Jean Harlow sings (kinda) in Reckless (Victor Fleming, USA, 1935)

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In the 1930s, even stars who couldn’t sing gave musical numbers a go. Here it’s Jean Harlow singing the lovely Jerome Kern title tune to a splendiferous Art Deco background. You might note from the beginning that Harlow can’t sing. But she is charming and ebullient and when she sings ‘ I want to live, love, learn a lot. I’ll light my candle and I’ll burn a lot/ I’m on my my own if I bruise, I can take it on the chin if I lose,’ you believe her. You might also note the precise moment when the dubber’s voice takes over – it’s when the camera pans down to the cruise-ship set — all deadly technical perfection, a subtraction from the pleasures previously on display. The camera then pans up to a seedier Mexican/Spanish set, where Harlow is marvellously re-introduced by Fleming via a gun-shot –  so appropriate a musical accompaniment to his particular star. But then,  that damned dubbed voice dampens everything again. And though she’s also meant to be dancing, it’s clearly a stand-in in the long shots and she is recognisable only when filmed above the waist. In the tradition of musicals, where what we see is meant to take place on-stage but the world’s largest stadium wouldn’t hold all that we see —  this is meant to be a stage rehearsal with Franchot Tone and William Powell looking on at Harlow. Needless to say, post-code, recklessness has a price: the number ends with her corpse artfully displayed as a chorus sings ‘I waste no weeping, I just keep hoping for one who’s hoping for me.’ It’s a great song in a not-so-great number. But worth it just for those few minutes where Harlow — all smarts and sex-appeal and energy — promises to be Reckless.

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