It’s the last time around for Clark Gable and Jean Harlow in a tepid romantic comedy.
The Production: 3/5
Jack Conway’s romantic comedy Saratoga isn’t distinguished by any particularly novel plot or any notably scintillating dialogue; rather, its reputation purely rests on its sterling cast of MGM luminaries in leading and supporting roles and by its being Jean Harlow’s final film, completed after her death and released a month later resulting in the studio’s biggest hit of the year. Movie fans wanted to pay the blonde star a fond farewell in her last movie and were naturally curious as to what MGM could do to complete the movie with several of the star’s scenes yet to be shot.
Bookmaker Duke Bradley (Clark Gable) holds the mortgage on the horse breeding farm deeded over to him after his death to cover his debts by Frank Clayton (Jonathan Hale). Frank’s daughter Carol (Jean Harlow) had long tired of raising and handicapping horses and had fled to Europe where she has met and fallen for millionaire businessman Hartley Madison (Walter Pidgeon) but is brought back to America after her father’s death to tie up loose ends before her marriage. But Duke has a score to settle with Hartley, and once he gets a gander at Carol, he becomes doubly interested in the welfare of the family resulting in an elaborate ruse to rejuvenate Carol’s interest in horse racing and possibly win her love in a romantic duel with Hartley.
The Anita Loos-Robert Hopkins screenplay is fairly standard fare for romantic comedy, the two would-be lovers parrying and thrusting insults and attempting to outmaneuver one another for the first hour before finally declaring their love only to have a lover’s tiff upset the apple cart and set them once again at odds before the big race for all the marbles. Harlow’s death obviously curtailed any overly complicated romantic resolutions before the final fade out, so the film’s last twenty minutes with Mary Dees standing in for the star (with binoculars or big, floppy hats covering her face) and Geraldine Dvorak and Paula Winslowe voicing a very few of Carol’s lines mimicking Harlow are notable for their less than satisfactory wrap-up for Carol’s engagement to Hartley and her falling into Duke’s arms. But the Duke-Carol-Hartley triangle isn’t the only relationship of importance in the film. Additional screen time is given over to one of Duke’s former paramours and horse racing fanatic Fritzi (Una Merkel) now married to the easily flustered and outrageously jealous cosmetics entrepreneur Jesse Kiffmeyer (Frank Morgan), and the intense rivalry between two competing jockeys: veteran Hard-Riding Hurley (Henry Stone) and the brash, rule-bending youngster Dixie Gordon (Frankie Darro). Solidly directed by Jack Conway, the climactic race which is make-or-break for Duke comes down to a photo finish, there’s some funny bedroom farce with Duke hiding under a divan and Carol trying to smoke his cigar, and there’s also a very enjoyable interlude that features all of the cast (including Hattie McDaniel’s feisty maid Rosetta and Cliff Edwards’ tout Tip) singing numerous choruses of the Walter Donaldson novelty tune “The Horse with the Dreamy Eyes.”
In this new high-definition transfer, it’s easy to spot in a couple of shots that Jean Harlow was not well. Dark circles under her eyes are not completely disguised by make-up and the camera’s being kept at a discreet distance. She’s affected a posh accent through much of the film in trying to distance herself from the racetrack, but the effervescence she showed in so many of her movies is not present here, her sixth and possibly least effective teaming with Gable. Clark Gable himself puts on the charm throughout, telling everyone in his orbit that he loves ‘em and working exceptionally hard to keep the plot galloping ahead. The MGM roster of star support is at its zenith here: Lionel Barrymore as Carol’s cantankerous grandfather yearning for a stallion for his breeding farm, Frank Morgan’s babbling hubby flustered and jealous at the same time, Una Merkel’s dizzy but deft horse fancier, Walter Pidgeon’s confident, determined fiancé, and George Zucco’s concerned nerve doctor hitting some hilarious moments examining Harlow to her extreme dissatisfaction. As always, Hattie McDaniel is a distinct pleasure to have around, and Jonathan Hale is touching and real as Carol’s father who wants the best for her even if he’s not able to provide it. Margaret Hamilton also has a delightful cameo as a patron furious that Jesse’s beauty cream isn’t having its desired effect on her.
3D Rating: NA
The film’s original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1 is faithfully reproduced in this 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. There are no age-related anomalies to spot here with a sharp and solid picture throughout. Grayscale is excellent with crisp whites and inky black levels. The movie has been divided into 23 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound mix is above average for a film of this age, but there are some occasional aural anomalies. Sound levels get a little muffled about half an hour into the picture, and soft hiss can be heard in quieter moments for much of the movie. Otherwise, dialogue is easy to understand, and the Edward Ward background music and the various sound effects have been combined nicely to make the final monophonic track.
Special Features: 2/5
The Romance of Celluloid (10:45, HD): though ostensibly a brief history about the production of celluloid, that merely serves as a jumping off point for MGM to tout its array of stars and films for the 1937-1938 movie season.
Theatrical Trailer (1:36, HD)
Notable as Jean Harlow’s last film, Jack Conway’s Saratoga is one of the lesser starring vehicles for the Clark Gable-Jean Harlow team. MGM’s stalwart stable of performers and top-notch production values save the day from a relatively mediocre narrative, but check out Red Dust or China Seas for the best of Gable and Harlow together.
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