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Carol Clayton is the daughter of a horse breeder at Saratoga. Though engaged to wealthy Hartley Madison, and disgusted by bookie Duke Bradley, her father owes Bradley a lot of money and Bradley takes a shine to her. Written by
Ed Stephan <email@example.com>
'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.
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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