‘Conspicuous Absence’ and ‘Morbid Curiosity’: The Promotion and Reception of Saratoga (USA 1937)


The death of Jean Harlow during the filming of Saratoga (USA 1937) created problems for the film’s completion and promotion. Famously, M-G-M completed Harlow’s remaining scenes using shots of a body double, filmed with her face obscured. Despite its resulting aesthetic problems, Saratoga is on record as one of Harlow’s highest grossing films (Glancy 1991), and its success has been seen simply the result of a grieving mass audience desperate to say farewell to their idol (Addison 2005; Stenn 1991). However this explanation obscures the strategies used by the studio to manage the film’s reception, and, more broadly, the variety of viewing modes available to North American audiences in the classical Hollywood period. This paper presents my archive research into 1930s promotion and reception materials surrounding Saratoga. I examine the ways in which the threat posed to the film’s coherence and illusionism by Harlow’s on-screen substitution was dealt with in publicity, as well as the strong discouragement of morbid viewing modes that might taint the film’s light comedy and bring the M-G-M brand into disrepute. I also look at the different ways the film was framed in reviews, advertising and press commentary.


When Heath Ledger died a few months before the release of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (USA 2008), entertainment media reporters and commentators wrote about how his death might “cast a pall” over the film, and bring “unanticipated morbidity” (Halbfinger). It was thought that many viewers might be apprehensive about seeing the film, in light of an apparent tradition of negative audience responses to posthumous film releases. At the same time it was reported that Warner Bros feared initially that any emphasis on Ledger in his Joker costume for marketing and publicity might repel viewers who saw it as inappropriate and “crassly exploitative” (“Warner Will Walk a Fine Line”). In the midst of this journalistic speculation, a film scholar was approached for comment. Wes Gehring anticipated that Ledger’s death would actually prove an attraction for viewers, adding:

[W]hat would have been a negative in the past now could be a positive thing. I think we’ve done a flip-flop on pop culture. Now it might be a selling point for a movie where you say. ‘So and so’s dead. Let’s go see his movie.’ What might have been a hindrance in 1935 now won’t be a problem. (Associated Press)

Certainly, Gehring was right about The Dark Knight’s morbid appeal: it was one of the most successful and highly lauded films of 2008; Ledger-as-The-Joker became a primary part of the film’s promotional imagery; and reviews indicated that knowledge of Ledger’s death provided for many a dark extratextual layer that resonated with and enhanced the affect of his sinister live-wire performance (Svetkey; Thompson). I am interested here though in opening up the implicit historical question in Gehring’s statement as it signals something of broader industrial and cultural significance.

Cinema’s “uncertain relation to life and death” (Mulvey, p. 16) has been a topic of some enduring fascination for an ontological strand of Film Studies, but the mode of viewing this uncertainty implies – vacillating between immersion in a narrative fictional present and awareness of a film as document of an actor’s last days – has, to date, evaded substantial historical inquiry. However, Mikita Brottmann, writing on the way we might “subject the [posthumously released] film to microscopic scrutiny for tell-tale signs of bad health or signals of emotional breakdown” (p. 112) implies that such a morbid gaze may be activated by publicity and reception material generated around such films. If we want, then, to understand the extent to which an actor’s death in the 1930s may or may not have been a hindrance to the reception of their posthumous film, publicity and reception materials can be examined as a way to understand possible industrial and cultural contingencies that may have inflected or sought to cultivate particular viewing modes.

The article that follows focuses on an example of particular extra-textual richness from the height of the Hollywood studio system era: Jean Harlow’s posthumously released film, Saratoga for M-G-M (USA 1937). Opening up the original 1937 North American publicity and reception context of the film reveals that in some ways Gehring is correct about the difference he posits between the present and the past with regards to “selling” posthumous films, but that the situation was, as we might imagine, complex and very much related to industrial as much as cultural factors.

