Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Saratoga (1937)

Director: Jack Conway

A prominent aspect to the movie making machine that is Hollywood is how motion pictures are made successful simply by the names of its stars and the news that surrounds them. This is a clear case in MGM’s 1937 picture Saratoga. It’s a romantic comedy set around the world of American horse racing, but its production is the real life story of tragedy of one the feature’s leading actress during the filming that made the picture the greatest attraction for MGM during the year. Starring two of the studio’s biggest names in romantic comedies Saratoga is more interesting of a motion picture when considering the background of the film’s production.

Saratoga is a romantic comedy of a horse breeder’s daughter, the horse bookie who her family is very much in debt to, and his beginning to take a shin to young lady. The film is about two very different people living in the same business, Duke (Clark Gable) who is a bookie and Carol, the daughter of a successful horse breeder who has hit hard times of late. Duke is an old friend of Carol’s father and her grandfather (Lionel Barrymore), who is the old-timer in the breeding world. The engaged, big city living Carol loses her father to ill health and she attempts to steady the family business, while being completely disgusted by the charming Duke. Duke plays games with Carol to show just how cunning he is and despite initial disgust a small relationship begins to grow. Complications once again arise between the two as Duke tries to prove Carol is marrying for money and not love. An angered Carol attempts to sabotage Duke’s big bet with Carol’s horse, a move she discovers is a bad decision when she discovers Duke was planning to take the winnings from the bet to quit the bookie business and marry Carol. Duke finds a way win the bet on a suspenseful horse race and Duke and Coral are set to live happily ever after.

Barrymore, Harlow, and Morgan
The plot and overall storyline of the film is rather convoluted to follow at times, especially for those not of the horse racing world, while the characters follow a tale of unlikely romance in business where money seems to be thrown around all to easily. Production quality is up to MGM’s lofty standards especially with a director like Jack Conway at the helm of the feature, a filmmaker with skill at location shooting and is rather good with actors. The film is filled with noteworthy stars, from Gable and Harlow to supporting cast members like the great Lionel Barrymore and Frank Morgan.

All in all, the picture is good, not great or even noteworthy of a production, yet it was one of MGM’s greatest money makers of year. This would not be due to an exceptional story, new techniques or innovations, or even outstanding performances. The success of the picture would be directly attributed to the name of Jean Harlow alone, not for usual sex appeal or improving acting skills. Rather, the film’s anticipation was due to her untimely death and the hindrance it would put on Saratoga. Therefore, Saratoga is really not a story about romance and horse racing, but rather about the loss of one of Hollywood’s bigger female stars.

Originally intended as a vehicle for the platinum blond star there were times MGM attempted to fill the leading actress role with others including Carol Lombard and Joan Crawford, but word of Jean Harlow’s name attached to the original concept landed her the role opposite MGM’s quickest rising leading man Clark Gable. Both stars were known for their recent successes in romantic comedies and the two bounce comedic situations well off each other, but unknown to both of them was the condition that actually hindered Harlow from doing her absolute best.

Leading up to the production of Saratoga Harlow was hospitalized for an impacted wisdom tooth, the most recent event in a string of various health issues that seemed to fall on the young blond star. After a very taxing time of her young career Harlow came down with a serious bout of influenza and even sun poisoning from a bad sunburn. Due to all these illnesses doctors were unable to see she was suffering from symptoms that where far more serious. During shooting Harlow had a grey complexion that was covered by makeup, battled general fatigue that gave her the need to be held up by co-star Gable between shots, and major fluxuations in water weight. A keen eyed viewer can see Harlow with lesser amounts of energy, easily hid by the snooty character she is playing, and how she retains water weight at various times, fluctuating the shape and roundness of her face and arms through the picture. A professional Harlow would keep to it in production despite how awful she felt and the massive need of help she had when the cameras were not rolling.

With most of the picture completed Harlow would collapse on set, be hospitalized, and within a week pass away of what was eventually discovered to be from kidney failure missed by doctors due to her other illnesses. With the filming at a standstill, MGM pondered what to do with the production. First the studio considered recasting Harlow’s role with Virginia Bruce or Jean Arthur, but as news swirled around Hollywood Harlow fans went in an uproar with the possibility of not seeing Harlow in her final role. In conclusion MGM would decide to film around Harlow’s death. The script was altered to lessen the appearance of the character of Carol in the remaining scenes still needed to be completed, having already filmed the most important shots of the picture. When it was necessary to have Carol in a scene a body double was used, usually obscuring the face to hide that it was not actually Harlow, and replacing the double’s voice, when needed, with a sound-alike voice actor. Within seven weeks of Harlow’s death Saratoga was completed and ready to premiere to an awaiting audience for one last film starring the blonde beauty.

To hide the fact this was a body double binoculars were used to cover Carol's face.
Audiences came out in large numbers to see Harlow for the last time, the last appearance of the actress after her death. To many it became a game to point out the moments when Carol is not actually Jean Harlow on the screen, which is easy to tell because Carol’s face is usually covered by large hats, binoculars, or simply her head is turned away from the camera. In one case the body double starts the scene while ends to a point where Harlow actually finishes it. To complete the illusion of Harlow throughout the picture is the final shot with Gable and Harlow singing together to conclude the picture. It would be the celebrated final time audiences would see their beloved star.

The death of Harlow was enough of an attraction for audiences to come out in great numbers. Harlow attracted tabloids at a high rate already in her career and her death only seemed to make her more of an attraction. Her death was surrounded by controversial rumors, from being caused by over bleaching of her hair, an overly active sex life, sexually transmitted diseases, to her mother refusing to give her daughter medical care because for religious beliefs in Christian Science. All of these rumors plus the idea that her symptoms were on display in the film, while trying to spot the moments where Harlow was replaced, all these aspects created a buzz few films of the time did, aiding to inflate the box office success the picture would see.

Smaller notes from production would include another, far lesser tragic, event as Lionel Barrymore would take a bad fall and re-break his hip. Already aging Barrymore was suffering from effects of arthritis making his future performances difficult as he was far less mobile. He can be seen in at times in Saratoga heavily leaning on objects or hanging onto horses just to provide the illusion he can move as he portrays the horse breeder “Grandpa.”

Not much else can be said that is worth noting about the film as its story is not one of great merit, and the history of the production really surround one actress. A note of trivia is a moment of cinematic foreshadowing where supporting actor Frank Morgan, playing a wealthy man who owns a well known brand of beauty products,  as he sits in train car conversing with a middle-aged lady debating the effectiveness for his products in a comedic scene. This actress in this short role is Margret Hamilton, who in 1939 would play the famous Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz. Frank Morgan in that picture would the infamous title character, putting the Wicked Witch and the Wizard of Oz sitting next to each other for one scene here in Saratoga.

Another early pairing here in Saratoga of two actors in another all time MGM classic is with the appearance of Hattie McDaniel. McDaniel and Gable would both be members of the cast of Gone with the Wind, of which McDaniel would win an Oscar for her performance and Gable would receive a nomination.

Saratoga lays a noted picture in the library of MGM’s films during its golden age, but sadly for tragic reasons. It stands as one final performance for an actress taken away at a very young age, who began very green, but evolved into a decent actress in time. She was a sex symbol, one of Hollywood’s most famous platinum blonds, who because of her passing at a young age would live on forever in the minds of her fans as an ageless legend of the silver screen.

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