' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Saratoga (1937)

Friday, March 06, 2020

Friday's Old Fashioned: Saratoga (1937)

I wish “Saratoga” had never been made. I know that’s harsh declaration right up front. And I don’t mean to suggest that director Jack Conway’s 1937 film has no redeeming values. It stars Jean Harlow, for God’s sake, and Clark Gable exchanging wily looks and bon mots with her, not to mention a pre-“Wizard of Oz” scene between the Wizard (Frank Morgan) and The Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) when the latter was not even officially billed in the cast credits, which I know is just an unintentional Easter egg but, hey, we classic movie fans deserve a little protein now and then too. But “Saratoga” doubled as the last film in which Harlow would appear, collapsing on set near the end of filming and dying, sadly, terribly, aged but 26, from kidney failure. Ugh. This, though, doesn’t just mean “Saratoga” suffers in a cosmic sense. No, as it turns out, the film’s conclusion, simply on a narrative and aesthetic level, was so utterly compromised by her passing, that as I watched it, honestly, the whole time I just wanted to look away.

“Saratoga”, as the title may or not imply, refers to the horse racing track in upstate New York, where much of the action takes place. This was back in the glory days of the sport, when it was arguably the country’s most popular, and reminds us of a time when a movie could transport you to a place you only ever read about or heard on the radio, reveling in images of real-life horses making the turn, cutting to rear projection footage to see the jockeys conversing mid-race up close. This befits “Saratoga’s” everything-and-the-kitchen-sink air, like a lengthy sequence aboard a train with several comic encounters and even a song, making a movie in order to put on a show, the plot dynamics just along for the ride as much as driving the action.

That plot, as it were, involves the Clayton horse farm, situated in Saratoga, that has fallen on hard times, with various ruses and schemes to keep it afloat, involving a love triangle that forms between Carol Clayton (Harlow), engaged to a wealthy businessman (Walter Pidgeon) whose portfolio might save the place if bookie Duke Bradley (Clark Gable) doesn’t fleece him with some bad bets first in order to get the money to save the place himself and get the girl instead. This allows for plenty of long two-shots of Harlow and Gable verbally having it out, which is why we’re here in the first place. Granted, if Harlow’s health was flagging during the production, you can sometimes tell, only certain scenes possessing the kind of crackle she was famous for delivering in tandem with her male co-stars, like a screwball scene where he hides under the couch.

Harlow also was playing more to the idea of spoiled sophisticate than brassy blonde, as she often was, and her character’s trajectory gets set up as someone out to prove that she doesn’t need Duke’s help to get what’s hers. Alas, after Harlow vanishes, that trajectory doesn’t get seen through, not like it should, how could it, as Conway is forced to rely on obvious body doubles with their backs to the camera or binoculars held up to their eyes to obscure the face, using someone else’s voice (whose name we will refrain from mentioning because, c’mon, what was she supposed to do?), so abnormal sounding in the face of the real thing that it sounded to my ears like a “Peanuts” squawk, making me cringe. The action moves, meanwhile, in so as much as it does, by having other characters speak about Harlow’s character when she’s not there, which just comes across like attending a funeral reception. And as “Saratoga” concludes, it cuts back to what’s clearly footage of that earlier scene aboard the train, between Harlow and Gable, a fitting tribute, in more ways than one, merely reinforcing what was missing all that time she was gone.

No comments: