Monday, November 28, 2011

The Jean Harlow Collection: Saratoga (1937)

Knowing that she died on the set of the film, it's almost impossible to watch Jean Harlow in Saratoga (1937) without a morbid focus. As a fan, it's a challenge to turn off that awareness and try to enjoy the film on its own.

I've seen Saratoga (1937) a few times but this is the first time I've watched it on DVD thanks to the Warner Archive's Jean Harlow Collection.

Jean Harlow plays Carol Clayton, the granddaughter of a horse breeder (Lionel Barrymore). She locks horns with Clark Gable's bookie Duke Bradley. With a script cowritten by Anita Loos, Saratoga (1937) is a chatty film with a lot of exposition.

Knowing that Jean had to be written out of scenes since she died before the film was finished, I always wondered if the picture was padded out, and if the boring bits here were the result of writers trying to cover up for her absence.

Una Merkel shows up as Fritzi, an old flame of Bradley's, and then Carol's dad dies at the track.

Soon, Bradley is arguing with Carol Clayton as she plans to marry a banker (Walter Pidgeon). It's all tedious stuff.

Jean looks sick here and Gable's done this sort of cad role dozens of times already.

Merkel's husband (Frank Morgan) buys a horse at auction and then more betting occurs and soon Jean and Gable are on a train. As Gable parties, Harlow tends to the books. Playing a high-strung business woman-type doesn't suit Harlow. She's too humorless here. Only 26, she already looks 36 in some shots and I'm sure that's a result of her illness.

For a few brief moments, Jean's Carol has a bit of fun on the train and the tone lightens up a bit.

Hattie McDaniel even gets in on the partying and sings a song. This sequence is the highlight of the film, frankly,

A scene where Jean's Carol is examined by a doctor is morbid and there's no other way to approach it. In the context of the film, it's meant to be a bit humorous but it's not. The doctor thinks Carol should get married to calm her down (!) but the gal still has a lot of anger about Bradley surprising her with a visit from her fiance.

It's complicated and silly stuff, especially when Duke has to hide under Carol's bed when her fiance comes over.

The other game a viewer ends up playing with Saratoga (1937) is trying to spot the double in the film. Contrary to what I thought when I first watched this flick, it's not an easy task (apart from one very obvious scene at the track, and another brief one with Hattie McDaniel); the use of the double isn't too obvious unless you know to look for her, and Jean is in most of the scenes that require her.

That said, it's easier to pick out the scenes she was written out of as it seems that she disappears for the final third of the film!

The best scene in the film could very well be the one where Margaret Hamilton angrily confronts businessman Frank Morgan. Seeing the Wizard of Oz and the Wicked Witch of the West banter a good 2 years before the release of The Wizard of Oz (1939) is a delight.

Saratoga (1937) remains a thing of morbid fascination. Not enjoyable -- Jean's best scenes are still weaker than stuff she did in other MGM pics -- and even a bit tedious since not much of the familiar Anita Loos wit is in the dialogue here, Saratoga (1937) is still probably essential viewing for Jean Harlow fans.

Just be prepared for a bit of boredom as Jean isn't in most of the final third of the film. Written out of scenes, or doubled for in others, her glamorous ghost haunts the film.