Jean Harlow’s final film is a bittersweet affair. The beloved star tragically succumbed to an illness during the final stages of shooting and her passing casts a pall over this run-of-the-mill romantic comedy with a horse-racing backdrop. Though it's always a treat to see Harlow and Clark Gable share the screen, Saratoga is far from their finest picture together. Warner Archive’s excellent transfer struck from a 4K scan of preservation elements is a huge step up from the DVD, making this an essential upgrade for Harlow (and Gable) fans. Recommended.
Jean Harlow and Clark Gable made six pictures together and they likely would have made several more were it not for Harlow's tragic death at the tender age of 26 in 1937. The pair was about two-thirds of the way through shooting Saratoga, a lackluster romcom with a race-horsing backdrop when Harlow fell ill, and after she succumbed to kidney failure a short time later, MGM considered scrapping her footage and starting over with another actress. Public outcry spurred the studio to complete the movie with lookalike stand-ins and a voice imitator to dub her lines, and when the finished film premiered less than two months after Harlow's death, moviegoers flocked to catch a final glimpse of the beloved star. Saratoga not only became MGM's highest-grossing picture of 1937, but it also stands as the most successful film of Harlow's career.
Successful, yes. Best? Far from it. Without the notoriety of Harlow's untimely passing, Saratoga is a forgettable film that even its esteemed cast can't salvage. Yes, it's a romantic comedy, but it's a very sad film to watch, especially if you're a Harlow fan. Seeing the former "Blonde Bombshell" who enlivened countless movies with her sassy sparkle and heart of gold appearing tired, worn, occasionally bloated, and as if she's really struggling to muster the energy her role requires is - in a word - heartbreaking. In several scenes, her puffy eyes sport dark circles and her internal flame, which burned so bright during her brief six-year reign as a Hollywood icon, seems to be dimming before our eyes. Making matters worse, her character is also sick throughout much of the film with either a headache, cold, or "nerves." Whether all of those maladies were in the original script or a few were last-minute fabrications to accommodate Harlow's weakness or explain her absence in scenes that seem to have been retooled after her death remains a mystery, but they add to the morbid aura swirling about the movie.
The Saratoga story is about as wispy as they come, but it notably came from the pen of Anita Loos, who wrote Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as well as four previous - and very fine - Harlow pictures. Carol Clayton (Harlow) is the pampered daughter of a horse breeder whose irresponsible gambling leads to the loss of the family farm. Charming bookie Duke Bradley (Gable) now holds the deed and Carol, who's engaged to suave millionaire Hartley Madison (Walter Pidgeon), is determined to reclaim it, but without any help from her wealthy fiancé. Of course, Carol despises Duke at first, but as the plot thickens and circumstances throw them together, she discovers he's not such a bad apple after all. Some madcap complications and a bit of drama punctuate the tale, which climaxes with a big race at the titular track that will determine everyone's financial and emotional futures.
As I watched Saratoga this time around, I found it difficult to focus on the plot because I was constantly zeroing in on Harlow. How does she look here? How sick is she in this shot? Has her weight changed? She looks fresher here, has more energy there. This scene must have been filmed early on, as she almost seems like her old vivacious self. I wonder how soon after she finished that scene she collapsed on the set, never to return. I also tried to figure out which scenes she was written out of and gauge the reactions of her fellow actors in their scenes together. Does everyone seem a bit preoccupied and on edge or is that my imagination given my knowledge of both the tragedy to come and its aftermath?
Over the years, Saratoga has become kind of a game for movie buffs, as viewers anxiously await the scenes and shots that feature a double and/or a dubbed voice and anticipate what gimmicks will be used to hide the imposter's face. Binoculars at the race track are a favorite mask, as is a wide-brimmed floppy hat worn strategically askew. Sometimes the double's back is simply pointed toward the camera with just the slightest hint of a profile. Although the two stand-ins who sub for Harlow look amazingly like her in the isolated shots that reveal portions of her face, it's obvious we're not seeing - and hearing - the real Jean.
Lionel Barrymore, who plays Carol's crusty grandfather, also suffered during Saratoga's production, tripping over a cable on the set and breaking his hip for the second time. The injury, which would permanently disable the actor, might explain why he, too, disappears from the film for long stretches. Sadly, Saratoga would mark the last time moviegoers would see Barrymore on his feet. He would be shot sitting, lying down, or in a wheelchair for the rest of his career.