Saratoga: A Star is Dead

During production of Saratoga, Harlow, one of M-G-M’s most bankable stars, fell ill and died on 7 June 1937 at the age of 26 from uremic poisoning. Her death, which was front-page news across North America, had left 10% of her scenes incomplete. Popular historical accounts of Saratoga, such as those repeated in Harlow’s biography, claim that M-G-M would have preferred to either shelve the film entirely or reshoot Harlow’s scenes with a new actress, but that the studio was only persuaded to salvage Harlow’s footage and complete the film by a “deluge” of fan letters (Stenn, p. 240). Consequently Harlow’s remaining shots were filled in using a voice double (Paula Winslowe) and a body double (Mary Dees): in some sequences shot from behind, and in others with her face obscured with gauzy hats or binoculars.

Due to the way that these shots are staged with the heroine’s face hidden from the viewer during some key moments of character interaction, Saratoga has been cited by David Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson as a bizarre exception that reveals the importance of frontal staging to the stylistic norms of classical Hollywood cinema (p. 52). Bordwell has elsewhere argued that one key to the economic success of classical Hollywood cinema was its easy legibility for the broadest spectrum of its audiences. Legibility stems from the ways films direct audience attention within the frame to objects of narrative significance, such as the facial expressions of the lead characters, especially as we naturally privilege the face as a major locus of information about emotions, motivations, and thought processes (Bordwell 1997, p. 164-7). In a few key scenes of the film, the lead female character Carol Clayton is faceless and rather mute, and so it’s suddenly difficult to know what she’s thinking or feeling. Because of the character’s facelessness in these scenes, retrospective journalistic evaluations have characterised them as “bizarre” (“A Delicate Task”, p. E10) and Harlow’s absence as “laughably obvious” (Stenn, p. 240).

But, despite Saratoga’s noted aesthetic problems; despite the heavy news coverage of Harlow’s death; and despite the fact that, unlike Dark KnightSaratoga was a romantic comedy, the film proved a box office success in 1937, and was ultimately one of Harlow’s highest grossing (Glancy, p. 135). David Stenn, Harlow’s biographer, sees Saratoga’s box office as the unsurprising result of a grieving mass audience desperate to see their idol on screen one final time (p. 240). Cultural historian Heather Addison acknowledges that “critics found it sloppily constructed and Harlow appeared bloated due to her imminent kidney failure”, but argues that the fact that it became her most successful film, suggested “that fans were incredibly keen for any footage of her, no matter how flawed” (p. 41). According to these explanations, the desire of the 1930s mass audience for the star, or to say farewell to a dead and youthful screen icon, apparently trumped any textual problems Saratoga had as a completed film. Although it is likely that Harlow fans were moved to the cinema to see her onscreen one final time, the way Saratoga has come to be remembered also pits present day knowing viewers and prickly 1937 critics against a late 1930s non-discriminating star-struck mass audience, and elides any other available modes of responding to the film at the time of its release.

This is perhaps symptomatic of a tendency, both popular and academic, to imagine the audiences of the classical Hollywood period of the 1930s and 40s as more overly-enthralled in their responses to cinema and stars in comparison to audiences of both later and earlier, pre-narrative cinema, periods. As Murray Smith has pointed out, the classical Hollywood period in cinema history has been often understood as the stabilisation of aesthetics, genres, narrative features and standardisation of production, leading to a “kind of spectatorship, one characterised by a high degree of ‘homogenization’ or psychic regulation” (p. 3). Various scholars during the 1990s and 2000s have sought to complicate such assumptions, by attempting in different ways to reconstruct historically situated viewers or viewing contexts.[1]  It should be acknowledged that Barbara Klinger, discussing the place of the actual viewer in a historical reception study, argues that we cannot “pin the viewer down as subject to a series of discursive manoeuvres” (p. 114). The embodied viewer is not a stable entity that we can secure, and we cannot convincingly argue that particular viewers responded in particular ways to films. Rather, by examining the various types of discourse produced around a film within a particular historical moment, we can provide a “sense of what the historical prospects were for viewing at a given time by illuminating the meanings made available within that moment” (Klinger, p. 144).

In a similar vein, I make no claims here about how late 1930s audiences actually responded to Saratoga, or their motivations for seeing it. It is possible though to examine newspaper and trade journal reports, speculation and commentary, publicity materials and reviews to gain some insight into how the audience was conceived of and/or addressed through different levels of the ancillary materials, and the attempts to manage or cultivate particular kinds of response. Martin Barker and Ernest Mathijs have both drawn attention to the importance of pre-release information, reportage and publicity. Barker argues that “talk around films is very importantly a way of generating expectations of pleasures – or of course, in the other direction, fears of disappointment, or even of discomfort and dislike”. Reviews, coming after release, are often inflected by these earlier pieces of information. In the case of a controversial or much anticipated film, as with Saratoga, controversy amplified the generation of expectations and talk, producing sometimes competing discourses around the film.

‘Portrayal fans will never get to see’

With the shock news of Harlow’s death came reports about the fate of Saratoga, which, according to trade papers such as the Hollywood Reporter (“Death of Jean Harlow Scraps Many Pic Plans”, p. 9) and major city newspapers such as the LA Times (“Death Will Cause Discard…”, p. 6) would be “scrapped immediately” or rewritten and reshot with a “new feminine personality” at the behest of a grief-stricken Louis B. Mayer. These reports contained a statement from Mayer claiming that:

[In] accordance with our policy it was written for two distinct, strong personalities, Clark Gable and Jean Harlow […] all that has been photographed to date, and we were within a week of completion, will be discarded. (“Death Will Cause Discard…”, p. 6)

The widely reported statement served both to honour Harlow and scaffold the cult of personality and the system through which she became a star, as well as to plant the notion of reels upon reels of footage of Harlow in existence, which her audience would never get to see. Trade reports also publicised how much M-G-M stood to lose financially with estimates that the budget for the film was over $1000,000, and between $300,000 and $500,000 would be lost on the negative if M-G-M reshot Harlow’s scenes with a new actress (Heffernan, p. 10;Hollywood Reporter, 11 June 1937, p. 4).

What was at stake? A posthumously completed film may have been less of a problem for a minor studio with a minor star, or even prior to the consolidation of the studio system.[2]  But M-G-M, one of the three major studios in the 1930s, had put a lot of work into developing a brand name that stood for sophisticated quality entertainment, and polished production values. M-G-M had also spent the previous few years rehabilitating Harlow’s star image, remaking it from one associated with the loose sexual morals of her earlier screen characters and the unsavoury questions hanging over the alleged suicide of her husband Paul Bern, to one with less flashy “brownette” hair, and more wholesome and domestic connotations (Stenn). To release a film that was incomplete due to the death of its leading lady risked devaluing the M-G-M brand, by appearing sloppy, opportunistic and disrespectful. In the wake of the Hays code of 1934 governing the film industry’s self-regulation, M-G-M had to appear to be cautious, clean, and respectful of the value systems underpinning the code. Richard Maltby argues that generally in Hollywood the second half of the 1930s was marked by an attempt to enlarge the bourgeois component of the audience, with more prestigious productions, and the publication of film study guides, in order to increase the perception of Hollywood’s “cultural respectability” and to justify rises in ticket prices (p. 38). In this context a few industry columnists observed the need for delicacy and caution in handling Saratoga, with W.R. Wilkerson in the Hollywood Reporter for instance, warning that “past instances have shown that any picture which the newsprints have highlighted, due to the death of one of its important figures, is a dangerous piece of merchandise and should be handled accordingly” (p. 1).[3] Fearful of being seen to be too eager to complete and release Saratoga and have it backfire, M-G-M’s strategy was to cultivate public demand for the salvage and completion of Harlow’s final film, enabling it to be framed as a publicly demanded “respectful tribute” to the dead actress.

By 14 June, Daily Variety was reporting that M-G-M had received 500 fan letters pleading for the film to be released with Harlow. It is quite possible that letters were received, albeit no M-G-M record remains of such letters apart from what was publicly reported. The same report claimed that demand was also being stirred with some assistance from Mayer’s close associate William Randolph Hearst, whose newspapers were conducting a campaign for “the public to decide” (p. 2). Two days later Daily Variety said that M-G-M were in the process of recasting and reshooting Harlow’s role, and that “cutters are understood to be knifing out the scenes in which Miss Harlow appeared” (p. 26). More stories claimed M-G-M was still deciding how to salvage Harlow’s footage, with various alternatives floated such as inserting subtitles detailing what would have taken place in the missing scenes, or inserting an address to the audience from distinguished M-G-M actor and Harlow co-star, Lionel Barrymore explaining the “frankly admitted” switch to another actress such as Rita Johnson (“Harlow Film May Be Saved”, Los Angeles Times, 13 June 1937, p. A2).

