Blogathons

The Clark Gable Blogathon: Saratoga (1937)

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!

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Original theatrical poster for Saratoga (1937).

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?

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The last healthy picture ever taken of Jean Harlow, seen here with director Jack Conway and costar Clark Gable on the set of Saratoga (1937). Minutes after this photograph, Harlow would collapse on set, passing away one week later at the age of 26.

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.

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Clark Gable and Jean Harlow in a publicity photo for Saratoga (1937).

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.

7 thoughts on “The Clark Gable Blogathon: Saratoga (1937)

  1. Despite years of hearing about Saratoga, I haven’t watched it yet. I didn’t even realize what the plot was until I read your post. I’m not sure why I keep putting it off. Maybe it’s because of Harlow’s death. It’s pretty amazing that her fans begged for her final film to be released. I’m curious — are the dubbing and the stand-in obvious?

    Thanks for participating in my blogathon, and I hope you have fun at the festival! One of these days I’ll make it out there myself.

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    1. I honestly put it off for a long while too; I think avoiding her final film made it feel in a strange way that she never stopped making pictures. I think the fan reaction is amazing too, and what’s especially incredible about it is the fact that MGM actually listened to what the public wanted and released the film so quickly after. I was honestly afraid that I wouldn’t be able to tell when the stand-in was used, but it was just the opposite. Yes, it definitely is obvious, as those scenes are staged very oddly with Harlow’s character’s back to the camera or her large hats completely obscuring her face. Winslowe’s dubbing wasn’t perfect either, and I feel like her voice lacked the sharp tones that Harlow’s had.

      Thanks to you for hosting and for reading! I had a lot of fun!

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  2. I’m another one who keeps avoiding “Saratoga”, and maybe it’s because it’s Jean Harlow’s last film. But I was glad to read your synopsis, and doubly glad to learn that a person shouldn’t have high hopes for an action-packed film.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed reading! Yes, in most films the horse races are really exciting, but not so much in this film because there are so many and because the footage doesn’t make it clear who’s in the lead always, making you rely on the commentary to figure it out. The slow motion finish of the final race is pretty great, though!

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  3. Saratoga always makes me sad for obivious reasons- I need to re watch because I want to focus on the movie and not so much- where’s Jean’s double? But I agree its not a strong plot and had Jean not died maybe it would have been not as well known

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    1. Me too. I have to admit that I focused quite a lot on looking for the scenes in which they used a stand-in as well. I think it would have been known as just another Gable and Harlow picture, which of course were huge deals at the time, but there wasn’t really anything special to set it above the rest of their pairings.

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  4. I actually enjoyed Saratoga, but I can see how some might not. Gable is rather likeable in it and I love Barrymore as Grandpa Clayton. He’s so irascible. The battle of underhanded dealings between Gable and Harlow kept me guessing as to who would outsmart whom.

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