Gable flashes his mile-wide grin with abandon during the movie and milks his signature line, "I love ya," for all it's worth. His is a breezy portrayal that's interchangeable with countless other Gable performances, and his numerous jovial interactions with the always-welcome Hattie McDaniel as the effervescent Clayton family maid preview their equally lively exchanges a couple of years later in Gone with the Wind. A typically befuddled Frank Morgan also appears in the film and shares a brief but memorable scene with bit player Margaret Hamilton two years before they both would achieve immortality in another iconic 1939 movie, The Wizard of Oz. The snappy Una Merkel, ukulele-toting Cliff Edwards, and a young Dennis O'Keefe round out the loaded cast.
Harlow gives as much as she can, but her performance understandably lacks her trademark verve and the crackling chemistry she and Gable usually share is somewhat flat. We can only imagine how good Saratoga might have been had Harlow been healthy and firing on all cylinders. Instead, director Jack Clayton's film is two-thirds morbid curiosity piece and one-third entertaining romcom, an unfortunate ratio for any movie, but especially this one, which bids adieu to one of the brightest lights of Hollywood's Golden Age.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Saratoga arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
A brand new 4K scan of preservation elements yields an excellent 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that beats the previous DVD by as much as Secretariat beat the rest of the field in the 1973 Belmont Stakes! Clarity and contrast are vastly improved and all the marks, scratches, and blotches that littered the DVD have vanished. The result is a pristine, vibrant image that features a healthy - but not overwhelming - amount of grain that faithfully honors the cinematography of three-time Oscar nominee Ray June. Rich blacks, bright, stable whites, and nicely varied grays distinguish the picture, and though some intermittent softness creeps in, the overall presentation is consistent. Costume patterns are solid, shadow delineation is good, and background elements are easy to discern. The sharp close-ups are a double-edged sword; they showcase Harlow's loveliness one minute, then draw attention to her fatigue the next. Though not as dazzling as some Warner Archive transfers, this one still earns high marks and definitely merits an upgrade if you're a fan.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track supplies clear, well-modulated sound. Bass frequencies are especially strong during the climactic racing scenes that feature thunderous rumbling horse hooves galloping around the track. A wide dynamic scale embraces all the highs and lows of seven-time Oscar nominee Edward Ward's music score without any distortion and both sonic accents like neighing horses and subtleties like chirping birds come through cleanly. Some of the dialogue is a bit muffled, but the bulk of exchanges are easy to comprehend and all of the surface noise that plagued the DVD has been erased.
Warner Archive ups the extras ante for the Blu-ray, including a vintage short along with the original trailer from the DVD.
Vintage Short: The Romance of Celluloid (HD, 11 minutes) - This edition of the popular MGM series that celebrates the studio's product and stars begins with a look at how cotton is used to produce film stock, then takes us behind the scenes to MGM's scene shop, makeup department, and the screen test set. We're also treated to "candid" shots of such stars as Robert Montgomery, Rosalind Russell, Gladys George, and Maureen O'Sullivan. My favorite part of these shorts are the promos for upcoming productions, some of which never get made or end up with altered titles and different actors. In addition to snippets from such bona fide films as Garbo's Conquest, Big City with Luise Rainer and Spencer Tracy, Live, Love, and Learn with Montgomery and Russell, Joan Crawford's The Bride Wore Red, and William Powell and Myrna Loy in Double Wedding, a promo for Three Comrades hypes James Stewart and Spencer Tracy in key roles that eventually would be played by Franchot Tone and Robert Young. Films that never got made but are advertised here with great fanfare include Clark Gable in The Great Canadian and Robert Taylor and Spencer Tracy in Tell It to the Marines.
Theatrical Trailer (SD, 2 minutes) - Actor Lewis Stone soberly introduces the film's original preview, citing the enormous public pleas to complete the picture following Harlow's tragic death. A narrator then explains how the wizards at MGM were able to finish the film without Harlow.
Saratoga is a tough film to evaluate, considering all the challenges it faced, but even if Harlow could have completed it, it’s doubtful even her vitality and grace could turn this horse-racing romcom into something special. More of a morbid curiosity piece than a cohesive picture, Saratoga coasts along on the strength of its cast, but remains maddeningly mundane. Warner Archive’s top-flight transfer struck from a 4K scan of preservation elements appropriately honors Harlow and Gable (and bests the previous DVD by a mile), so if you’re a fan of these two legends, you’ll want this fine disc in your collection. Recommended.
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