.J. Hanlon (Lee Tracy), unbearably greedy family; father (Frank Morgan), brother (Ted Healy), coarse private secretary, Mac (Una Merkel) and wayward romantic partners, Hugo (Ivan Lebedeff) and Jim Brogan (Pat O'Brien).
Lola's career is a resounding success. But her home life is a shambles. She hungers for peace, though perhaps not at any price. However, Hanlon is not about to let Lola settle down with anyone - especially since he is in love with her himself. Lola doesn't see that love, however. To her Hanlon is just another sponge among many, and, in some ways Lola's right. To pad his own interests, Hanlon has hired actors to portray Lola's latest lover, Gifford Middleton (Franchot Tone) and his uppity blue blood parents, Mrs. Middleton (Mary Forbes) and Wendell Middleton (C. Aubrey Smith). After some moonlit badinage, Lola is all set to marry Gifford. But a chance meeting between the Middletons and Lola's father and brother results in predictable disaster. The next day Lola retreats to the relative safety of the studio; Hanlon's plan all along. The two reconcile and Lola begins to fall for Hanlon - until she learns the truth about Gifford.
Bombshell is gregarious entertainment. The film is justly famous for a line of dialogue uttered passionately by Franchot Tone: "Your hair is like a field of silver daisies. I'd like to run barefoot through your hair!" But the film's loud mouth approach to comedy tends to grate on one's nerves. Everyone is shouting at everyone else all the time and this frantic mayhem threatens to drown out the carefully crafted witticisms and more biting comedy peppered throughout by screenwriters Caroline Francke, Mack Crane, John Lee Mahin, Jules Furthman and Norman Krasna.
When the actors settle down for a moment or two there's pause for the audience to catch their breath and reflect upon the ripeness of this parody. In truth, the film is a scathing jab at what life might be like for Hollywood's alumni besought by leeches at every turn and hounded by the press for the next big scoop about glamorous life. Bombshell isn't a great film, but it has great ideas inserted throughout its rather meandering plot - enough to provoke sincere thought after the footlights have come up.
Bombshell is one of the films offered by the Warner Archive as part of its 100th Anniversary dedicated to its star. Harlow died tragically of uremic poisoning at the age of twenty-four, necessitating retakes with a double on her last movie, Saratoga (1937). Those interested in owning this film really should invest in the entire Harlow Anniversary collection that features 7 films for a mere $49.99 plus taxes.
Although advertised as 'remastered' Bombshell's transfer suffers from virtually every age related pitfall known to film preservationists. For starters, the image is rather 'thick' instead of refined, characterized by a veil of heavy grain and with fine detail wanting throughout. The gray scale seems gritty and on the low end of the contrast spectrum. Age related artifacts are heavy and frequently distract. Warner has arguably done its best on a shoestring budget in bringing this film to home video. But it could stand to benefit from a costly 'ground up' digital restoration. The audio is mono as originally recorded and rather strident throughout. The only extra is a theatrical trailer for the Spanish version of the film. Not recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)