Saratoga (1937)

After winning a stud farm in lieu of gambling debts, bookie Duke Bradley turns an eye to the daughter of the now deceased gambler and her millionaire fiancée.’

Saratoga’ was Jean Harlow’s last picture, and indeed suffered from a large amount of patching-up after her death mid-way through shooting (notice the scenes where her character is only present with her back to the camera, or is missing altogether). This serves to distract the viewer from the good points of her last movie (especially the scene where Harlow has to explain away the presence of a large cigar in her room; Gable of course hiding under the bed!). In the scenes which she did manage to shoot she is fabulous, although clearly not looking her best.


Jean Harlow was probably the best sexy blonde comedienne of Hollywood’s Golden Age, as testified by her marvellous work in Dinner at Eight, Libeled Lady, Riff Raff, and Bombshell. She lit up any scene she was in, and this movie is no exception. We can at least be grateful it wasn’t ditched or recast, and that we have the snippets of her greatness within this fairly good movie.

Worth a look for Harlow and Gable fans

Author: kirksworks from Marin County, California
4 August 2011
*** This review may contain spoilers ***

This was the sixth film Jean Harlow made with Clark Gable. She died before completing her scenes. It’s a curiosity more than anything, but not a bad film at all. In fact, there are many of entertaining scenes between her and Gable. One of them may be the most iconic scene they ever had together. It has to do with a cigar. I won’t say more. The film was directed by Jack Conway, a very under appreciated director. Among his films are “Tarzan and His Mate,” ” A Tale of Two Cities,” “Red-Headed Woman” (one of Harlow’s best), “Libeled Lady” (another good Harlow performance) and “Crossroads” (with Hedy Lamarr) – all quite good films. He sure knew how to direct Harlow.


The basic plot is about a family that raises race horses. Of course gambling plays a big part as well. Gable is a bookie, not a noble profession. His character is a bit dodgy. Walter Pidgeon, sans mustache, plays Gable’s competition for Harlow. He doesn’t have a lot of scenes, but he’s suitably debonair where he appears. Gable is joined by Hattie McDaniel, both of them pre “Gone With the Wind.” She even sings and is quite funny to watch. There is a long train scene (I love scenes on trains), and this is a highlight of the film. There is a wonderful sequence between Frank Morgan (the wizard of Oz), and Margaret Hamilton (wicked witch of the west), 2 years before “Oz” was made. A great cast.


Jack Conway with Jean Harlow and Clark Gable on the set of Saratoga (1937) (Jean Harlow’s last film)

The last 20 min. of the film was where Harlow’s stand-in was used, since Jean had died. Three women apparently were used to create the illusion. But it was rather obvious. Suddenly, Harlow’s character pretty much disappears and we see her from the side or back or with a hat covering her face. Since films are shot out of order I thought there’d be more of Harlow intermixed, but in the last 20 min. there are really only two scenes with the real Harlow, which are connected with shots of the stand in. Harlow had such a distinctive walk, the stand in couldn’t possibly have matched. Luckily, for the most part, the studio didn’t try. Mainly what the studio did was rewrite so scenes that were originally to have Harlow were done without her, with other characters saying where she was or talking about her.

Up to this point I’d say the movie was quite good, and the lead up to a final horse race was well set up. The outcome of the race would determine the love between Harlow and Gable, and so not to be able to see her expression as the race was underway, was a major drawback. We see the stand in with binoculars over her face throughout the sequence. It lessened what impact the film’s climax could have had.


Harlow was very sick when she made this film, but aside from a couple of scenes where she looked heavier than usual, she was still beautiful. What is really strange is that in the film Harlow plays a character who is often sick. It’s rather creepy watching those scenes, knowing that she really was sick, dying, in fact. It almost seems like the studio knew something we didn’t know, but more than likely, if it wasn’t coincidence, the studio knew Harlow wasn’t feeling well, so put her in scenes where she could perform lying down. Who knows?


What is also unsettling to watch is understanding that Gable and the rest of the cast had to perform the rest of the film without their beloved star. And she was beloved. Everyone (except Joan Crawford), loved Harlow. It’s pretty obvious in the film when the real Harlow had died, and yet we watch the cast perform like real troopers without her.

Harlow was 26 when she died, but she left a substantial number of good films. Quite a legacy, really. She had appeared in bit parts in a number of silent films, two with Laurel and Hardy, before being discovered by Howard Hughes, who cast her in “Hell’s Angels.” That film is remembered more for its aerial footage than for Harlow, but it has Harlow’s only color sequence, in 2-strip Technicolor.

The young Clark Gable was really a lot of fun to watch. In “Night Nurse,” a Pre Code film years before “Saratoga,” Gable plays a truly hateful, bad guy. Very unusual to see him in a role like that. He was chilling. Too bad he didn’t do more films that that. He was really good at it. Gable acted alongside Jean Harlow in the 30s, was paired with Hedy Lamarr in the 40s, and made it all the way to the sixties, finally being paired with Marilyn Monroe in his last film. I wonder if Marilyn, a big fan of Harlow, felt as though she’d come full circle, to be playing opposite Harlow’s co-star of the 30s? Did she pump Gable with questions about Harlow? I don’t know if anyone but Gable and Monroe know the answer to that.


“Saratoga” is definitely worth a look, but it’s not a great film. Even if Harlow had lived to finish it, I don’t think it would be considered one of her best. The horse race sequence and the ending would have been much better, but wouldn’t have sent it over the top into greatness. What is interesting about this film in relation to the rest of her work is that it’s the only film she made that hints at what she would have been like in the 1940s. One of the great losses of Hollywood is that Harlow never made it to the 3-strip Technicolor era. She will forever remain the platinum girl of the platinum screen.


Knowing that she died on the set of the film, it’s almost impossible to watch Jean Harlow in Saratoga (1937) without a morbid focus. As a fan, it’s a challenge to turn off that awareness and try to enjoy the film on its own.

Jean Harlow plays Carol Clayton, the granddaughter of a horse breeder (Lionel Barrymore). She locks horns with Clark Gable’s bookie Duke Bradley. With a script cowritten by Anita Loos, Saratoga (1937) is a chatty film with a lot of exposition.


Knowing that Jean had to be written out of scenes since she died before the film was finished, I always wondered if the picture was padded out, and if the boring bits here were the result of writers trying to cover up for her absence.

Una Merkel shows up as Fritzi, an old flame of Bradley’s, and then Carol’s dad dies at the track.

Soon, Bradley is arguing with Carol Clayton as she plans to marry a banker (Walter Pidgeon). It’s all tedious stuff.


Jean looks sick here and Gable’s done this sort of cad role dozens of times already.

Merkel’s husband (Frank Morgan) buys a horse at auction and then more betting occurs and soon Jean and Gable are on a train. As Gable parties, Harlow tends to the books. Playing a high-strung business woman-type doesn’t suit Harlow. She’s too humorless here. Only 26, she already looks 36 in some shots and I’m sure that’s a result of her illness.

For a few brief moments, Jean’s Carol has a bit of fun on the train and the tone lightens up a bit.

Hattie McDaniel even gets in on the partying and sings a song. This sequence is the highlight of the film, frankly,

A scene where Jean’s Carol is examined by a doctor is morbid and there’s no other way to approach it. In the context of the film, it’s meant to be a bit humorous but it’s not. The doctor thinks Carol should get married to calm her down (!) but the gal still has a lot of anger about Bradley surprising her with a visit from her fiance.

It’s complicated and silly stuff, especially when Duke has to hide under Carol’s bed when her fiance comes over

.A scene where Jean’s Carol is examined by a doctor is morbid and there’s no other way to approach it. In the context of the film, it’s meant to be a bit humorous but it’s not. The doctor thinks Carol should get married to calm her down (!) but the gal still has a lot of anger about Bradley surprising her with a visit from her fiance.

It’s complicated and silly stuff, especially when Duke has to hide under Carol’s bed when her fiance comes over.


