Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Bombshell (1933)

Bombshell (later retitled Blonde Bombshell) is a 1933 MGM pre-code comedy with Jean Harlow playing a Hollywood star who is a bit like - Jean Harlow. With some hints of other famous (and notorious) female movie stars including fairly obviously Clara Bow. In fact there’s a great deal of Clara Bow in the character played by Harlow. It’s not exactly an exposé of Hollywood sex and sin. It’s more a glorious lighthearted celebration of Hollywood decadence but with plenty of satirical swipes at the hypocrisy, phoneyness and insanity of Tinsel Town.

Harlow plays Lola Burns, currently the biggest star in Hollywood. To say that Lola’s life is crazy would be putting it mildly. Some the craziness is caused by her family - her boozy bombastic father (played by Frank Morgan) and her worthless alcoholic brother Junior (Ted Healy). Some is caused by her constant succession of boyfriends. Her latest paramour is an Italian nobleman, the Marquis Hugo di Binelli di Pisa (Ivan Lebedeff). Hugo is really just a jumped-up penniless gigolo but Lola has fallen for the phoney nobleman schtick. Some of the craziness is engineered by Lola’s publicist E.J. ‘Space’ Hanlon (Lee Tracy). And a lot of the craziness stems from Lola’s bewildering series of enthusiasms.

Lola didn’t get to the top in Hollywood by being an intellectual genius. She’s the archetypal ditzy blonde. But she’s sweet and she’s adorable.

Her current director Jim Brogan (Pat O’Brien) is in love with her and wants to marry her. Space Hanlon is in love with her and wants to marry her. Naturally each of them tries to sabotage the other’s romantic efforts.

Lola resents Space’s efforts to drum up publicity for her. She thinks that it’s always bad publicity. But Space understands that bad publicity is good publicity. That’s a concept Lola has never been able to grasp.

Lola’s latest enthusiasm is babies. She wants a baby. At least she wants to adopt a baby. Or at least she wants to take a baby home from the orphanage on 30 day approval.

Lola will have to be interviewed by two very respectable elderly ladies to determine her suitability as an adoptive mother. While the interview is being conducted her household naturally erupts into total chaos.

Harlow is in dazzling form. She’s sexy and she gets some risqué lines and this being a pre-code movie she doesn’t need to tone down her innate sexiness at all. She’s also extremely funny. This might not be her best movie but it’s definitely her funniest performance. And while Lola Burns is incredibly ditzy we never lose sight of the fact that she’s a nice girl and fundamentally good-natured. We don’t have to feel bad about laughing at her. There’s nothing mean-spirited about the way Lola Burns is portrayed.

We really want Lola to be happy and to find love.

I’ve always felt that a little bit of Lee Tracy goes a long way but surprisingly I really liked him in this movie. Space Hanlon is supposed to be a deplorable human being. Somehow Tracy makes him rather likeable - he has no morals and no ethics but this is Hollywood and he’s no worse than anyone else in that town and he really isn’t malicious. He just wants publicity for Lola, that’s his job and he’s good at it. And I have to admit that in Bombshell he’s funny.

The supporting cast is simply wonderful. Frank Morgan as Lola’s father, Una Merkel as her personal secretary, Louise Beavers as her maid and Leonard Carey as her hapless butler are the standouts but there’s not a bad performance in the film.

This is a very meta movie. At one point Lola is doing reshoots for one of her earlier movies, Red Dust. And Lola is referred to as the It Girl, which was of course the moniker applied to Clara Bow. It’s also very clear that in this movie Jean Harlow is an actress playing the part of an actress whose life is a performance. It gets quite postmodern at times. It’s obvious that Harlow understood all this - her performance is sly and clever.

When the mood switches to romance the romance with wealthy Boston blue-blood Gifford Middleton (Franchot Tone) plays out like a scene from a 1920s Hollywood romantic melodrama with Tone playing his rôle in a deliberately cornball way.

Being a pre-code movie the dialogue gets quite risqué at times. You never doubt for a moment that all these people have sex regularly and regard it as a normal part of life. And marriage is strictly optional. The movie isn’t attacking marriage or love. Lola wants love. And probably marriage. But it certainly doesn’t suggest that that has to mean devoting herself to baking and child-rearing.

The Warner Archive DVD is barebones but it’s a decent transfer. It would of course be nice to see an extras-laden Blu-Ray boxed set of Harlow’s superb pre-code movies but so far there’s no sign of that happening.

Bombshell is a delight from start to finish. It’s a grown-up movie and it’s a feelgood movie and it’s a very funny movie. Very highly recommended.


  1. *whispers* She's the If Girl. I agree wholeheartedly with your review. I found Bombshell packed with behind the scenes, er, scenes, and a whole lot of fun.

  2. I found Lee Tracey really intolerable and the whole movie too driven, though Harlow is indeed excellent.

    1. That's usually my response to Lee Tracey as well. I was surprised to find that I enjoyed his performance in this one.