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Monday, June 07, 2010

Metro's Harlow Closeout Sale

You're invited to a final viewing, said Metro in Summer 1937, and so they came to ponder over Jean Harlow graveyard bound in Saratoga, a talking screen's first post-mortem for all to enjoy. What else but pure morbid fascination drove numbers higher than any yet recorded for a Harlow film? I confess to being more engaged by JH's death than with her life, especially the selling end of a vehicle she didn't live to complete. Imagine corporate reaction upon getting the news. They were close enough to a Saratoga finish line to sniff receipts. Banner obit headlines referred to her last so near done. Appropriate this should be a horse race story, with Harlow the prize filly pushed to on-set collapse over a grueling course of production. Would it be too, too cruel for MGM to release this chronicle of her suffering? A dark side of moviegoing was/still is that desire to ponder idols in the grip of mortal concerns visited upon us all. What was crowd response to Wallace Reid's posthumous offerings? He and Harlow shared the lure of having been gravely sick, yet reporting still for work. A public watched them die in effect on the screen. That was as intimate a glimpse into celebrity private life as fans could hope for.

Her death came June 7, 1937. Harlow's last day working Saratoga had been May 29. She'd been in bad enough shape for co-workers to notice for weeks. David Stenn tells the entire harrowing story in his wonderful Bombshell biography. Press reaction to the passing can be imagined. Harlow was only 26 and nobody outside Metro circles saw this coming. A decision seems to have been reached pretty quickly to square away Saratoga with a Harlow double and photographic sleight-of-hand. That had to be made right to fans who might cry foul, but in fact, these were the very ones most eager to receive what was done of Saratoga. Two things MGM emphasized: A public's insistence that they release the film, and technical brilliance applied toward making that possible. You'd think they were remaking King Kong for all this emphasis on camera effects. Really, it was just a Harlow-esque dye job with sunglasses and floppy hats on unknown Mary Dees (press described as the late star's "understudy") that carried the day, along with script changes for Act Three taking the JH character largely out of action. Fortunately for MGM, they'd done a Gable/Harlow two-shot for the fade, so crowds could file out from a happy clinch and send-off for their departed favorite.

Metro's trailer host Lewis Stone was assurance that all had been conducted with dignity and decorum. Again it was our demand his employers were accommodating, not their own desire to reap profits from a star's untimely departure. Weeks of June and part of July had been spent rushing through scenes necessary for Saratoga to make narrative sense. Clark Gable and Walter Pidgeon flanked the Harlow ghost and must have spent by far creepiest days of respective careers doing so. Neither appear to have spoken of it later, but you can imagine how they felt plodding through shots jerry-rigged to cover for essential presence now absent. Making it worse was fact that Metro's work force appear to have liked Harlow and so were all the more off-put by these not-so magic tricks. MGM kept low trade profiles until they were sure it could be pulled off. The Motion Picture Herald didn't list a release date for Saratoga until July 10, and then the announced August 6 bow was moved up when Metro booked the show into their New York flagship, the Capitol, for July 23 (ad for that shown here). Time as essence was upon them, for how long would patrons' grim curiosity abide?

They previewed Saratoga in Glendale, California during mid-July. A respectful burst of applause greeted the title, cast listing, and Miss Harlow's first appearance, said a trade reviewer ... It was obvious the audience was watching every move she made (no doubt, since folks knew by then how ill she'd been and wanted to diagnose the patient for themselves). Yet this interest did not prevent it from enjoying the picture as a whole and being appreciative of the efforts of the other stars and members of the supporting cast. It was as though press coverage wanted to let viewers off the hook for gaping at Harlow as she approached death. The audience psychology seemed to denote that the picture would be a potent boxoffice feature, was the Herald's summation. Here was tactful assurance to Metro that they were in the chips. MGM Breathes A Little Easier was a follow-up headline for July 31 after Saratoga's conquest of the Capitol became apparent (... Mr. Schenck's company today is a little less nervous in fear that the public might criticize the release). In fact, they'd seldom seen crowds like these at the Capitol, where the Loew-Metro management stationed several police guards at all points of the lobby to prevent souvenir hunters from carrying away Harlow photographs or other materials.

