by A.J. Hakari
My relationship with 1933’s Bombshell is akin to that of a lit match and a kerosene soufflé. I first crossed paths with this rapid-fire farce in a college film course, where its screwball styling and almost breathless dialogue nearly sent me screaming off campus. Being young and decidedly cocky at the time, I let my surface-level issues with the picture persuade me from digging any deeper, leading to my interest in giving it another chance growing stronger ever since. Well, now that a few years of adulthood have cooled down my youthful audacity, the day has come for Bombshell to receive as fair of a shot as yours truly can muster. Unfortunately, while the movie most certainly has its merits — namely in how it, intentionally or not, effective captures what a horror show it must have been to be a sought-after celebrity in Hollywood’s golden age — they’re drowned out by a whole mess of shrill comedic chaos and a catastrophic misconception of how to handle a female protagonist yearning for a shred of empowerment. I’ve no doubt that Bombshell had satirical intentions in mind, but treating its heroine like garbage and dismissing her misery with a condescending chuckle sure is a funny way of getting them across onscreen.
Everyone wants a piece of Lola Burns (Jean Harlow). She’s made a very successful career for herself as Tinseltown’s newest “it” girl, although it seems as if she barely has the time to enjoy the spoils of her popularity. While her father (Frank Morgan) blows her money on horses and secretary (Una Merkel) throws parties in her absence, Lola is shuttled from set to set, hardly given a moment’s peace in which someone isn’t badgering her for one reason or another. It also doesn’t help that public relations guru Space Hanlon (Lee Tracy) holds so much sway over her image, constantly cooking up new schemes to keep her name in the press…whether the news is flattering or not. But one day, Lola decides that enough is enough and seizes control of her own life for once, boldly announcing her desire to adopt a child. She’s answered the call of motherhood and wants to give up the movie business for good — a decision that her entourage doesn’t take well. With the prospect of their meal ticket going up in smoke, Space and Lola’s other moochers launch one last madcap effort to woo the girl away from domesticity and back into the pictures.
To understand Bombshell, one must also understand its star. Although the film was based on an unproduced play said to be drawn from the life of fellow silver screen sex symbol Clara Bow, Harlow’s own background wasn’t that far off from Lola’s. She too was an object of intense obsession by both moviegoers and the press, a woman who wielded incredible star power in her day but whose success came at the cost of studio forces governing her life and public visage. This was an unfortunate story that applied to many other actresses of the era, one that ended with several of them getting driven to exhaustion…or worse, as in the case of Harlow, who died tragically at the age of 26. Bombshell had the makings of a scathing satire on celebrity culture and how despicably it sometimes treats those it claims to celebrate, and for a little while, it looked like that’s where it was heading. The film pulls no punches in surrounding Lola with an almost literal circus, giving you a front-row seat to the near-constant stream of broad characters (all talking in that clichéd 1930s-speak people like to make fun of) and crazy sight gags she’s assaulted with on a daily basis. But where the picture makes its most critical error is ultimately siding with — or at least feeling like it’s siding with — not Lola but rather her entourage. Bombshell almost seems structured like a story focused on teaching a ditzy actress to not treat the prospect of family as some frivolous fad, yet that isn’t how Harlow’s character comes across in the least. From what we see, she has every right to want to ditch show business and raise a bouncing bundle of joy, but that the movie is dead set on tearing those desires from her and doing so with a smile on its face reeks of a shocking degree of cruelty.
This isn’t to say that what Bombshell puts Harlow through would be called for even if she were painted more as a selfish, empty-headed ingénue, but that it removes itself so much from any real sense of motivation makes it a seriously difficult watch at times. Whether she’s getting pawed at by deluded stalkers or having her own P.R. guy virtually break into her house, it’s absolutely horrible to both see Lola trapped in such perpetual powerlessness and have her ordeal treated as a joke. Any observations or means of cleverly criticizing oppressive practices right underneath the noses of the studios that created them go right out the window when moments of Lola telling off her hangers-on are followed with scenes of the men in her life conspiring to set that silly girl straight. Besides, even if you ignore what sardonic commentary may or may not be present, Bombshell simply isn’t a very good comedy, period. Once in a while, you’ll snatch a choice one-liner from the air; in mistaking servants, Lola quips, “He was Summers, and you’re Winters…are butlers always in season?” But mostly, the dialogue plays like white noise, nonstop yammering that eventually blends together and pours out of the actors’ mouths with little semblance of wit or structure. Harlow deserves a medal for attempting to create a strong and spirited character from a screenplay that’s hell-bent on taking her down, but it seems like the harder she tries, the more harsh that script’s treatment feels. Tracy’s Space Hanlon was written to be an obnoxious creep and ends up being just that, though not in a way that’s endearing or deserving of the victories that come his way as the picture nears its end. Counted in the supporting cast’s ranks are such character actors as Morgan (The Wizard of Oz himself), Pat O’Brien, and Ted Healy, but best of luck in being able to view them as anything other than mere additions to the shrieking, indiscernible masses with which every scene is packed frame to frame.
One could make the case for Bombshell being a top-notch horror film, but as a showbiz farce, calling this a train wreck would be an insult to loused-up locomotives. In spite of doing such a great job at showing how stifling the celebrity life truly gets, its insistence on playing everything for yuks and hardly taking itself seriously for one second just about neuters any points it wanted to bring up. Loud, misguided, and clueless as to what a subversive premise it has in its hands, Bombshell is one of the screwball genre’s most disappointing duds.
(Bombshell is available on DVD from the Warner Archive Collection.)