As most classic film fans know, Saratoga was, tragically, Jean Harlow’s last film. It was her seventh film with her good friend, Clark Gable, with whom she had starred in such classics as Red Dust, Wife vs Secretary and Hold Your Man. Jean had suffered from ill health for much of her life, and had been ill for a fairly protracted period due to undiagnosed kidney complications, perhaps exacerbated by the dental surgery she had during the time of what would be her fatal illness. Despite the tragic circumstances of its completion, Saratoga is a solid romantic comedy. It is not the best of Jean and Gable’s pairings, in my humble opinion that goes to Red Dust, but the film very competently showcases why they were such a winning pair.
The Horse with the Dreamy Eyes
The Clayton breading farm has seen much much better days, having bred many of the finest racing horses in the South, as shown by the line of tombstones that mark the graves of the champions of yesteryear. But now Grandpa (played by Lionel Barrymore) has been forced to sell off all of their stallions, and their last yearling, Moonray (what a lovely name) is also likely to be sold soon. Grandpa complains about this bitterly to Duke (played by Clarke Gable), a bookie who is a friend of both Grandpa and his son, Frank (played by Jonathon Hale). Whilst Grandpa shouts at the latest buyer, Rosetta (played by my girl Hattie McDaniel), the Clayton’s housekeeper, says that Miss Carol (played by Jean Harlow) is on the phone from England, and wants to speak to her father. Frank is at the doctor’s, so Duke takes the call and proceeds to insult Carol for her highhanded manner and jeeringly congratulate her for her advantageous marriage-to-be to Hartley Madison (Walter Pidgeon). Carol, unsurprisingly, hangs up the phone.
When Frank returns, Grandpa and Duke inform him of the news, and rub their hands in glee at the thought of a “sucker” coming into the family, whose money can revive the farm. Frank is unimpressed, and then tells Duke that he is giving him the deed to the farm as surety for the $60 000 he owes Duke from gambling debts, due to Frank’s poor heart. Duke is adamant that he won’t take it, but Frank convinces him after he explains that it’s to protect Carol’s future. He then says that he’s glad about the marriage because he doesn’t want Carol to be a “dressed up gypsy” anymore.
At the racetrack, Duke and Carol meet for the first time, and instantly dislike each other, which is exacerbated by Duke’s clear motivations towards Hartley. When Frank collapses, Carol goes off to get him a bicarbonate soda, as this seems to usually help him, but Duke informs her that it’s too late, and her father is dead. This causes Carol to find out about Duke’s holding of the deed to the farm. Duke plans to give it to her, but she misconstrues his motives, and says she’ll get Hartley to pay him off. Duke is furious, and tells her to leave.
In the meantime, Duke’s old friend, Fritzi (played by the hilarious Una Merkel) has married Jesse Kiffmeyer (played by the equally funny Frank Morgan), who is known as the cold cream king, and owns a cosmetic empire. However, Jesse is allergic to horses and won’t let Fritzi buy Dubeneaur, a prize racehorse. Duke manages to get Jesse’s sneezes to be seen as a bid, and convinces Jesse to get the horse for good publicity. At the same auction, Carol is selling Moonray, much to Grandpa’s disgust. Hartley and Duke getting into a bidding war, and when Carol tries to turn the tables on Duke, he turns them right back and gets Hartley to pay $14 000 for the yearling. Grandpa is asked to train Moonray for the upcoming races, and Grandpa laments that he now owns no viable racing horses.
Carol, having been raised by horsemen, wins $3750 from Duke, who is rather pleased. Despite Carol’s dislike for him, they get along on a train ride, singing The Horse with the Dreamy Eyes, along with the other bookies and horse owners, as well as Rosetta (who does the best verse of the song). But their temporary goodwill sours when Duke misunderstands Carol’s reasons for marrying Hartley and tries to set up a betting scam, with Hartley as the victim, with Carol. Carol is extremely upset, and can’t even be comforted by Rosetta.
Duke and Carol’s relationship continues to suffer when Hartley loses money to Duke at the races. When Duke goes to visit Carol, he tells her that she’d better not let Hartley leave, or he’ll tell him that he and Carol are having an affair. Carol convinces Hartley to stay due to this blackmail, whilst Duke hides under the couch. On the train bound for the next race, Fritzi tells Duke that she knows that he loves Carol, he admits that he does. Carol has fallen ill and when Duke visits her in her compartment, she tells him that she loves him and won’t marry Hartley. Duke hashes things once again when he tells Carol that he needs Hartley as a sucker. Carol throws him out again.
At the next race, Duke allows Hartley to win so that Hartley will have the confidence to bet continuously larger amounts until Duke has him where he wants him. But things go awry when Carol convinces Hartley to get Dubeneaur’s trainer. Jesse agrees to sell the contract to them due to his jealously of Duke and Fritzi’s friendship. Hartley also realises that the cigar he found in Carol’s room before was in fact Duke’s, and so he gets the bookie to bet $100 000 on Dubeneaur, even though he knows that Moonray will win. Duke learns this from Fritzi (who’s given her husband a good walloping) too late, but is surprisingly upbeat about it all.