Summer was ordinarily dog days for show-going, that owing to most theatres' lack of air-conditioning. MGM liked boasting all year round hits and made good, as reflected in this trade ad, with stellar attractions that would highlight any venue's season. Captains Courageous, A Day At The Races, and Broadway Melody Of 1938 were offered during warmest months, and now there'd be a bonus of Saratoga and waiver of run/clearance policy that kept smaller showmen in back of the line. This time, Leo would make more prints and get them into circulation faster ... a saturation play-off long before such strategy was generally embraced by distributors. These were "unusual circumstances" (per MGM's trade declaration) unique to a feature that mere weeks before looked as though it would have to be abandoned or completely reshot. Word got round fast that Saratoga was a must-see. Harrison's Report called it just fair as entertainment and quite choppy in the bargain, but critics maybe failed to realize that patron's fun of watching was bound up in just that, for Saratoga quickly evolved into a nationwide hide-and-seek for the real Harlow versus the woman impersonating her. Newspapers got in on the grisly game. Which Is Jean, Which Is Double? asked Fort Worth editors as they dispatched a photographer to capture shots (supposedly) from the Worth Theatre's fifth row, these published for readership's sport of spotting Metro's gambit. So went dignified tribute into a cocked hat, despite ads (as here) promising same. At least the money was good. Since when had MGM collected anything approaching $3.2 worldwide rentals for a Harlow pic, let alone profits exceeding a million? To Clark Gable's benefit, Saratoga provided welcome fumigation for theatres having played recent released Parnell, a stench still fresh in viewer nostrils. The windfall blew through by close of 1937 and Saratoga remained vault-bound from there until release to television in 1956, by which time most had forgotten the fluke success, and reason for same, that had accompanied Jean Harlow's last film nearly twenty years before.


Blogger John McElwee said...

An e-mail just received from reader "Griff" ...

Terrific stuff. I didn't realize that Metro never reissued SARATOGA, though I suppose that makes sense. Its time had certainly passed. Such a TV staple for many years.

One of the things I love about these theatre display ads is the way the individual houses customize the secondary billing. Fort Worth's Worth Theatre has no use for the names of Pidgeon or Una Merkel in its ad, choosing to elevate the great Cliff Edwards to featured status opposite Frank Morgan...

9:01 AM  
Anonymous Doug Bonner said...

I recently watched the two 1965 Harlow biopics, so your post was the perfect after-dinner mint. I think a feature about the making of SARATOGA would be more interesting than the semi-hideous biopics of '65.

10:21 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson has some observations about Harlow and other premature star exits:

This almost sounds innocent when you consider all the posthumous campaigns that have rolled out since.
When Hal Roach put Laurel & Hardy in "The Bohemian Girl," they kept a musical number starring Thelma Todd but recast and reshot the rest of her role (Did Todd complete shooting before her death? Was there any real promotion of Todd's presence?). Bert Lahr died during "Night They Raided Minsky's" and it looks like they used everything they had of him; not clear if they had to abandon or change other scenes (he vanishes for long stretches and an unconvincing stand-in appears in an early backstage scene). He was featured in the ads as if he were still around. Lahr's son implies the long shooting days contributed to his final illness.
It seems several films either ignored or soft-pedaled the death of an actor, unless he/she was big enough to merit some flackery about a Final and Greatest Performance ("Fiendish Plot of Fu Manchu" was sold as Peter Sellers' last film; luckily "Being There" was recent enough to protect his name). Recent case in point: Heath Ledger in "The Dark Knight."
Then you have the outright ghoulish: Bruce Lee and son Brandon were both represented by films cobbled together after their deaths (Brandon's "The Crow" had the advantage of near-finished shooting and digital trickery; Bruce got a hodgepodge built around some existing fight footage). In "Galaxina", Playmate Dorothy Stratton was evidently promoted to top billing after her murder. The ads & video packaging sold her as a famous sex symbol, period. During the shooting of a 60's cheapie a stunt man was killed by a shark -- and that became the basis of the ad campaign.
Completely different: "Muppet Movie" had a single shot of the recently deceased Edger Bergen with Charlie McCarthy. Instead of cutting it -- very simple and no loss for a film loaded with bigger star cameos -- they underscored it with a delicate version of the movie's theme song to make it more poignant than funny. Bergen was a major influence on Henson and company, so it remained as a sort of tribute.

6:03 AM  
Anonymous Ed Watz said...

