Friday, December 11, 2009

Book club: Bombshell by David Stenn

Bombshell: The Life and Death of Jean Harlow
Subject: Actress Jean Harlow
Author: David Stenn
Publisher: Doubleday
Cover type: Hardcover
Publish date: October 1993 (1st edition)
Number of pages: 370

Bombshell is considered the definitive Jean Harlow biography - and rightfully so. It paints the picture of a warm and funny woman, who did not take herself seriously. Humble, kind and beloved by everyone - well, except for Joan Crawford - Hollywood found Harlow, not the other way around. Even though she wasn't exactly a great actress at first, literally by learning on film sets she became an outstanding comedienne. Harlow was passive in nature and controlled by her domineering mother. In the end, she was a sad woman who lost the will to live. Her battle with illness is heartbreaking to read.

Stenn's book is a thorough and meticulously reseached account of the life, movies and death of Jean Harlow, as the title suggests. So meticulous, in fact, that there is 90+ pages detailing the interviews, archives, journals and books that the author consulted, along with detailed acknowledgements. I, quite frankly, have no interest in sensationalized and/or poorly researched biographies and this is the very opposite of such trash, which I knew to expect having read Stenn's excellent book on Clara Bow (also warmly recommended by me). Bombshell is respectful of Harlow's life, legacy and work as an actress. Even though Harlow went through several scandals and suffered a tragic fate in untimely death, Stenn does not attempt to sensationalize or twist it, which is important to me both as a reader and as a fan of the actress.

Even though the book certainly is excellent, the image of Jean Harlow herself feels quite distant. Perhaps it is because, as Stenn states, Harlean was a stranger to herself. In the end, I do prefer that the author doesn't pretend to know her innermost thoughts because in reality that would be impossible for a stranger writing about the actress' life nearly 60 years after her passing.

The fact that Bombshell is a scholarly type of a Hollywood biography might put someone off but it is very approachable and certainly an engaging read. It also includes some photos, many of which are rare. If you are looking for a respectful and thorough biography of Jean Harlow, this book is for you. It is a must read for anyone interested in Harlow and classic Hollywood in general.

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