Mary Dees: “The best looking legs on the Pacific Coast”

Despite M-G-M’s public declarations of intent to scrap or reshoot Saratoga, however, it is doubtful that this was the studio’s actual plan. The cost of doing so is one reason, especially since, as Mayer stressed, the film was “within a week of completion” when Harlow died, and on 14 June, Variety reported that the New York office (that is, Loew’s) were eager to release the film as is (p. 2). Besides this, an examination of drafts of Saratoga’s dialogue continuity script dated from after Harlow’s death, reveals evidence not of a rewrite for a “new personality” but of minimal rewriting designed to salvage Harlow’s performance. Some scenes are rewritten to remove mention of Harlow’s character Carol Clayton’s reaction shots. Others contain new lines for the film’s other characters that serve to either account for Harlow’s absence from the screen as being due to being indisposed with a headache, or lines that underscore the legibility of Carol’s mood or reactions, so that Harlow’s body double Mary Dees can simply act as place-marker in the scene. For instance, at one point in the script, where in an earlier draft, dated 2 April, Carol “sizzles” in response to antagonism (p. 126), the posthumous draft mentions no response from her, but another character now asks “what d’you want to make her mad for?” (Loos, p. 87C). Such changes point clearly to attempts to maintain narrative and character coherence, and sealing up gaps produced by an absent star.

On 18 June, the Hollywood Reporter and other trade press announced that the film would be completed using Mary Dees, who had previously acted as Harlow’s stand-in (p. 1). While this was a brief announcement in the trade press, along with the report that M-G-M would not be giving her a credit or any publicity (“Harlow’s ‘Saratoga’ Release Certain” Hollywood Reporter, 25 June 1937, p. 1), the metropolitan newspapers all ran longer articles about Dees, using a “mystery girl” or “Cinderella” hook and positing her as a “possible successor” to Harlow (Shaffer, p. 17; Kingsley, p. C1). Although inciting interest in Dees as an individual, these pieces still tread a cautious line between positioning Dees as similar enough in appearance to Harlow that her body could be mistaken for hers, but not so similar overall as to threaten the deceased star’s uniqueness. Readers were on the one hand reassured that Dees’ body was worthy of standing in for the star – accompanying full-body photos showed Dees in a bathing suit displaying her limbs rather than her face. They were told of her winning various beauty competitions, and being “declared by Artist McClelland Barclay to possess by far the best looking legs on the Pacific Coast” (Shaffer, p. 17). On the other hand they were also reassured that “The Dees features will not figure recognizably in the version of Saratoga that will be seen” (Shaffer, p. 17).

If the Dees news stories were a factor that might draw in curious viewers to the film, they also threatened to fragment it by drawing attention to Harlow’s substitution. Both this and the issue of morbid connotations were implicitly countered in M-G-M’s official promotional materials. Saratoga’s trailer and newspaper advertising for instance, made no mention whatsoever of Dees or of Harlow’s death – the closest they came to acknowledging it was in calling it “Harlow’s last picture” or framing the film as “the unfinished love story”. In fact there was precious little information about the film itself. Rather, attention was focused on middle-class American consumer demand, and M-G-M’s ability to meet that demand. There had been, from three days after Harlow’s death, a steady stream of press releases from M-G-M about the thousands of letters they were receiving from fans, demanding that Harlow’s final picture be released. M-G-M used this as the centrepiece of the film’s campaign, presumably as ammunition against skittish independent exhibitors, and in order to remove the taint of economic exploitation from their own shoulders.

America Speaks!

The trade papers all carried two-page announcements of Saratoga’s impending release with the prominent headline in red type “America Speaks!” in an explicit allusion to George Gallup’s syndicated column on polling and democracy which had been running since 1936 (Ohmer, p. 60). A half page photograph of a smiling mailman clutching armfuls of letters to his chest, and a small inset of Jean Harlow and Clark Gable accompanied the text: “from every town and hamlet came the voice of the public. A command performance for the American people! How fitting that M-G-M responds with a picture that will entertain and thrill millions upon millions!” (“America Speaks!” Motion Picture Daily, 23 July 1937, pp. 6-7). The facing page trumpeted “350 simultaneous bookings!” in large red letters over a background composed of hundreds of American town names in small black type.

