This is it. The uber-trash novel to beat them all.
There’s a marvellous passage in “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency” in which Dirk Gently goes into a shop and finds a calculator based on the I Ching. It’s a temperamental and mysterious piece of kit, which gives non-numerical answers to simple calculations and answers any questions over the value of 4 with the phrase “A suffusion of yellow”. So, of course, Dirk instantly wants it. And the experience of going from not even knowing the I Ching calculator existed, to wanting it with every particle of his being, to actually having the thing in his hand, all within the space of a few minutes, is the most blissful shopping trip imaginable.
That state of instant-fulfilment-of-stupid-desire pretty much describes my experience of “Today Is Tonight”. I can’t even remember what ridiculous chain of idle Googling events led me to discover its existence. But as soon as I realised Jean Harlow had written a weird novel that wasn’t published until she’d been dead for thirty years, I was instantly filled with a raging desire to read it. And now I have it, hee hee, ha ha, ho ho, and it’s utter, utter nonsense, and I adore it. AbeBooks, this is why I love you with every little scrap of my bookywormy heart.
Like all the best trashy novels, the story behind “Today Is Tonight” is almost as strange as the book itself. Back in the 1930s, Jean Harlow was the darling of Hollywood and the screen icon of her age. One night, she had a strange and compelling dream which she used as the basis for a novel. A few years later, she was tragically dead of kidney-failure.
The manuscript then passed to her mother, who did nothing with it. When her mother died, it passed to Jean’s friend Ruth Hamp, who read it and decided it was worth sharing. She passed it to a New York agent, who provided a small amount of spit and polish, then launched it onto the unsuspecting literary scene.
Well, that’s one version of events. The other version is that the entire thing was made up by either publicist Tony Beacon, or screenwriter Carey Wilson, as a publicity stunt. So, of course, people have been arguing about it ever since.
Plot summary. Let me say right now that this is quite possibly the most engagingly mad storyline it’s ever been my privilege to summarise. It’s New York in 1929, and Peter and Judy Lansdowne are rich, beautiful and desperately in love*. Also, Bill (Peter’s best friend / best man / business partner) is in love with Judy too, and they all know it, but they all keep hanging out together anyway, because that could totally happen and would in no way make life awkward or uncomfortable for anyone at all. On the morning after their wedding-anniversary party, Peter goes for a ride to shake off his hangover, falls off his horse and is blinded in a freak accident. Simultaneously the Wall Street Crash arrives, and Bill and Peter’s company (which does…something. It’s never really made clear) goes bankrupt.
Clearly, life is going to have to change for the Lansdownes. Judy decides that telling Peter that the whole economy has gone to Hell in a handcart would be far too distressing, because reasons, so she instead she tells him that Mr Best Man And Business Partner Bill has sold the company for $250,000. Well, of course she does. Believing your bestest buddy has sold you down the river and that’s why you’re now poor is clearly much better than understanding that a decade’s worth of stupid speculation has finally caught up with your national economy, and everyone else you know is poor too.
Judy and Peter move to a poor person’s apartment in town, and are poor, and unhappy, and poor, and lonely and poor, and struggling, and poor. Judy still finds time to do charity work, because Mary-Sue, and ends up appearing as Lady Godiva in a Charity tableau, because let’s face it, we all would, right? An unscrupulous night-club owner then offers her $250 a week to reprise her nekkid-lady act. It’s a great opportunity to earn some money. But she’ll have to be out of the house at night.
Now here’s the good bit. Literally the only way she can think of to resolve this dilemma (I mean, seriously, it really is. She doesn’t consider other options and then discard them, then come up with her winning idea. This is honestly all she’s got) is to alter her and Peter’s schedule so that day becomes night, and vice versa. Because blind people don’t have Circadian rhythms, or hearing, or the ability to sense changes in temperature, or brains, or anything at all really, and are basically just useless lumps of animated carbon sitting around eating and taking up space until they die.
Against the odds, this actually works for a while, and only goes wrong when Bill the Best Man finds out what Judy’s up to. In a touching scene at Bill’s apartment, Judy forces Bill to confess he’s in love with her, sobs on his shoulder, tells him she thinks she should have maybe married him instead of Peter, then starts an affair, because look, I just work here, okay? Meanwhile, Peter decides to
break out of leave the apartment, and almost instantly discovers (via the medium of a cheery Irish cabby) that Judy has swapped their entire schedule around.
You or I might think that was a good time to sit down and have a serious marital conversation, but not Peter. Peter thinks this is a good time to start spying on his wife (surely the occupation least suited to someone with a catastrophic visual impairment), to try and find out what she’s doing. Somehow this leads to a career as a Novelty Blind Showbiz Reporter for “one of the morning newspapers”, during the course of which he happens across Judy with her kit off, riding a horse and hiding behind her hair. Strange three-way denouement in which Judy decides to torture Bill some more by telling him she’s leaving Peter for him, then changing her mind, and somehow that’s a happy ending, because more reasons. The end. Roll credits.
Yes, you did just read all of that. No, I am not making this up. Yes, I did actually enjoy it and am seriously recommending you give it a try. Yes, I can justify that statement.
