Gable is Duke Bradley, a bookie who acquires the deed to the Brookdale horse ranch because the owner, Mr. Clayton (Jonathan Hale) owes him a lot of money. When the Clayton dies, his daughter Carol (Harlow), who dislikes Bradley, is determined to get the horse ranch back in the family by winning horse races to pay Bradley back. Meanwhile, Bradley tries to bait Carol’s rich fiancée (Pidgeon) to place bets with him.
Jean, looking bloated and tired, was struggling through the film. She collapsed into Clark’s arms one day on the set (I have also heard some places that it was Walter Pidgeon’s arms, but it is more often said it was Clark so I’ll go with it) after complaining she wasn’t feeling well. After months of doctors diagnosing her with the flu and simple colds, it was finally determined that she was in the end stages of renal failure. In those days, before dialysis, there wasn’t anything they could do. The Baby was gone.
Clark was on the set when director Jack Conway received the phone call that Jean had died. While some people started weeping, Clark, almost angrily, stormed off the set and declared to a waiting reporter, “I am too overcome by grief to make any comment.” He was a pallbearer at her funeral.
The film was about 90% completed at the time of her death and it was so sudden that Louis B. Mayer and the producers didn’t know what to do. They shelved the film and even contemplated re-shooting it with Virginia Grey (interestingly). When this news was leaked to the press, Harlow fans were outraged and sent thousands of letters to MGM demanding to see her final film. So, the script was re-worked and most of Harlow’s remaining lines were given to supporting players (Hattie McDaniel emerges as a real scene stealer as a result and Una Merkel gets more attention from Clark). They hired C-list actress Geraldine Dvorak to do the close-up shots, since her face somewhat resembled Jean’s. Dancer Mary Dees was to be Harlow’s body stand-in, covering her face in big hats, binoculars and weird camera angles. Radio personality Paula Winslowe was hired to dub in Harlow’s voice. She did the best she could to get the Harlow squawk down, but it isn’t very convincing.
This video shows the “fake Jean”:
Gable was very uneasy with these changes. Harlow had been a good friend and he was deeply sad at her death and didn’t want to continue the film at all. He said that acting with Mary Dees was like “holding a ghost.”
In the end, the truth is, Saratoga is not a great film. It’s rather mediocre. Gable is fine, playing his typical wisecracking con artist, Harlow (the real one) is a good sparring partner, and Pidgeon does a good job looking like he is a turkey whose feathers have been ruffled. One can definitely tell “real Jean” from “fake Jean” and the ending is obviously just tacked on footage from the earlier train scene. But the fan magazines of the day all raved over the film and thousands flocked to see Harlow’s swan song. It turned out to be one of the highest grossing films of 1937 as a result.
My favorite scene is Clark and Jean arguing in her room and him hiding under the couch when Walter enters. When Walter spots a lit cigar, Jean pretends it is hers and Clark is relieved from under his perch. It’s quite cute. One wonders if the film would have had more great moments like these if it had been completed as planned.
A piece of trivia I have found most interesting is how the death of Jean affected The Wizard of Oz. Shirley Temple, the first choice for Dorothy, was supposed to be loaned from Twentieth Century Fox to MGM for the role in exchange for Jean in the Tyrone Power picture In Old Chicago. Because of Jean’s death, the deal was called off and MGM was “stuck” using Judy Garland and Fox replaced Jean with Alice Faye. Jean was also up for the lead in the classic comedy Topper, with Cary Grant, and was recast with Constance Bennett.
Also, what book did Jean take with her to the hospital and declared she was finally going to finish before she left there? Gone with the Wind, naturally.