The claims of “350 simultaneous bookings” were repeated elsewhere in news and trade papers as something unprecedented and extraordinary for an industry whose films would be more slowly drip-fed across the country so as to save costs on prints, build anticipation, and be able to change promotional strategies. The “America Speaks!” message is less for the would-be audience, and more a rhetorical use of audience demand to convince independent exhibitors that booking Saratoga would be giving the public what they wanted. By the late 1930s, theatre owners were growing increasingly vocal in their displeasure and frustration with the major studios and their practices of selling them lower quality ‘B’ films under false pretences, and passing risky or dud films to exhibitors via block and blind booking. The trade papers of 1937 are full of reassuring missives from studios to exhibitors via glossy advertisements, and strident complaints from exhibitors to studios via the letters pages.[4] Even against this backdrop though, the Saratoga campaign foregrounded the “public demand” angle to a much more explicit extent than was usual.

The demanding American audience was also the central focus of Saratoga’s trailer – a most unusual promotional strategy for the time. The trailer tells the potential audience nothing whatsoever about the film’s plot, and includes not a single piece of footage of Harlow. Instead we see shots of an avalanche of letters and telegrams pouring onto a desk requesting the completion of the film, followed by a shot of a busy and determined Anita Loos at a typewriter representing M-G-M’s quality authorship, frantically trying to do the public’s bidding, superimposed over a succession of shots of trains, steamships, race courses and expectant crowds in eveningwear outside an upscale theatre. Through the trailer Saratoga loses any possible taint of morbidity or melancholy, and instead gathers connotations of modernity, urgency, quality, authorship and glamour. The audience is addressed as well-heeled, tasteful, active petitioners with a desire to see, and there is, importantly, no hysterical or morbid tone to the letters that might lead them to be seen as unsavoury, but instead a sense of customers signalling a preference: “Please don’t remake the picture. Please show it to us just as is.” (“Saratoga trailer cutting continuity script”, 16 July 1937). The trailer does not advertise the experience of the film itself so much as transmit a mass American consumer demand (rather than more emotionally loaded grief or longing), and M-G-M’s dutiful fulfilment of that demand.

This line is followed through in M-G-M’s instructions to exhibitors found in the trade journals: “How to announce Saratoga”. The suggested ad copy begins “To an expectant public, we announce the presentation of Jean Harlow’s last picture.” The film itself is now described in the most animated and lively terms, with emphasis on the racetrack scenes and the sense they provide of “speed”, “swift-paced action”, “whirling wildly” and a description of Jean Harlow’s character Carol as “vivacious” (Motion Picture Daily, 14 July 1937, p. 3). This appears to be an attempt to infuse public perception of the film with life and aliveness so that they see the film more as an unfolding present to be immersed in, rather than a document of a lost past. It seems designed to dispel extra-textual connotations brought by prominent and detailed reportage of its star’s death, and the kind of morbidly curious viewing mode that might search Harlow’s final appearance for signs of illness.

“Practically undetected by the general public”

The task of addressing Saratoga’s completion problems and the perception of incoherence or fragmentation was left to the industry press reports from the film’s test screening, which were published on 14 July. All trade papers carried prominent reports of the screenings which had been held primarily for industry writers and distribution and exhibition personnel with the aim of testing whether they deemed the film releasable to the general movie-goer. There is a striking consensus among the reports, which, without exception, claimed thatSaratoga appeared whole (or whole enough), and that M-G-M was not foisting an incoherent dud upon exhibitors. Most interesting is the way that an image of a somewhat inattentive mass audience is repeatedly invoked in these reports. For instance Hollywood Reporter insisted: “there are no loose ends either in characterization or in situation. In fact the much-publicised added scenes will be practically undetected by the general public unless specific attention is called to the impersonation” (“‘Saratoga’ Warmly Greeted”, p. 3).Variety claimed:

[T]he few scenes remaining to be made at the time of her death were photographed with an alternate in her part, and done with such skill that audiences will not easily distinguish the substitution […] ‘Saratoga’ is one on which exhibitors can sell a winning ticket without taking any chances (p. 2).

