Happy February, classic film fans! It’s clear that I’ve been neglecting my most cherished blog once again, though this time it’s for a fantastic reason. Lately I’ve been keeping my head down and focusing on work so I can save up and attend this year’s TCM Film Festival! I’ve secured a hotel, purchased my ticket and flight, and now all I need to do is save up for a chic vintage wardrobe as well as some spending money and I’ll be all set. Of course now that the majority of the logistics have been taken care of, I find myself back here again and ready to kick off the second month of the year with a bang by celebrating the King of Hollywood himself, Clark Gable, two days after what would have been his 117th birthday! Many thanks to our gracious host, Michaela of Love Letters to Old Hollywood, for putting together such a fantastic blogathon for such a fantastic man!
I don’t exaggerate when I say that I’ve been wanting to watch Saratoga (1937) for years. I’ve seen many of Clark Gable’s pictures but reviewed very few, and once I was able to access the film, I knew instantly that I had to write about it. Saratoga (1937) is about Duke Bradley (Gable), a bookie who is given a stud farm by his close friend Frank Clayton (Johnathan Hale) in order to repay some of his gambling debts. The farm is really run by his father, Grandpa Clayton (Lionel Barrymore), who seems to be the only person who actually has a deep sentiment for the farm and the horses on it. His granddaughter and Frank’s daughter Carol (Jean Harlow), on the other hand, is often abroad among high society, and has found herself engaged to millionaire Hartley Madison (Walter Pidgeon). Her father is thrilled when he hears the news as he’s always wanted Carol to be among the aristocratic crowd, but Duke feels the opposite as he’s already taken a liking to Carol and wants her for himself. His desire for her changes his entire outlook on life as well as his goals, and once Frank Clayton passes away Duke makes it his mission to swindle every cent out of Carol’s fiancé that he can in order to restore the stud farm to its former glory, marry Carol, and provide for her and her grandfather rather than sell the farm as he was originally instructed to do. Will Duke succeed, or will his efforts to sabotage Hartley lead to Carol doing some sabotaging of her own?
Saratoga (1937) made its mark on the history of cinema for a multitude of reasons, including this being one of the only pictures to show Clark Gable singing a solo part, but it’s best known today as the final film of legendary actress Jean Harlow. Harlow’s scenes were almost finished when she collapsed on set while filming a scene with Walter Pidgeon, and she died just a week later of kidney failure at the age of 26. Despite production being completely underway, MGM was reluctant to complete Saratoga (1937) with Harlow in the lead, wanting to reshoot her scenes with Jean Arthur or Virginia Bruce as a replacement. However, Harlow’s dedicated fans were enraged after hearing the news and flooded the studio with demands to see her onscreen one last time, and MGM relented, filling in the last of her scenes with stand-in Mary Dees filmed from behind and dubbing her voice with that of Paula Winslowe. Saratoga (1937) was released to her adoring public just under seven weeks after her passing, and as a result it became one of the highest grossing films of the year. Harlow’s passing wasn’t the only tragedy to happen on set. The other came when costar Lionel Barrymore tripped over a lighting cable, breaking his hip for the second time most of the way through the production. Barrymore was confined to a wheelchair for the next ten years and lost an immense amount of weight during his healing process. His ill health is apparent in films like Key Largo (1948), but eventually he was able to walk for a few of his later pictures.
It pains me to say this about what promised to be a fantastic swan song for Jean Harlow and a wonderful addition to the many Clark Gable films that I already enjoy, but I did find Saratoga (1937) to be a bit of a bore. It seemed that nearly every scene included a mundane discussion of money or a horse race that seemed to go on forever. I suppose that I should have expected such going into this film, but the only performance that really held my attention was that of Walter Pidgeon as Hartley Madison. I surprisingly adored his character and felt that he was a better choice for Carol, but once again I guess that’s just my personal opinion. Despite not caring for the details of the storyline, I was absolutely thrilled by the cast as a whole. So many of the names that made up the supporting cast were ones that I admired like Frank Morgan as a wealthy husband who dislikes horses, Una Merkel as his sassy and no-nonsense wife, Hattie McDaniel as Carol’s housekeeper Rosetta, and even the Wicked Witch herself Margaret Hamilton in a bit part, sharing a scene with Frank Morgan two years prior to The Wizard of Oz (1939). I think that Saratoga (1937) is essential material if you’re a fan of Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, and their legendary onscreen love, but if you don’t care much for sports, you might be sorely disappointed in the plot.