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Bombshell

1933. MGM. Directed by Victor Fleming, written by John Lee Mahin and Jules Furthman. With Jean Harlow, Lee Tracy, Pat O'Brien, Frank Morgan, Franchot Tone


Bombshell is based on a play, and it must have been a flatter affair on the New York stage. You can imagine it—a patronizing send-up of the wacky movie business a la Once in a Lifetime. On screen, however, embodying the very things it mocks, presenting real places and at least semi-real characters, it's an insider's look at Hollywood. Generously, irresistably, it includes the audience among the "insiders."

Instead of some stage actress pretending to be the daffy star Lola Burns, we've got the real thing. Jean Harlow's radiant closeups and the expert way she performs her "business" show us more convincingly than any amount of scripted exposition that we're dealing with a superstar here. The movie cleverly (and Harlow good-naturedly) makes use of well- known details about Harlow herself. The opening montage intersperses shots from actual Harlow films with shots from made-up movies. Many of the publicity stills of Bombshell's Lola comes from earlier periods of Harlow's own career.

At one point, Lola is called back to the studio (here called Monarch Films) for retakes on Red Dust, an actual Harlow-Gable scorcher of the previous year. As movie fans knew well, the Hays Office had demanded changes to the scene where Jean sits naked in a rain barrel and teases Clark Gable. In Bombshell, Lola strides onto the actual Red Dust set, greets the crew with a hearty "Welcome to Indo-China again!" and asks "Hey, where's Clark?" (Told that he's on another stage and will do his closeups at a later time, she shrugs.)

This scene comes early in the movie, and it flatters the viewer. It assumes that we've seen Red Dust, understand who "Clark" is, remember the fuss over this scene, and can handle the revelation that the Indo-China of Red Dust is in fact a verandah set decorated with potted rubber plants where there's a camera crew just feet away. Magicians don't show how their tricks work, and yet Hollywood has never hesitated to take us behind the scenes; letting viewers in on "how it's done" seem only to enhance the illusion.

It's a tenet of The Front Page and other "newspaper" pictures that the public are gullible morons, but Bombshell treats movie audiences as co-conspirators. When Lola's press agent gets her to put on phony airs for a writer from a fan magazine ("a story about your own home...walkin' in your garden... and readin' books... and givin' advice to young girls...") we feel in on the joke; but when you think about it, it's moviegoers like us who buy such magazines and eat up such stories. We're invited to spoof ourselves just as Harlow does herself.

The press agent, E. J. "Space" Hanlon, is the magus of Lola's world. He "spins" 24 hours a day. Lee Tracy, who'd had a great success on Broadway in The Front Page, plays this character with great verve and amazing diction. Space is as glib, frenetic, resourceful and unprincipled as the John Barrymore character in Twentieth Century, and as hammy a performer.Space is not only an actor, he's a script-writer, coming up with fantastic intrigues and promotional stunts on the spur of the moment. And he's also a director, able to mobilize armies of reporters, headwaiters, agents of the Immigration Service, stock-company actors, and especially Lola herself, to bring his plots to life. There's a character in Bombshell called Jim Brogan, who directs some of Lola's movies. He seems to have been introduced simply to create a template for Space, who in a sense has "directed" this whole movie. Many episodes in Bombshell turn out to be "gags" not just on Lola but on us as well.

I don't want to give the plot twists away, but after you've watched the movie through, go back to the love scene between Lola and Gifford Middleton, the Boston aristocrat she meets in Palm Springs after she's quit Hollywood in disgust. Although Gifford is square and completely un-Hollywood, their love scene looks curiously staged--—romantically lit, mountains in the background, music swelling on the sound track—just like a scene from one of Lola's movies. The impression is strengthened when we see that they have a spectator-— Space Hanlon, who has followed Lola and now sits in the shadows, watching appraisingly. A manifestation of Lola's self-consciousness, perhaps (she's always posing, arranging herself, playing little scenes), or maybe of an even deeper self-consciousness, as eventually proves to be the case.

This movie is good-natured and often really funny. In many ways, it's as good as His Girl Friday, made several years later. And His Girl Friday doesn't have a scene at the Coconut Grove.

(1/12/95)

 

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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein