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The Films of Jean Harlow: Saratoga (1937)

The Films of Jean Harlow comes to a close and it’s all rather bittersweet as Harlow didn’t complete this final film.  Saratoga just wasn’t for me, namely because I don’t find anything compelling about horse racing, but her relationship with Gable’s character is great and if anything Harlow goes out with a great performance.  Sadly, watching this movie is sad because it is obvious (to me at least) were the body double is since Harlow was dying.  If you can ignore the tragic circumstances Saratoga is an okay film.

The Clayton horse farm is in danger of being lost due to the gambling debts of patriarch Frank Clayton (Jonathan Hale).  When he dies, the farm goes to bookie Duke Bradley (Clark Gable).  Daughter Carol Clayton (Harlow) plans on marrying the wealthy Hartley Madison (Walter Pidgeon) and getting everything back, but she has to bet Duke she can do so without Hartley’s help.

The film was always intended to star Harlow but other actresses including Carole Lombard and Joan Crawford were considered before Harlow committed to it.  Personally, she’s really good in this role.  She’s not fantastic or even great, but really good.  Her Carol is still that sassy spitfire we all know and love, and she’s got fantastic chemistry with Gable.  I just didn’t see her as anything more than the dumb daughter trying to do good.  She’s sweet and fun, but she doesn’t have that spark I saw in previous films.

Before I get into the more tragic elements, what about the rest of the film?  I’m just not a fan of horse racing and that’s a significant element in the film.  Hell, even the title of the movie Saratoga, is in reference to horse racing.  The constant betting jargon and the big horse race at the end just weren’t for me.  The rest of the cast is great.  Gable continues to play that fast-talking charmer while the true standout to me was Lionel Barrymore.  We’ve seen him in a few other Harlow films but he’s hilarious as Grandpa Clayton.  His snide comments and flustered speeches are where the comedy lies.  The movie also boasts another Wizard of Oz reunion!  Frank Morgan, the Wizard, plays Jesse Kiffmeyer (a man allergic to horses) and in one scene he shares dialogue with an uncredited Margaret Hamilton (the Wicked Witch of the West).

It can’t be avoided, Saratoga is tinged because of Harlow’s demise.  The film was released less than a month after her death and was one of her biggest successes because of it.  MGM had wanted to reshoot the film with (which was 90% completed) either Virginia Bruce or Jean Arthur but fans vetoed it.  Honestly, Harlow plays the role so well that it wouldn’t have worked at all with another actress.  The scenes Harlow didn’t complete are minor and had Mary Dees act as a body double with Paula Winslowe dubbing her voice.  I couldn’t tell the voice dubbing but a few scenes I found obvious a body double was used.  The way Carol stands in a scene with her back to the camera only to have another actor show up and move her implies that the double is used.  Other moments like Harlow faking a fever are even sadder considering after filming that scene Harlow asked Gable to take her back to her dressing room because she felt so awful.  It was this scene that was the final shot for her.

Harlow died a week later and it makes Saratoga a sad film no matter what genre it falls under.  A good film with some great work from Harlow and Gable.  We have one more review as I look at the two box sets and the films as a whole!

Grade: C+

Kristen Lopez View All

A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.

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