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Saratoga (1937) Wonder

Saratoga (1937) Wonder
Balthasar, Aug 10, 2018
    • Balthasar
      On May 29, 1937, Jean Harlow was shooting a scene for the movie Saratoga in which the character she was playing had a fever. Harlow was clearly sicker than her character, and when she leaned against co-star Clark Gable between scenes, she said, "I feel terrible. Get me back to my dressing room." Harlow requested that the assistant director telephone her then-boyfriend William Powell, who left his own set to escort Harlow back home. The next day, Powell returned to her home to check on her, and upon finding that her condition hadn't improved, called a doctor, Ernest Fishbaugh, who diagnosed her with an inflamed gall bladder, and recommended a few days' rest. On June 2, the studio issued a press release saying that Harlow was suffering from influenza, and it was reported that she would probably be back to work by Monday, June 7.

      Harlow had been somewhat prone to health problems, so it didn't seem unusual to those that knew her that it had cropped up again: Harlow's illnesses had delayed three previous films (Wife vs. Secretary, Suzy, and Libeled Lady), and a case of septicemia she'd developed after a multiple wisdom tooth extraction had delayed the start of shooting of Saratoga by a month. When she began complaining about feeling ill on the set of the film as early as May 20, her symptoms—fatigue, nausea, water weight and abdominal pain—didn't seem very serious to her doctor, who believed she was suffering from cholecystitis and influenza. Those closest to her, however, felt that there was reason for concern: her friend and co-star Myrna Loy noticed Harlow's grey pallor, fatigue, and weight gain before anyone else did, and Clark Gable later said that when he visited her at home after May 29, that she was severely bloated and that he smelled urine on her breath when he kissed her—both later recognized as signs of her actual condition.

      Finally, Leland Chapman, a colleague of Fishbaugh, was called in to give a second opinion; he recognized that she was not suffering from an inflamed gallbladder, but was in the end stages of kidney failure. On June 6, Harlow said that she could not see Powell properly and could not tell how many fingers he was holding up.

      That evening, she was taken to Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles, where she slipped into a coma. The next day at 11:37 am, Harlow died in the hospital from a cerebral edema, a complication of kidney failure. She was just 26 years old.

      For years after her death, rumors circulated that her mother had refused to call a doctor because she was a Christian Scientist or that Harlow herself had declined hospital treatment or surgery, but the actual record shows that Harlow's doctors made regular visits to her home prior to her hospitalization, and that she also had two visiting nurses who attended her at home.

      MGM shut down on June 9, the day of her funeral. Her frequent and last co-star Clark Gable was one of her pallbearers. She was interred in a marble-lined private crypt that had been purchased by William Powell for $25,000 at The Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale. A simple inscription there reads "Our Baby", echoing the nickname she'd been known by since childhood.

      Harlow's death presented a dilemma for MGM, and for the producers of Saratoga. From the studio's point of veiw, it meant that they had lost a rising star in whom they'd invested alot since they'd purchased her contract for $30,000 from Howard Hughes in 1932, just at a time when many of their other bankable female leads - Garbo, Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, and Luise Rainer - had begun to see their careers wane. Several deals they'd made regarding Harlow's work on future productions had to be hastily rewritten: she and Gable were next scheduled to head over to Fox for In Old Chicago, which proved a boon to Alice Faye and Tyrone Power. For their services, Shirley Temple was slated to be loaned to MGM for The Wizard of Oz, and when that deal fell through of course Judy Garland was cast, pulling her out and putting Ann Rutherford in to the small part of Carreen in GWTW. Also among many other planned projects was Maisie, originally planned as an A production but moved to the B unit after the loss of Jean, which was allocated to Ann Sothern so successfully that it started her on a series that ran, between other films, almost ten years.

      For the producers of Saratoga, the challenge was entirely different of course. The studio had considered simply shelving the film, but the principal shooting was more than 90% complete, and the film's producers were angling for a solution that would save them a financial bath. They next considered re-shooting all of Harlow's scenes, replacing her with another MGM star like Virginia Bruce or Jean Arthur, but Harlow's fans flooded the studio with complaints when they caught wind of the plan, insisting that Harlow's last performance should be able to be seen by the public. Finally, a compromise was reached that satisfied both Harlow's fans and the film's producers - Harlow's character was written out of several remaining yet unfilmed scenes - including some in which she'd have logically been included - and for those scenes that they couldn't write Harlow's character out of, they employed Harlow's primary body double, Mary Dees, who was shot from behind, covered by a large floppy hat, or in one scene, absurdly unable to lower a pair of binoculars. To match Harlow's characteristic voice, they brought in actress Paula Winslowe, who would later be best known as the voice of Bambi's mother in Disney's Bambi (1942).

      Saratoga was released on July 23, 1937, not quite seven weeks after Harlow's death, and the crowds of her fans that turned out to see the film pushed it into being one of the year's largest monetary successes. A divide has continued to the present day between Harlow's fans, who view the film as one of Harlow's better performances, and film critics, who view the film as a humdrum romantic comedy marred by the obviously rushed substitutions of the body double, which was awkwardly done even by 1937 standards. Modern movie viewers - when not distracted by the morbid fascination of watching Harlow literally dying before their eyes, or spotting her body double, particularly in the last 20 minutes of the film - will find themselves nonetheless entertained by the quick repartee between Harlow and Gable, whose natural chemistry had been honed over the course of the six films they'd appeared in together, and by the film's excellent supporting cast, including Lionel Barrymore (filmed just before a tragic accident that left him in a wheelchair for the next decade), a young Walter Pidgeon, Una Merkel, Hattie McDaniel, and a scene on a train between Frank Morgan and an uncredited Margaret Hamilton - the future Wizard and Wicked Witch of Oz.

      Fans of Harlow, however, will continue to return to this film for the same reason that her fans flocked to it in 1937 - to see the final performance of an actress who managed, in the few years that she was in Hollywood, to live up to the moniker that Howard Hughes gave her, "The Blonde Bombshell" which she later parodied herself in the movie Bombshell (1933). What the 'bomb' exploded, of course, was the still-Victorian image of womanhood that pervaded society at that time - that 'good' girls didn't indulge their sexuality, particularly on a movie screen with the whole world watching, but Harlow wasn't just 'good', she was great at it. They had to invent a new concept to describe Harlow - the "Hollywood Sex Symbol" - a term that would later be used to describe, and to define, certain actresses that followed - Lana Turner, Betty Grable, Jane Russell (another Hughes protege), but especially Marilyn Monroe, whose career was modeled, she said, on Harlow's, and who tragically followed Harlow to an early grave and into film legend.

      It is hard to watch Saratoga without thinking about the potential Harlow had at this point in her career: her still-effervescent beauty, her steadily improving comedic timing, and her maturing acting ability are all on ostentatious display in this otherwise lightweight movie, filling the modern viewer's head with a thousand "what-if's", and making it all that much harder to not shed a tear for Jean when she speaks her final line in the film: "Goodbye".
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