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Rapid-fire film takes hysterical aim at movie business and scores a bulls-eye

August 14, 2009

By Jimmy Gillman

Jimmy Gillman
Bombshell
MGM; 1933; 96 minutes; Not rated ; Directed by Victor Fleming; Starring: Jean Harlow, Lee Tracy, Frank Morgan, Franchot Tone, Une Merkel and Pat O'Brien; Screenwriter(s): Jules Furthman and John Lee Mahin

 

 

 

 

GRADE: A-

Every time I screen this film, I'm amazed that MGM, always protective of their image, allowed it to be made, let alone released! I can’t think of another early entry that attacks Hollywood and the studio movie-making machine more forcefully, more hysterically or more viciously. When they thought up the cliché, "no-holds-barred," they must have had this film in mind.

Ironically, attentive viewers will quickly realize that most of the commentary and critiques leveled against the Hollywood establishment still apply today. That pertinence not only gives the film more bite than most other comedies (including those of the socially relevant kind), but also greater present-day relevance, enabling it to stand tall with modern audiences; proof, of sorts, that little has changed over the last 70-80 years.

Working from the play by Caroline Francke and Mack Crane, screenwriters John Lee Mahin and Jules Furthman create a devastatingly funny and frank exposé on making movies and making movie stars—then doing whatever it takes to keep those stars burning bright.

Of course, to make this kind of a film work requires performers adept at slinging insults and knowing when to drop the right kind of look. Fortunately for director Victor Fleming, MGM had such performers, including the incomparable Jean Harlow. Her unapologetically female attitude and unequalled ability to come out swinging combined with a compassion and complete acceptance of the way the game was played helped to make her the most popular star of the 1930s. Unless or until you've seen Harlow, you haven't seen the best that Hollywood had to offer.

In “Bombshell,” Harlow is at her finest in the role of a much put-upon movie star who’s trying to balance a booming career, money-grubbing relatives, a demanding studio and a thoroughly unscrupulous press agent, played with frenetic intensity by Lee Tracy (who nearly steals the picture). Watching Harlow and Tracy verbally accost each other in high-speed fashion is a sight to behold (and a precursor to the success of William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles in “The Thin Man”), as Harlow's character decides that being a movie star has just become a whole lot more trouble than it's worth. With the fear of cash registers going silent, the studio dispatches public relations man Tracy to change her mind and get her back to work, which he attempts by hatching one outrageous scheme after another.
 
Add the irrepressible Frank Morgan, Una Merkel, a sly Pat O’Brien and other MGM notables and you’ve got all the makings of a classic screwball send-up with the added teeth of a reality-based situation comedy.
 
If you've tried watching classic comedies before and were disappointed because the humor struck you as placid and outdated, give this one a go—you'll soon discover that these old bombs still pack quite a punch.
 
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Film Grading Key

A+ Can't get any better

A Outstanding

A- Superior effort

B+ Very good

B Good

B- Still worth watching

C+ Strictly iffy

C Waste of time

In Memory of Philip Seymour Hoffman 1967-2014

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