Just six days shooting remained on Jack Conway's Saratoga (1937) when its star, MGM's resident sex symbol Jean Harlow fell ill and succumbed to uremic poisoning at the tender age of 26. The back lot went into a state of shock, then mourning, leaving the completion of Harlow's last picture in jeopardy. MGM contemplated recasting the film with Virginia Bruce or Jean Arthur. But fans inundated the studio with pleas to release the film as a testament to its fallen star.
Several crucial sequences had yet to be filmed at the time of Harlow's passing. Undaunted, MGM regrouped, hired double Mary Dees and finished the film - a bittersweet occasion for all concerned. Fans may have won the battle, but the spoils of their conquest went straight into MGM's coffers. Saratoga was the biggest grossing film of 1937. Viewed today, Saratoga is not quite the memorable last act of Harlow's career that fans might have preferred. In fact, the screenplay by Anita Loos is rather pedestrian. Bookie Duke Bradley (Clark Gable) intervenes in the bank's takeover of Grampa Clayton's (Lionel Barrymore) once illustrious stud farm. Grandpa's son, Frank (Jonathan Hale) has been contemplating getting out of the horse race business for some time. Frank's weak heart has left him tired and slightly disillusioned about the future of the farm.
Meanwhile, Frank's daughter Carol (Jean Harlow) has been abroad in Europe these many months and has recently become engaged to wealthy Hartley Madison (Walter Pigeon). Duke and Hartley have a long standing - though very congenial - rivalry stemming from a bet Duke lost to Hartley on the racetrack. Duke vows to get even and confides his intensions to friends, Fritzi (Una Merkel) and Tip O'Brien (Cliff Edwards). But Fritzi's husband, Jesse Kiffmeyer (Frank Morgan) is the loveably jealous sort. He thinks Duke is making a play for Fritzi. Actually Duke is in love with Carol. After Frank dies of a heart attack Grandpa hands over the deed to the farm to Duke. Carol is outraged but can do nothing without buying the farm back.
At an auction Duke goads Hartley into betting on Moonray, a colt that Carol is selling to pay off her debts on the farm. Duke is determined to win Carol's heart. But when he confesses his intensions to soak Hartley for the necessary funds to marry her, Carol is outraged. Duke decides that the only way to win Carol is to win enough bets to own the farm outright. But Carol sets into motion a plan to teach Duke a lesson about living life on the prospect of good bets alone. Carol stacks the deck against Duke by getting Jesse's contract with jockey Dixie Gordon (Frankie Darro). But Fritzi learns of this plot and alerts Duke who has already taken a $100,000.000 bet from Hartley that Moonray will win. Instead, Fritzi's horse comes in, securing Duke's future interests in the farm and winning back Carol's love and affection.
Saratoga is rather convoluted entertainment, complicated by the fact that Harlow is absent from the last third. Mary Dee does a so-so job of faking Harlow's presence, shot mostly with her hand to her face or from the back to conceal her identity. But Harlow's inimitable brass and cheek is missing and it is greatly missed! Anita Loos was forced to rewrite the last act to accommodate Harlow's absence but either way, Saratoga isn't as grand or memorable as Harlow's five other movie outings with Gable - Red Dust (1932) being their finest. Viewed today, the sequence where a beleaguered Carol, recovering from the flu, has Duke rubbing liniment on her back is a painful reminder of the sad few days left in Harlow's own life. Indeed, Harlow looks bloated and unwell throughout most of the film. Her mother's religious beliefs prevented Harlow from seeking the necessary medical treatment to save her life. By the time L.B. Mayer learned of his star's ailing health it was already too late.
As a film, Saratoga is passable entertainment. But its love triangle gets buried under a quagmire of screwball misdirection. Is this a story of dirty underhanded horse racing, or a playful romantic romp for its two stars? The screenplay never entirely decides and as a result Saratoga flip-flops between these contradictory plot devices. By the end we really don't care if Grandpa gets his farm and only marginally worry whether or not Carol and Duke will be together before the final fade out. Gable's catch all, "I love yah!" doesn't cement their relationship either because he says it to virtually everybody in the cast. In the final analysis, Saratoga is good but not great. It is more of a footnote to the behind the scenes tragedy that brought down the curtain on one of Hollywood's most enduring and endearing stars.
Warner's Archive MOD DVD is a middling effort. The image is soft throughout, occasionally distractingly so, with a loss of fine detail that makes for a pretty murky presentation. Contrast levels seem a tad weak. Blacks are never truly black but velvety gray. Whites bloom during brighter scenes. Age related artifacts are everywhere and distracting. The audio is mono with noticeable hiss and pop throughout. The only extra is a very brief trailer hosted by Lewis Stone who does not appear in the film.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)