‘Saratoga’ was one of Hollywood’s biggest box-office hits of 1937, but an explanation is in order. The film was scheduled to star MGM’s popular team of Clark Gable and Jean Harlow, but Harlow died suddenly (of uraemia, aged only 26) while ‘Saratoga’ was in production. Her fans demanded that MGM honour Harlow’s memory by completing the movie; when it was released, hordes went to see ‘Saratoga’ and bid farewell to their platinum blonde. Ironically, this movie made far more money (on the strength of Harlow’s death) than it would have been likely to earn had she lived to complete it.

‘Saratoga’ is a comedy, yet a weird morbidity hovers over this film. Harlow’s character’s father is played by Jonathan Hale, who later committed suicide. Gable has a bizarre scene in a racehorses’ cemetery, appropriately spooky. (Although the gravestones are too close together.) The scenes left unfilmed at Harlow’s death were completed with three different actresses doubling for her: a body double, a face double, and a voice double dubbing her dialogue. The doubling is laughably inept, even by 1937 standards.


Several film critics have claimed that we’ll never know how great ‘Saratoga’ would have been had Harlow completed it. That’s rubbish, that is. For the first two-thirds of the film — with the possible exception of one shot in which she pushes her way through a crowd of punters, with her back to the camera — it’s clear that Harlow did all of her own scenes. By the two-thirds mark, ‘Saratoga’ has failed to register as a classic on the level of ‘Red Dust’ or ‘Dinner at Eight’. There’s nothing in the film’s first five reels to indicate that this movie would have attained greatness if only Harlow had completed it. This is just one more Gable/Harlow comedy: an enjoyable one, but nowhere near so good as ‘Red Dust’ or even ‘Bombshell’.

I find it intriguing that all of Harlow’s doubled sequences are in the last one-third of the movie, as this indicates that ‘Saratoga’ was shot roughly in sequence. Ironically, the last line that Harlow speaks on screen (two-thirds into this movie) is ‘Good-bye’. From here to the last reel, her character is strangely taciturn, always holding field glasses or some other object in front of her face so that we can’t get a good squizz at the unconvincing double (actress Mary Dees). Harlow’s character appears to have been written out of some late scenes in which one might expect her to appear. But the very last shot of the movie reveals Harlow herself, with Gable and Una Merkel, reprising a song from earlier in the movie: ‘The Horse with the Dreamy Eyes’. I wonder if this shot was repositioned from earlier in the film, in order to ensure that the movie would end with a close-up of the real Jean Harlow.


Mary Dees, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Jean Harlow, replaced Jean Harlow  in the film  after Jean Died..

I always find Una Merkel deeply annoying, and here she’s worse than usual. She does a bump-and-grind routine, thrusting her pelvis towards us while glancing indignantly backwards over her shoulder, pretending that she’s been shoved forward by someone standing behind her. Get some voice lessons, Merkel.

Gable’s character is identified as a ‘bookie’, which may surprise modern viewers in America. Gable is portraying what is known in Britain as a ‘turf accountant’. These are independent bookmakers who lawfully take bets at a racetrack, without participating in the pari-mutuel pool. Such people no longer exist Stateside but were carefully vetted by racing commissions in the 1930s. One of the rules for their profession was that a bookie could not own shares in a racehorse. In ‘Saratoga’, deep-pockets Gable buys a thoroughbred as a gift for Lionel Barrymore, playing Harlow’s grandfather. If a bookie had tried this in real life, there would have been legitimate protests of a conflict of interest.

Gable is his usual sly rogue here, with an amusing running gag in which he keeps telling various men and women: ‘I love ya.’ The payoff is clever. These shots were edited into a very funny montage in ‘That’s Entertainment, Part Two’. ‘Saratoga’ benefits from MGM’s usual high production standards, and an excellent supporting cast … including Charley Foy, Margaret Hamilton, Hattie McDaniel, Frank Morgan (less annoying than usual) and MGM’s stalwart character actor Cliff Edwards. I enjoyed ‘Saratoga’ and I’ll rate it 7 out of 10 … but it’s hardly a classic, and I’m confident that it would not have been one even if Harlow had completed it.



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