Nelson B. Bell in his column for Washington Post on 21 July also argued that the film should be watched as just a film:

Let it be said that the casual observer never will be aware that Jean Harlow did not appear in every scene of this picture […] There are a few substitutions of a ‘double’ – in the person of Mary Dees – in the later scenes of the picture, but they have been so adroitly handled that they never will be noticed and the sum total of the effect is as if the lamented Miss Harlow had not been snatched from the picture by what proved to be her fatal illness (p. 16).

These writers, with their references to “audiences”, the “general public” or “the casual observer” posit an uninformed viewer other than themselves who they imagine can watch the film as if it were any other, either due to not knowing the circumstances of Saratoga’s completion or to being perhaps so absorbed in the narrative that they bracket any problems, or maybe somewhat lacking in cine-literacy. These are, I think, discursive attempts to maintain the connotations of stylistic quality around M-G-M and the industry more broadly, but there are also warnings running through many of these pieces about the undesirability of “morbid exploitation” on the part of theatre owners and “morbid curiosity” as a motivation for seeing the film. The Hollywood Reporter stresses the “honest appreciation” of the audience at the preview screening (“‘Saratoga’ Warmly Greeted”, p. 3), and Gus McCarthy opined in the Motion Picture Herald that: “there may be a temptation on the part of many to resort to morbid exploitation. Such tactics are hardly necessary. M-G-M has not resorted to any undignified procedure to capitalise on Miss Harlow, and neither should exhibitors (p. 3)”

While, as we shall see below, such discursive manoeuvres had only limited effect on film reviewers, the warnings about disreputable exploitation appeared to be heeded by theatre owners. Although there was some regional variation amongst promotional strategies there was no use of morbid themes in the publicity that I could find. The newspaper advertisements in different cities show that many delivered variations on the official M-G-M lines of “fast moving entertainment” and “never to be forgotten”. The Atlanta Constitution ran a memory angle competition in the weeks leading up to the film’s release, in which readers could win cash prizes and tickets to Saratoga by remembering the titles of Harlow’s earlier films and the roles she played (“Movie Memory Will Pay Dividends”, p. 16). Both the Atlanta Constitution and the Hartford Courant in Connecticut had also been publishing weekly instalments of Anita Loos’ serialised treatment for their readers, generating interest in Saratoga as a racetrack comedy romance. On 27 July The Atlanta Constitution reminded its readers of this fact, and linked the local box office success of the film to its readers’ interest in Saratoga’s story, even publishing claims from the local Loew’s manager that at his theatre “the substitution of a double for Miss Harlow – announced with her death – went unnoticed in the later part of the film […] with patrons absorbed in the swift action and striking shots” (“‘Saratoga’ Serial Box Office Lure”, p. 3).

In terms of newspaper reviews, ones for the smaller mid-western and southern cities and regional areas tended to be word-for-word reiterations of the industry press screening reports, reflecting the fact that few of these papers employed dedicated reviewers. Some regional papers such as the Sunday Register in Raleigh County West Virginia (22 August 1937) and the Kingston Daily Freeman in Kingston NY (6 August 1937), reviewed Saratoga with just attributes like “M-G-M’s exciting new hit!” and “Harlow never lovelier”, and positive comparisons of the film to another previous racetrack comedy picture, Broadway Bill, that had been apparently popular in the region previously – no mention was made of Harlow’s death or problems with the film’s completion.

