Harlow is Carol Clayton, daughter of a family of horse breeders and trainers, who is just coming back from Europe after getting engaged to super-rich Hartley Madison. Unfortunately her father Frank Clayton is a gambling addict who has become deeply in debt to bookmaker Duke Bradley (Gable). Frank hands over the deed to the Clayton horse ranch to Duke in order to cover his debts. Duke has no intention of actually taking over the ranch, as he likes the Claytons, and especially crotchety old Grandpa Clayton the veteran horse trainer. He's also attracted to sexy Carol, but Carol assumes Duke is going to foreclose on Grandpa and asks Hartley for money to buy the ranch back. Complications and romantic hijinks ensue.
Saratoga was an MGM A-picture with an All-Star Cast that featured, along with Gable and Harlow, Lionel Barrymore as Grandpa, a young Walter Pidgeon as Hartley, Frank Morgan as Jesse Kitmeyer, and Una Merkel as Fritzl, Jesse's new wife and Duke's old girlfriend. It also features Margaret Hamilton in a small part, with the Wizard and the Wicked Witch sharing a scene two years before The Wizard of Oz.
However, the film is infamous for the sudden, shocking death of Jean Harlow at the age of 26, with the film unfinished. People in the production had observed that Harlow was looking gray and acting lethargic and was suffering from bloating (and she does in fact look puffy in the finished film). On May 29, 1937 Harlow doubled over in pain on the set and went home shortly after. MGM originally presumed that Harlow would be back on set soon, but nine days later she was dead of kidney failure, now suspected to have been ultimately caused by a bout of scarlet fever she suffered as a teenager. Louis B. Mayer initially planned to scrap Harlow's footage and re-shoot with a different actress, but fans wrote in begging to see Harlow's last film. Unfortunately the third act hadn't been filmed yet, forcing the studio to resort to a Fake Shemp to complete the story (see below).
Tropes used in this film:
- Ask a Stupid Question...: After Duke sees Carol, who was supposed to have left for Newport.Duke: So you didn't go to Newport, huh?
Carol: No, I'm at Coney Island.
- As You Know: A fair bit of exposition establishing who's who in the Clayton family and the fact that Carol's gotten engaged.
- Belligerent Sexual Tension: Harlow and Gable made six films together for a reason. Here it is very obvious as Duke and Carol are sniping at each other about her trying to buy back the deed to the ranch.
- Big Game: The climactic horse race. If Duke wins he has enough money to leave the bookmaking business and rebuild Grandpa's ranch. If Hartley wins, Duke is wiped out.
- Catch Phrase: Duke's habit of saying "I love you" to end a conversation with pretty much anyone.
- Character Outlives Actor: In addition to the Fake Shemp, excuses are made for Harlow's character not being present, like when she's supposed to be having a headache or when she's too emotional to talk to Duke after the big race.
- Down to the Last Play: The climactic horse race comes down to a photo finish.
- Driving a Desk: Stock footage from the windows of the train.
- Fake Shemp: As noted in the intro, most of the third act had not been shot when Harlow left the set. An actress named Mary Dees was hired to be Harlow's body double while another actress named Paula Winslowe attempted to imitate Harlow's distinctive voice. The results, as is usually the case with Fake Shemp, are not very convincing. Dees didn't look that much like Jean Harlow, so every scene with her is shot with her back to the camera, or with binoculars to her face during the racetrack scenes, or facing away from the camera while wearing a large floppy hat, or shot from a distance. (In one scene, at a dance, Dees starts the scene and Harlow finishes it.) Winslowe's imitation of Harlow's voice isn't very good. And the character of Carol is conspicuously absent for most of the third act, with Una Merkel's character being more prominently featured. The cast of Saratoga was none too thrilled with the decision to proceed with a Fake Shemp; Gable said embracing Dees was like "holding a ghost".
- Hitler Cam: Used for a horse in the opening shot, as Grandpa is trying to break a stallion.
- Mammy: Hattie McDaniel playing her usual sassy maid. She says she'd go after Clark Gable if he weren't the wrong color.
- Opposing Sports Team: One might think it only fair that Duke lose his bet, as he is after all a bookmaker—but Carol and Jesse cook up a scheme to hire away the expert jockey riding the horse Duke bet on, thus putting him at a disadvantage.
- The Place: Saratoga Race Course.
- Romantic False Lead: Walter Pidgeon, who would enjoy a very successful career as a leading man, here plays Guy Who Will Be Rejected In Favor of Clark Gable.
- Same Language Dub: Paula Winslowe attempting to mimic Jean Harlow's voice.
- Sexy Backless Outfit: Both Harlow and, unfortunately, Mary Dees wear one during the dance.
- Uncle Tomfoolery: Hattie McDaniel's typical Mammy character is scared of talking on a long-distance phone.