Monday, May 13, 2013


Author illuminates oddball moment in sixties cinema

Book By Tom Lisanti
Review By Don L. Stradley

The publicity machines nearly overheated that spring of 1965 when two films, both titled Harlow, went into production at the same time. Gossip columns literally vibrated with the war or words between producers Joseph E. Levine and Bill Sargent, each trying to sell the public on a bio pic of Hollywood legend Jean Harlow. 
The former helmed a big budget production from Paramount Pictures, the latter an independent quickie shot in a blistering eight days. The tale of how these films came to be, and how their respective producers nearly came to blows at the 1965 Academy Awards ceremony, is a riotous, exhausting comedy of errors, captured perfectly in Tom Lisanti's Dueling Harlows: Race to the Silver Screen.
 Although Mr. Lisanti gives much play to Carroll Baker and Carol Lynley, the two actresses hired to play Jean Harlow, the real stars of the book are Levine and Sargent. Levine, born in Boston and known as "The Boston Barnum," had an eye for what Mr. Lisanti calls "high gloss, cotton candy trash." He made his name by importing foreign films to America, including Godzilla, but by 1964 he was scoring with sexy potboilers such as The Carpetbaggers. Meanwhile, Sargent was a young upstart trying to foist a new method of filming ("Electronovision") onto the business. That both producers latched onto the Harlow story showed there wasn't much separating Levine and Sargent. They both sought something sexy, scandalous, and easy to sell.
Jean Harlow had been Hollywood's reigning blond bombshell during the 1930s. Her death at age 26 as well as a bizarre marriage to producer Paul Bern (that had ended in Bern's suicide), provided the beautiful Harlow with a dark, tragic legend. Various attempts had been made during the 1950s to give Harlow's life the big screen treatment. At one point Marylin Monroe was slated for the role in a 20th Century Fox production, but the project was quashed when her playwright hubby Arthur Miller talked her out of it. 
By 1964, the Harlow story was back in the news thanks to a sleazy new biography in the bookstalls, a disreputable mess written by Irving Shulman with help from Harlow's former agent, Arthur Landau. The book became a bestseller and launched a wave of Harlow mania. Along with Levine at Paramount and Sargent's indy production, Fox, MGM, and Columbia also announced plans for a Harlow film. Levine, sensing another cotton candy subject, bought the rights to the Shulman book, but distanced himself from it. The book was garbage and he knew it, but garbage had made him a rich man. Owning the book rights also established Levine as the front runner in the Harlow sweepstakes. The other studios backed down, but not Sargent.

Sargent had been experimenting with 'Electronovision,' a method of shooting that recorded a production on video before being transferred to film. That the end product looked like a splotchy 1950s television program was secondary; Sargent was selling Electronovision based on its sheer speed. As if to prove Electronovision was the technique of the future, Sargent plotted to get his own biopic of Harlow into cinemas before Levine's.

It was a David and Goliath story, with newcomer Sargent going up against the giant Levine, who had already won the Hollywood Foreign Press Association's Cecil B. DeMille Award. But in this case, David wanted to be Goliath, as Sargent fancied himself Levine's equal as a promoter, and probably coveted Levine's status.

Sargent, although he didn't have Levine's resources, certainly had an ego to rival Levine's; he hired a blimp to fly over the 1965 Oscar ceremony advertising his Harlow, and hired rock bands to play at his film's premiere. Sargent, alternately described by associates as a genius and a bully, wasn't deterred by Levine's greater connections.  Levine, outraged that a young nobody would try to upstage him, planned to drown Sargent with money and hype.

Dueling Harlows takes readers briskly through the casting of each film, the problems with their underwritten and inaccurate screenplays, and the stress felt by Baker and Lynley. Both actresses were subjected to nasty criticism as soon as their casting was announced, and Mr. Lisanti is sensitive to what these women went through as they tried to portray the iconic Harlow.

Gordon Douglas and Alex Segal, the directors hired by Levine and Sargent, are portrayed as weary journeymen trying to get through an unpleasant ordeal. There are amusing tidbits involving showbiz veterans Judy Garland, Red Buttons, and Ginger Rogers, and Mr. Lisanti also interviews surviving cast and crew members from both films, although there is more representation from Sargent's team. The general feeling is of a family sadly recalling an unfortunate memory, but trying to move on. Mr. Lisanti includes a tragic moment at the wrap party of Sargent's Harlow which saw two union men get into a fight that ended with one of them dead from a punch in the throat.
But even with the excellent details and subplots offered by Mr. Lisanti, the bellicose Levine stands out. He belonged in the era of ballyhoo and pomp, back when movie stars were big and pictures were colossal. Levine's philosophy was simple: You could convince anyone that your picture was good if you spent enough money.  Levine's Harlow flopped, but he went on to produce some of the most notable films of the era, including The Graduate and The Lion in Winter. Levine's career had as many flops as hits, though. It ended in 1981 with Tattoo, a stinker from which even the mighty Levine couldn't recover. Still, it's hard to not admire a man who gave us both Carnal Knowledge and Santa Claus Conquers The Martians.

There is something bittersweet about Dueling Harlows. By 1965, Hollywood and the rest of America was at a flashpoint. Gaudy bio pics built on lavish hype and spending were about to be derailed by the changing shift in the culture. Easy Rider and Barbarella were coming. Producers like Levine were about to be replaced by Hollywood's next generation of young mavericks. Baker and Lynley, two lovely and talented actresses, would continue to work steadily but never live up to their initial promise. Baker later admitted that her legal battles with Levine in the movie's wake left her depressed and suicidal. And Sargent, although he would produce the classic Richard Pryor in Concert (1979), found himself cut off from the movie business. His gruff nature and habit of suing people turned him into a pariah.

Still, Mr. Lisanti argues that Sargent's Harlow was superior to Levine's film. The flubbed lines and grainy black and white footage couldn't conceal the feisty little movie that Sargent had produced. In a way, I was reminded of something Manny Farber, the great film critic of The New Republic and The Nation, once said while praising a B-movie from the 1940s:

"The Bs have generally a more convincing actuality than the expensive films," Farber wrote, "probably for the fact that they have less money to spend building sets and lighting them so they shine and sparkle, and designing costumes that almost walk by themselves.With less money and time to inject spurious entertainment angles into his film, the B director is more likely to spend his time making what he has real rather than classy."

This notion fits Bill Sargent's Harlow. It adds to the bittersweet nature of Mr. Lisanti's book.



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