A most fascinating, most worthwhile viewing. In this one, Harlow is about as objectified as they come, as the title more than indicates. Early shots in the film (presumably before the director and co. realized just how useful she was) shoot Harlow from the back, on one hand an oddity but on the other all too fitting. This exploits her blonde-ness, in all its artificial glory. She looks like little more than a body with a ball of white fuzz at the top. Some kind of male fantasy, no doubt. See the recent Jenifer for a look at male obsession with the female body to the denigration of the face. (Perhaps an even more uncanny picture of this is in Chris Cunningham’s music video “Windowlicker.”) However, a shift takes place relatively early in Platinum Blonde that attempts to offer Harlow’s character (and perhaps Harlow herself) some agency.
While still bodily objectified, she becomes more central to the film’s narrative while simultaneously becoming a major threat to that narrative. Whenever the narrative gets going, Harlow’s character appears and threatens to freeze or even kill it. The film contains a diegetic parallel to this formal and thematic fact: the film centers around a newspaper reporter (as so many Capra films do) who is interested in finding that perfect story to print in the papers. In Golden Age Hollywood films centering around the reporter, the “story”/beat is always prime. (No examples need be offered.) When Stew’s latest scoop takes him to the Schuyler manor and he rubs shoulders with Anne (Harlow), not only is the film’s narrative threatened to freeze during these moments when the viewer is encouraged to identify with Stew’s objectifying gaze of Anne, but the diegetic story that Stew is supposed to report to the paper is thrown into jeopardy. He falls in love with Anne and effectively becomes part of the story, destroying his own ability to be the storyteller as he is being paid to do. In turn, the film’s own narrative is halted due to its own inherently male gaze.
In at least one moment, the film’s technique betrays its own male scopophilic desire (and desire projected onto the audience) that it wants to kill the narrative. This happens midway through the film when Stew and Anne are left alone in a living room and slowly sit down together on a sofa, about to swoon over each other. During the act of sitting, the film dissolves to a close-up shot of them completing the act of sitting. This dissolve is a strange interruption during an act that requires no formal transition. While this may seem a minor detail, dissolves are not used regularly in the film. Straight cuts are much more common, even in scenes in which a dissolve might seem more appropriate. A dissolve tends to be used to transition between different scenes, while a shift to a close-up shot should only call for a simple cut. The fact that a dissolve is used indicates that an altogether different kind of scene is about to be shown, one that, in this case, halts the narrative and focuses on a sort of “lovemaking” scene. (Consider the exaggerated type of dissolve that is often used during dream sequences, and we have an idea of how this particular dissolve is being used.) Further still, two key changes take place when the shot dissolves into a new one. First, the two characters switch places on the couch, even as the shot dissolves midway through the act of sitting. This appears to be a continuity error, but in fact it probably indicates a fundamental shift in the film’s narrative by means of its discourse/form. Second, after the dissolve, they appear to sit on an altogether different couch in an altogether different room. The complete disregard for strict narrative continuity following this dissolve illustrates the power that the (male gaze of the) female body has over the narrative, as is reflected in the film form’s built-in male gaze.
Incidentally, another fascinating aspect of Platinum Blonde, which is again nothing unusual in the newspaper/reporter/early-Hollywood style, is seen in the homosexual undercurrents in the male lead. The His Girl Friday-type character in this film, Gallagher (Loretta Young), is distinctively male-like in her attitude, dress, and treatment by fellow reporters. Nonetheless, in one of the film’s early scenes, Stew and Gallagher are implicated in mutual desire even though, behind the curtain, no hanky-panky occurs. And it isn’t that Gallagher and Stew don’t have the seeds of desire for one another (particularly Gallagher for Stew); it’s rather that Stew resists Gallagher, who perpetually keeps him in her sights. In this way, Gallagher turns the gaze on its head in what is an early foreshadow of Stew’s castration. While he seems the self-confident, masculine reporter, Stew becomes an emasculated trophy husband. His lack of desire for Gallagher (a female friend with a male name) feminizes him, and Gallagher’s desire for him puts her in the male, pursuant position. Anne/Harlow, on the other hand, ultimately stands for some kind of fear of the status quo. She is the dream girl, the one all the boys at work whoop and holler over. But once Stew marries her, he is unable to wield his masculinity and eventually succumbs to his original place, where, despite his lack of desire for Gallagher the brunette, he settles into a romance of class equality but devoid of the kind of distinctly heterosexual eroticism that Anne was able to offer, unlike Gallagher.