Discontinuity and Morbidity

Attention to Harlow’s posthumous substitution and the film’s resulting choppiness or incoherencies appear to have been generated largely in newspaper reviews coming out of urban centres New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. The reviewers for such papers tended to be dedicated film journalists who apparently imagined themselves to be addressing an urbane movie-literate readership, and foregrounded their own levels of aesthetic attention and/or morbid consciousness. For instance, Edwin Schallert of the Los Angeles Times, while praising the film as a “unique accomplishment” found it to be “fragmentary” and that “the effects of Jean’s illness […] are to be observed in some of the episodes” (p. 17). Norbert Lusk, also for the Los Angeles Times, thought that it was impossible to evaluate as a film and that “Absence of Jean Harlow from final sequences is conspicuous, in spite of a substitute actress” (p. D3). Recognising, though, that this conspicuous absence could be an attraction in itself, he added: “This apparently increases the public’s interest in the proceedings as positively as it damages the continuity and intelligibility of the patchwork that follows” (p. D3). According to a summary of New York newspaper film reviews in the Hollywood Reporter on 27 July, others addressed the aesthetic problems wrought by the faceless double. The Herald Tribune found “The final sequences fall apart… the story becomes almost incomprehensible; the padding is obvious and unwieldy; the long shots of the star’s stand-in are confusing to the central character” (p. 5). The Hollywood Reporter also printed that the New York Mirror found the scenes of Harlow’s substitution “easy to identify” (p. 5). So too, on 24 July the reviewer for the Hartford Courant drew attention to the method of completion with “Double Completes Scenes Unfinished at Time of Harlow’s Death” as their subtitle, while going on to praise the skilful handling of the scenes, but advising the reader that (contra to the trade paper reports) “you won’t be deceived” (“Last Harlow Film…” p. 10).

Of those reviewers who saw the film through a morbid lens, Frank S. Nugent for the New York Times wrote:

It is difficult to appraise the film from a completely detached viewpoint, watching Miss Harlow flounce through most of its scenes and realizing that this image is an insubstantial shadow, but viewing the production as objectively as possible, this reviewer found it an unstable thing…” (p. 16).

For Nugent, his knowledge of Harlow’s death intrudes on Saratoga, rending Harlow’s appearance in the film a document of a lost past. Perhaps the most florid and sentimental example of a morbid gaze could be found in the Chicago Tribune, where a reviewer writing under the feminine pen-name Mae Tinee opined:

You’re wondering, with a half shudder, if you really WANT to see it…and how it will affect you if you DO see it, thinking, as is natural, much more about what will be your emotional reactions to the picture than you are about the film itself. Well, I’ll tell you, the experience is a strange sensation. […] I entered the projection room with the hushed feeling of going to a funeral. After that I was just conscious of strain and pain and pity. Strain watching for the sequences where the shining haired darling of filmdom who is no more should be replaced by the girl to whose lot fell the sad duty of substitution. Pain for the illness and sadness that are plainly to be detected throughout Miss Harlow’s entire gallant effort. Pity, deep and goading, over the thought of the eternal stilling of anything so beautiful and vibrant (p. C4).

The emergence of morbid reception modes for Saratoga, despite M-G-M’s and wider industry ostensive efforts, did not go without a kind of chastisement. For instance, on 25 July the Washington Post film columnist Bell reported on the film’s reception in New York, where the apparently mostly female crowd had inundated theatre owners with requests for photographs of Harlow as keepsakes. Contrasting sensation-seeking New Yorkers to the supposedly more sober citizens of Washington, he then said:

There is less of morbidity in the make-up of the average picture goer in the national Capital […] whatever patronage ‘Saratoga’ may be enjoying […] will be due less to the unsavoury lure of a posthumous release than to a genuine regard for the fine character of the film. (p. T5)

The desire to define appropriate viewing modes was also evident in American Cinematographer, where George Blaisdell went to far as to disavow film’s intrinsic spatial and temporal properties by insisting Saratoga could be watched as if Harlow was still present: “The marked interest of the general public in the work of Miss Harlow is in no way honestly to be ascribed to morbidity. Rather it is due to the same motive that animates a play-goer to attend the farewell performance of an old stage favorite” (p. 272).


The trade press were quick to proclaim Saratoga as a massive hit across the country and a breaker of box office records. Interestingly, it was not just Harlow or the film’s producer Bernie Hyman who was given credit for the film’s success, but “M-G-M sales boss”, Al Lichtman and his “alert” distribution strategy. Lichtman had admitted to exhibitors that most patrons would probably be brought into the theatres by “curiosity”, but that interest in the film would be likely to wane quickly, so he thought it prudent to “level both barrels and grab the quickest money returns this industry has ever known” by grabbing every available play-date within a four week period (Wilkerson, p. 1; Churchill, p. 137).