There are lots of things I love about this fantastically odd novel, but one of my favourite things has got to be the quirky little glimpses it gives into the time it comes from. It’s in the nature of trashy novels to disappear, leaving only the good stuff behind; and by its very nature, the good stuff is rather more timeless. The Great Gatsby is the defining novel of 1920s New York, and one day if I’m lucky then I’ll maybe write something that comes within a thousand miles of being as good, and die happy. But as much as it moves me to tears of wonder, The Great Gatsby doesn’t give me details like these:
[Judy] drew her skirts above her knees. Peter had seen Judy’s knees before. As a matter of fact, the modes of the moment were such as to make it impossible for anyone looking at Judy at all not to observe a goodly portion of their loveliness. (p27)
“What were you saying to that Everett girl, Peter – you don’t think her back is nicer than mine, do you?” (p28)
One of [the showgirls] reminded Bill of Sally. It was the flat smooth area of flesh beneath her armpit. Sally was always exposing and exploiting this particular charm. (p145)
Knees, backs, the bit of skin beneath the armpit. The erogenous zones of a different age. In today’s tits-and-ass culture, it’s easy to call this “a more innocent age” – except that the heroine poses naked in a nightclub to pay the rent and has an affair with her husband’s best friend. Maybe it’s just the erogenous zones of a totally different sort of wardrobe. My grandmothers were a bit too young to wear clothes like these, but my great-aunts would have come of age and partied in them. I wonder if men used to look at their underarm areas and swoon? (I wonder if they shaved?)
On a less anthropological note, I adore the details that clearly must have meant something to the original writer, but which make absolutely no sense at all to anyone else. Here’s a completely surreal moment just before Judy makes her paid debut:
I’ll bet anything you like that nobody knows I’m wearing pants, but they’re very important at the moment, even if they don’t show. When I get my first week’s salary out of this job, I’m going to give ten dollars to that nice drug store lady who invented me this lanolin cold cream. It’s at least a quarter of an inch thick. (p143)
So that’s a quarter inch thick of lanolin cream, covering (assuming this is American pants rather than British ones) her entire lower body? And she’s going to try and sit on a horse in that lot? I’d honestly rather be naked.
Want yet another reason to read this magnificent piece of cultural ephemera? You got it. After her first successful night at work, Judy gets back to discover Peter has been getting all creative and tying string all over the apartment so he can start to get about the place (presumably, he’s just spent the last few months sitting in a chair and peeing into a milk-bottle). For some reason this triggers a bizarre stream-of-consciousness ramble on the subject of philosophy:
It would be very easy to write a book about philosophy. It wouldn’t be good philosophy but it would be philosophy. All you have to do is begin every eighth sentence with the words, “All men are -” or “Every woman will -” and all men or women will think you are saying something important. If I had a stenographer to take down what I was thinking, it would be an awful lesson to George Bernard Shaw. (p156)
And there’s more:
Now I’m laughing at myself because all sentences beginning with the words “all sentences” are silly. Maybe all sentences themselves are silly. But I’m not going to give up without inventing one epigram. An epigram is an amusing statement of an untruth designed to make the effect tasty if not digestible. What am I talking about? (p156)
I’ve read as many reviews as I can find of “Today Is Tonight” – partly to reassure myself that I wasn’t the only person who gave a damn about its existence, and partly to find out what everyone else made of this truly magnificent folly. Unsurprisingly, most of the people who’ve taken the time to review it are unabashed Jean Harlow fans – people who’ve seen her movies, toured the places she lived and worked, visited her grave. And one of the biggest themes I’ve noticed is how very, very much most readers want it to actually be the work of Jean Harlow – rather than the work of two men cashing in on Jean Harlow’s name.
I don’t know a thing about Jean Harlow other than what I’ve read on her Wikipedia page, and while it’s possible I’ve seen some of her films while off sick from school, I couldn’t tell you a single thing about any one of them. Nevertheless, I’m going to go ahead and say I’m damn sure Ms Harlow had a hand in this thing somewhere. As lots of other reviewers have pointed out, the book’s littered with an insider’s eye for theatrical detail – the exact scent and adhesive properties of spirit gum, the heat and the blinding quality of the stage lights, the back-stage bustle that accompanies the star’s big entrance. And lots of other people have noticed the “cinematic” quality of the writing – the way it often describes what the camera would see, and how the shot would be composed.
The thing that really convinces me, though, is the sheer weirdness of the finished product. Let’s be honest. If you were going to fake a novel written by a long-dead Hollywood star in order to bolster interest in a new biography, I’m pretty sure you’d include a more plausible plot, better dialogue, fewer stage horses, and almost no digressions on the possibility of out-philosophising George Bernard Shaw. But if you did that, you’d take out almost everything I like about this book. Because however ridiculous this book is, it’s also charming – in the way writing often is when it’s written in a breathless rush and without any thought for what anyone will make of it, because the Plot Bunny has you by the throat and you simply have to get your idea down on paper somehow.
Clearly, this isn’t a great work of literature. Without Jean Harlow’s name attached to it, I’m pretty certain it would never have seen the light of day. But I’d rather read “Today Is Tonight”, flaws and all, than all the polished, competent, soul-less ghost-written sleb productions in the world. Jean, you weren’t a literary genius, but I’m pretty sure your book was actually yours, at least in part. And for that, I salute you.
*This is “desperately in love” in the sense of “even on her wedding-day, Judy did wonder with a moderate degree of seriousness whether she ought to have married the best man Bill instead, and also Judy is now doing a bit of an Amelia-Sedley-Bella-Swan-dog-in-the-manger act as regards Bill’s romantic prospects. So, that’s nice.
“Today Is Tonight” is out of print, but AbeBooks regularly has copies. If you have some semblance of self-control, you’ll pay a lot less for your copy than I did.