A blonde bombshell before Marilyn? You bet. Her name was Jean Harlow, and in my estimation, she appeared in more great pictures than Monroe, while spending even less time on the planet.
As if foreseeing her own short lifespan, Jean was restless and adventurous from the start. Born Harlean Carpenter to a successful dentist and his wife in 1911, she escaped her hometown of Kansas City, Missouri at age 16 by eloping with an older man. She landed in L.A, and though her marriage quickly dissolved (as would the two others that followed), she'd found a new home and a new calling: show business.
As the pictures below attest, she was a natural. Though both young and petite ( her friends affectionately called her "Baby"), she also exuded a frank, forthright sexuality. It was not all an act: she hated undergarments, and always slept in the nude. Before a scene, she'd put ice on her breasts to get just the right effect. The writer Graham Greene once quipped that she used her breasts the way men would use a gun. She knew who she was and what she had- and she used it.
Having paid her dues in a series of shorts and walk-ons, Jean got her big break in Howard Hughes's legendary aerial picture, "Hell's Angels" (1930). Within the next two years, she'd appear in two enduring classics: 1931's "The Public Enemy" and 1932's "Red Dust", starring Clark Gable. (She and Gable would become close friends and make six pictures together.) More outstanding movies followed, including "Dinner at Eight" (1933), "China Seas" (1935), and "Libeled Lady" (1936), a superb screwball comedy co-starring her then- fiancé, William Powell.
Tragically, the following year Jean became seriously ill with a kidney condition. She died of uremic poisoning at age 26.
Since her star had risen at MGM, studio head Louis B. Mayer arranged a lavish, Hollywood-style funeral. A heartbroken Bill Powell paid for an elaborate headstone, where flowers from him would be delivered regularly for years to come. And her final film, "Saratoga," would be the biggest box office hit of 1937.
Before Norma Jean, there was simply Jean. Feast your eyes on what all the fuss was about, way back when.