The box office reports in Motion Picture Herald indicate that, while Saratoga’s take tended to drop off in its second week by anywhere between 20 and 50% in most cities, in New York its box office actually rose in the second week. This is accompanied by reports of security being hired by Loew’s for its flagship Capitol Theatre to stop crowds making off with Harlow-related souvenirs from the lobby. I think the reviews and post-release commentary indicate a range of possible appeals and audience motivations for seeing the film: it could be enjoyed as a swift-moving racetrack romantic comedy; a viewer could go and pit their wits against M-G-M and see if they could detect the double; they could delight in Harlow and Gable’s glamorous screen pairing and banter; or go and say goodbye to their favourite star; they could have the morbid thrill of watching a dead woman’s shadow on screen. Indeed a hypothetical viewer would probably move among any of these viewing modes, or occupy more than one simultaneously.

The distribution pattern for the film reveals though that M-G-M believed that one of the main appeals of the film would be the sensation of morbid curiosity. However both M-G-M personnel and industry journalists worked hard to create a respectable and respectful preferred narrative around not just the film, but its audience as well. The narrative was shaped, as we have seen, by M-G-M’s and the wider Hollywood studio system’s preoccupation with public image and middle-class appeal in the late 1930s; by the discourses underpinning the star system; and strong negative connotations at the time around morbid curiosity.[5] Whether ultimately taken up by the audience or not, the official meanings around the film were ones of wholeness, tribute and lively entertainment experience, and the audience was constructed as wholesome demanding consumers.

Thanks are due to the University of Queensland Early Career Researcher Grant scheme for providing me with the travel funds to make this project possible, and to the staff at the Margaret Herrick Library in Los Angeles for their assistance.

Works Cited

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Primary Sources
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[1] These have included Jackie Stacey’s Star Gazing: Hollywood Cinema and Female Spectatorship (London: Routledge, 1994) with her ethnographic study of now elderly British women, reminiscing about their youthful cinema-going and film star investments, and Cynthia Erb’s archive research on the different reception contexts and meanings circulating around King Kong at the time of its release in the 1930s in ‘From Novelty to Romance: King Kong’s Promotional Campaign’, in Paul Grainge, Mark Jancovich and Sharon Monteith (ed) Film Histories: an Introduction and Reader (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007).
[2] According to the 1921 article “Mortal Actors and Immortal Film Faces” by Helen Bullitt-Lowry in the New York Times, three films were completed posthumously in different ways between 1918 and 1921 and were released without widespread knowledge of their stars’ deaths. The three stars whose deaths necessitated posthumous film completions were: Rudolph Christians in 1921 during production of Erich von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives; Harold Lockwood’s death in 1918 of Spanish Influenza during filming an unnamed “English detective story” – Bullitt-Lowry also claimed that the public were largely unaware of his death and that “crush letters” were still arriving for him at Metro; and Beatrice Dominguez during The White Horses (sic) in 1921 (p. 40). However, it depends on the newsworthiness of the death: deaths associated with violence or scandal then, as now, accrued much more publicity. For instance, aviator/actor Ormer Locklear died on film, crashing his plane while filming The Skyway Man (Fox, 1920). The fatal crash footage remained in the final released version of the film, and according to Eve Golden was “exhibited in the theatres to avidly morbid fans” (p. 83).
[3] Wilkerson’s comments are interesting in light of Bullitt-Lowry’s earlier article, but as one of the readers of this article has rightly pointed out, the cause of death was perhaps the biggest factor in problems with the posthumous release of a final film. Deaths from drugs or suicide would be more likely to create problems in promoting the deceased star’s final film than death from accident or natural causes.
[4] See for instance Motion Picture Daily, July 12, 1937.
[5] This last factor may require further research, and that research may show that the media coverage of Rudolph Valentino’s death, and of the hysterical mob behaviour in New York outside the funeral home displaying his body, was subsequently met with wide disapproval and the belief that morbid curiosity was something that should be discouraged both for the sake of the film industry and the sake of North American culture.

Created on: Wednesday, 1 September 2010

About the Author

Lisa Bode

About the Author

Lisa Bode

Lisa Bode lectures in Film and Television Studies at the University of Queensland. She is the author of Making Believe: Screen Performance and Special Effects in Popular Cinema (Rutgers University Press, 2017). She is on the editorial board for the series Animation: Key Films/Filmmakers (Bloomsbury Academic), and for the journal, Celebrity Studies (Taylor and Francis).View all posts by Lisa Bode →