Laberge on Fleming, 'Paul Bern: The Life and Famous Death of the MGM Director and Husband of Harlow'

E.J Fleming
Yves Laberge

E.J Fleming. Paul Bern: The Life and Famous Death of the MGM Director and Husband of Harlow. Jefferson: Mcfarland, 2008. 396 pp. $45.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7864-3963-8.

Reviewed by Yves Laberge (Université Laval, Département de sociologie) Published on H-TGS (December, 2010) Commissioned by Alexander Freund

The Man Who Was Jean Harlow's Husband

This overlooked book is not a scholarly essay, but rather a very detailed biography of famous media mogul and film producer Paul Bern (1889-1932), the “Number Two” at Metro Goldwyn Mayer Studios. Born in northern Germany not far from Hamburg, Bern succeeded in Hollywood like many other Germans did during the silent era. As E. J. Fleming puts it, Bern was a beloved figure in the studios for all his life, but his reputation changed completely the day he died; he fell into disgrace and became infamous (p. 1). In his book, Fleming revisits Bern’s life, career, successes, and death. To most people in the ephemeral world of celebrities, he remains, as the title indicates, a film producer and the second husband of the famous actress Jean Harlow (1911-37).

Bern’s original name was Paul Levy; his family emigrated to New York City in 1898. Bern did not need much time to secure a position at the center of the Hollywood community. In the mid 1920s, his friends were the most influential directors in the business (Charlie Chaplin and Ernst Lubitsch), and his powerful position at MGM allowed him to date the prettiest actresses of the day, from Lya De Putti and Mary Duncan to Jeannette Loff and Joan Crawford. But that was before Bern met and married the 21-year-old actress Jean Harlow, who in many ways can be seen as Marilyn Monroe’s ancestor. She was the biggest star in Hollywood in the early 1930s, appearing in many hit movies like Frank Capra’s Platinum Blonde (1931), George Cukor’s Dinner At Eight (1933), Victor Fleming’s Bombshell (1933), and others. She was about to shoot what would become one of the last “pre-code movies”: Red Dust (1932), directed by Victor Fleming. Also known in France as La Belle de Saïgon, it remains a hard-to-find movie, even on DVD. Both partners were on top of their careers at the time of their wedding in the summer of 1932, and nobody could imagine that Bern had only two more months to live.

A scandalous, sensational event transformed Bern’s joyous life into his destiny: his unpredicted death on September 5, 1932. Many of the circumstances remain a mystery. It is not clear whether his death was a murder, suicide, or fake suicide. Bern’s body was found in his bedroom while his wife was away. A hand-written note was found in the house (it is reproduced in the book on pp. 251 and 305), but it was not obvious that this farewell letter was by Paul Bern. What added to the sensational character of Bern’s death was the discovery that he was bigamous.

The book’s last chapter is titled “Who killed Paul Bern?”. Since Bern’s death is an unresolved mystery and many questions remain unanswered, many continue to speculate about his fate. The book does not solve the mystery, but the author recounts many sides of this sad and tragic story. Fittingly, the book ends with the death of the two women who were married to Paul Bern, Jean Harlow and Dorothy Millette.

Although numerous love affairs and indiscretions fill the book, it is about much more than that. We learn a lot about the many movies that were being made at the end of the silent era in Hollywood, and we are told many stories about European actors (like Conrad Veidt), actresses (like Greta Garbo), producers (like Samuel Goldwyn, born Gelbfisz, in Warsaw), and filmmakers (like Ernst Lubitsch) who came to the United States. Even Bern’s early days in the movie business in Canada and Hollywood are discussed (chapter 2). There is no doubt that Mr. E. J. Flemming is a skilled biographer. The material his book is based on is very rich and diverse, and he provides the reader with a variety of noteworthy facts. One can even find some pages about U.S. production companies making movies in Canada, “the second largest importer of films in the world” in 1914 (p. 26). Also included are some vintage postcards from prewar Hamburg and many private photographs featuring actress Jean Harlow. It is unfortunate, though, that the quality of these black-and-white reproductions is not excellent.

In sum, Paul Bern: The Life and Famous Death of the MGM Director and Husband of Harlow is not just targeted at casual readers in search of entertaining stories about sex and scandal. Students of film history and scholars working on celebrity cultures might also find this book rewarding.

Printable Version:

Citation: Yves Laberge. Review of Fleming, E.J, Paul Bern: The Life and Famous Death of the MGM Director and Husband of Harlow. H-TGS, H-Net Reviews. December, 2010. URL:

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