Let's not forget the final four Shemp Howard two-reelers, completed after his death via chunks of earlier stock footage, the use of Joe Palma as Shemp's double, plus a few bits of Shemp dialogue and "heep-heep-heeps!" cribbed from earlier shorts. Poor brother Moe (and Larry) in the new footage occasionally have to recite lines like, "I wonder where Shemp went?"

7:42 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Ed made a great point about the last four Shemp shorts. One posthumous production is bad enough, but Jules White had to manufacture four!

On the subject of actors who bravely continue trouping while obviously ill, I have to salute the following;

Sidney Toler in THE TRAP. He was dying of cancer and Monogram hired Victor Sen Young to appear in some of the scenes, and relieve Toler of some of the burden. It must have been excruciating for Toler to walk or even stand, and there he is dancing! A real pro.

Robert Woolsey in HIGH FLYERS. I think the lively song and dance with Lupe Velez was the last thing he filmed (Ed Watz can correct me).

Buster Keaton in A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM. Still giving his all, and on location, yet.

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy in ATOLL K. Stan is gravely ill and Ollie has a heart condition, but they get the job done.

This one's audio: W. C. Fields in "The Temperance Lecture," recorded just before his death in 1946. His speech is slower and he's making more of an effort, but his timing is still magnificent and he's putting humor in the PAUSES: "I felt as though I had a manhole cover resting on my head. Imagine my SURPRISE... when I reached UP... and found out there WAS a manhole cover! Resting... on my head!"

I guess PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE doesn't count; Bela Lugosi couldn't finish it, but there really isn't enough footage to constitute a "performance."

11:45 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Good hearing from two authorities on the subject of comedy, Ed Watz and Scott MacGillivray ...

Ed, I was just reading your Columbia shorts book the other day. Really excellent stuff, as is your work on Wheeler and Woolsey. They are becoming one of my favorite teams.

11:59 AM  
Anonymous king of jazz said...

Then there was the final shot of Henry Daniel exiting a hall (in the ballroom sequence) in MY FAIR LADY only to reappear (from the back) as another actor. Daniel died the night of his final shot.

9:43 PM  
Anonymous Ed Watz said...

John and Scott, you're two of the film historian/writers whom I admire the most, to me and many others you're the heirs apparent following in the tradition of the great Bill Everson (but without Bill's occasional fabrications of movie plotlines!). John, I truly appreciate your comments on my work, also deeply humbled...thank you and keep up the brilliant work!

7:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

John, in regard to your list of post mortems, is it myth or fact that an underwater cinematographer was also killed by a shark attack during the filming of "You Only Live Twice"?

1:10 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

I've not heard that shark attack story, but wouldn't be that surprised if it were true. Some of the James Bond experts would undoubtedly know. You might ask the crew at "Cinema Retro," a great 60's era site.

1:49 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Zasu Pitts died during the shooting of THE THRILL OF IT ALL and the script had to be rewritten to replace her character.

3:17 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Also, ROBERT GLECKLER, the first actor cast as Jonas Wilerson in GONE WITH THE WIND, died during production.

The role was recast with VICTOR JORY, and several scenes had to be reshot.

3:23 PM  
Anonymous r.j. said...


As always, your excellent and vivid writing propelled me to go back and see the film again, which I just did. One is never really aware that she is ill until the final 2-or so reels, when it becomes obvious that SOMETHING is amiss. What is really slightly gruesome is an elaborate party scene,toward the close, with the Harlow-double asking dancing partner Walter Pidgeon to dance her out to the terrace, and in the very next shot, there's Pigeon with the real deal, continuing the dance outside. Presumably that may have been the last scene Harlow actually shot. But there is no overlooking the slightly grim expressions on Gable and everyone else, as they go through the ordeal of pretending it's Harlow they're playing to, in those final scenes.

I'm rather surprised that everyone has overlooked the second most (in) famous case -- "Solomon and Sheba". Allegedly, Power is actually visible in a few long shots, presumably because they would have been too expensive to re-shoot.(I can't say because I've never seen it and frankly I have no interest in seeing it. Some things are just TOO morbid. At least, "Saratoga" definitely still holds its' own as legitimate light fare.)

Once again, John, you're the man!

Great job, as always.


2:27 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

RJ, someone once told me that Tyrone Power had finished around 75% of "Solomon and Sheba" before he died, but that enough crucial footage was missing that they couldn't possibly finish without him, thus the re-casting and insurance collected. I would really like to know how much of the Power material still exists (I've seen some of it here and there).

2:33 PM  

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