At the big race, Duke also learns from Frtizi that Carol feels terrible about what she has done. Duke says that he would’ve done the same thing, but Fritzi says that Carol knows he wouldn’t have. The race between Duberneaur and Moonray is so close that the judges have to decide the outcome based on slow motion film. Carol shouts “come on Dubeneaur!” revealing her love for Duke. When Dubeneur is announced as the winner, it is clear that Carol and Hartley’s engagement is no more.
The film ends with Carol and Duke on the train bound for their honeymoon, singing The Horse with the Dreamy Eyes.
Jean: The Comedic Genius
I hadn’t watched Saratoga in many years, but I remember enjoying it. This time around, I did enjoy it once again, although that was not due so much to the story, which is rather middling, but to the stellar cast. Clark Gable is his usual handsome, flippant self, especially in his scenes with Jean, who he gives his signature grin and eyebrow raise. They have wonderful chemistry whenever they’re together, whether it’s a romantic exchange or a not-so-romantic one. It’s clear by this stage that Jean and Gable were wonderful friends, and they have such a natural ease to their onscreen dynamic. Nothing feels forced or over acted, especially in their comedic scenes together, where they both showcase their different, but perfectly matched styles.
Lionel Barrymore as Grandpa is a delight to watch. He’s crochety and fed up, and probably one of my favourite characters in the film. I love how he interacts with Gable, and he and Walter Pidgeon’s exchanges are great, too. With Walter acting as the straight man whilst Barrymore rolls his eyes. Unfortunately Barrymore was supposed to have fallen over a cable whilst filming and broken his hip for the second time, exacerbating lifelong hip issues. Despite this, he gives a standout performance in the film, and does much with a smaller supporting role, elevating every scene he is in.
Hattie McDaniel, who is one of my absolute favourite character actresses, gives another outstanding performance in this film. Although she once again plays the domestic worker, she steals every scene she is in. Most especially when she sings her verse of The Horse with the Dreamy Eyes, and her own eyes roll about comically and she gives us her signature cheeky grin. When I saw her at the beginning of the film, a huge smile spread across my face, and every scene she was in made the film better for me. Her scenes with Gable and Jean are especially wonderful to watch, and the great comedic play between she and Gable is a lovely preview to Gone with the Wind.
Walter Pidgeon, who I always like, is no less likeable in this film, although he isn’t given much more to do than moon over Jean and frown rather adorably when she tells him to do things. I felt sorry for him for most of the film, but he shows his subtle talent when he transforms his character through a rather unlikeable betrayal of Duke through the culminating of their parlay. Una Merkel is a joy to watch in this film. Her comedic timing is sensational as always, and she has marvellous chemistry with everyone in the cast. I especially love she and Frank Morgan’s exchanges, as he does his usually hilarious verbal fumbling while she roles her eyes and pats him on the hand. Without her, I don’t think that the film’s sense of comedy or pathos would be as good as it is.
Now let’s talk about our star: Jean Harlow. Firstly, let’s address the white elephant in the room. Jean did tragically die of renal failure during the filming of Saratoga, and many people talk about being able to figure out the scenes where it is her stand in, Mary Dees, who plays Carol and Paula Winslow who supplies her voice. Both women imitate Jean competently, and they both deserve praise for allowing us to have Jean in the film instead of Virginia Bruce or Jean Arthur as originally planned. Although I very much like both of those actresses, Jean really does make this film. Her comedic timing is sensational, especially in the scene where she smokes Duke’s cigar in a bid to hide his presence from Hartley. Her facial expression and voice left me in stitches, as does the way in which she puts on an affected tone of voice whenever she wants to put Duke down when he gets too full of himself.
Despite her illness, she also looks lovely in the film. I really like how her hair is styled and the dress she is wearing in the scene where she puts Moonray up for auction. The little curled fringe showcases her lovely eyes, and the gold, lame dress she wears showcases her wonderful, slinky walk.
She is able to switch between comedy and drama at a moment’s notice and make it look utterly natural. A good example of this wonderful timing is when she changes from an old flannel robe in her compartment into a fur negligee whilst Duke waits for admittance, and then tells him that she loves him. There is nothing forced about her realisation of a character who could very easily have become unlikable if not handled expertly as Jean does.
The film may not be as good as her previous ones, and it really pains me to think that this was her last film. I have no doubt that she would’ve carried on to have a wonderful career throughout the subsequent decades, especially in the 1940s, when she could’ve been a sensational femme fatale in noir or a pillar of strength in war films. She also could have expanded into musicals in the 1950s. But I am very glad that her last film was with one of her best friends, Clark Gable, because they showcase why they were seen as such a successful onscreen pairing. The last scene of the film is lovely, as she and Gable smile at each other as their characters celebrate their marriage.
Even though many people may tell you not to bother due to unfavourable comparisons to Red Head Woman, Red Dust and Dinner at Eight, which are stronger films, I encourage you to seek Saratoga out for its airy plot, wonderful cast and a lovely final performance from a dame who deserved all of her success and the stellar legacy she left behind.
This is my contribution for The Jean Harlow Blogathon being hosted by The Wonderful World of Cinema and Musings of A Classic Film Addict. Please check out their blogs for more information and to read everyone’s contributions!