Jean Harlow’s death in 1937 at the age of 26 came to a shock to many; particularly those working on her last film, “Saratoga.”
Anita Loos described in her 1977 book “Cast of Thousands: A Pictorial Memoir of the Most Glittering Stars in Hollywood,” waiting on the set with Clark Gable and other stars in the film for Jean Harlow to get out of the hospital. Loos wrote the screenplay for “Saratoga,” along with several other Jean Harlow films like “Red-Headed Woman.” The book is divided up into different sections about several different actors that Loos encountered during her time in Hollywood, and a large portion is dedicated to working with Jean, Jean’s marriage to Paul Bern, and her death.
The stars were under the impression that Harlow would get well again, the film would be completed, and they would continue on with their usual business. If I recall correctly, Loos said Harlow had been off the set for a few days, and they continued shooting the scenes without her. When they received the phone call of her death, they were shocked, and close friend Clark Gable (who nicknamed her Sis) was devastated.
I saw “Saratoga” two summers ago and thought it was entertaining but rather disturbing. The film was incomplete when Harlow died, so several of her scenes had to be shot with her double Mary Dees and a voice double.
The scenes after Jean’s death are weird and uncomfortable to watch for a couple of reasons:
1. The fact that you know she is dead, even though you saw her before at the beginning of the movie
2. The covering of the face, the irritating fake voice and the thin scenes the double is in are disconcerting. The voice drives me up the wall and part of you is like “Turn around, I want to see Jean’s face” though you know darn well it’s not her. The scenes with the double are so brief and fleeting that you can tell the crew was saying, “Let’s wrap this up as quickly and painlessly as possible.”
3. The fact that Jean is in the last scene singing with Clark Gable on the train. I guess this scene was shot earlier, but you almost think, “Oh, there’s Baby, she’s okay.”
Here are scenes that someone put together of Jean’s double taking over for the rest of “Saratoga”:
Here is a video of Jean acting in “Red Dust” (1932) so you can compare the voices:
Regardless of the double, the general plot of “Saratoga” is good, and it has a strong cast, including Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, Walter Pidgeon, Frank Morgan and Lionel Barrymore. Clark Gable is his usual scoundrel, playing a gambler this time, who wins a ranch in a bet from Lionel Barrymore. Now that he’s won Barrymore’s ranch, Clark is now trying to win over his daughter Jean Harlow. This was Harlow and Clark’s sixth and last film together.
With the star power here, this clearly wasn’t a B movie that they were throwing Jean in because they thought she was washed up. There was a lot of money at stake. After Jean’s death, there were talks about shelving the movie and reshooting her parts with Virginia Bruce or Jean Arthur. However, fans pleaded with MGM to let them get one last chance to see their Baby, according to IMDB.
I have mixed feelings about reshooting with another actress or keeping Jean’s parts in the movie. Jean and Clark have terrific chemistry, like always. But frankly, the plot is predictable and typical of a Clark Gable movie. I personally think it was only saved by Jean Harlow’s comedic wit and beauty. Jean Arthur would have been terrible in the role, and Virginia Bruce would have been just as predictable. The film would have fallen flat.
But at the same time, I almost wish the film had been shelved, much like Marilyn Monroe’s unfinished movie “Something’s Got to Give” (Though the difference is “Saratoga” nearly done and Monroe’s film just starting). I’m not saying that I’m not thankful to see one last glimpse of Jean alive and well, but it’s heartbreaking to watch. You see her at the beginning of the movie very beautiful and very much alive. It’s like watching someone on the street, knowing they are about to die, but they have no clue.
After 74 years, Jean Harlow is still loved and missed, and “Saratoga” is still a bit disturbing. We love you, Jean; happy 100th birthday.
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