Not Harlow. Mary Dees, the actress who filmed Jean Harlow’s unfinished scenes in Saratoga.

Mary Dees, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Jean Harlow, shown in an undated MGM publicity shot. She hoped for great things after appearing as Jean Harlow's replacement in Saratoga, the film MGM wanted to shelve after the screen goddess' sudden death on June 7, 1937.
Undated photo of Mary Dees from the Maurice Seymour studio in Chicago.

“Backstage at the Shubert Theatre, the stage manager hesitates to pop his head into in the star dressing room. He’s not sure he can take looking at the young woman one more time. That’s not something he’s ever thought about a gorgeous woman before. His motto – You can look at a buffet all you want, so long as you eat at home – has worked for him and his missus for the 12 years he’s worked at the Shubert. In that time he’s been witness to a miraculous, many would say enviable, stream of some of the world’s most beautiful women in and out of the star dressing room.”

July 27, 1937 – The Wisconsin Theatre, Milwaukee

As the mainly female audience streamed out of the packed Friday morning showing of Saratoga, starring Jean Harlow and Clark Gable, they were met by men in sleek suits. There were six of these suave individuals and one glance told you they weren’t from around these parts. The men had gleaming smiles, perfectly combed hair and an intensity that you just didn’t find among the men-folk of Milwaukee.

They had positioned themselves around the ornate Wisconsin Theatre lobby, but still, it didn’t take much for each man to collar a couple of women at a time and ask them to stop a moment, if they wouldn’t mind. Once the women did stop, and while they instantly appraised their appealing captors from head to foot, admiring their polished air, the suited men asked why they wanted to see Saratoga.

There were two answers most commonly received, enough so that the men eventually dismissed the others as unimportant. What they learned from the hundreds of women they spoke to over several sold out showings, over several days, was delivered with a guileless simplicity.

Women wanted to see how the replacement actress, Mary Dees, would get by stepping into the film at the last second to replace the dead star, Jean Harlow. They knew all about the spontaneous outcry from Harlow’s fans around America, who sent in letter after letter addressed directly to M-G-M boss, Louis B. Mayer, insisting that the right way to honor the platinum blonde screen goddess after her sudden death was not to can the film but to do whatever it took to make sure it was released.

And, the women, sometimes sharing a meaningful glance with their girlfriend or mother or sister standing to their side, expressed that, naturally, they wanted to see what a star looked and acted like while dying.

One woman said, “Honey,” and she cast a glance across the crowd of women dressed in their best somberly heading toward the bank of glass doors, “we’re all here to see if we can make out when that poor girl was about to kick the bucket.”

When the six men gathered back at the sprawling Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio in sunny Los Angeles from where they had fanned out to middle America, they realized that female audiences could be just as ghoulish as twelve-year-old boys. They simply had to know what the world’s sexiest woman would look like with death grinning over her shoulder. And now they knew.

As for Mary Dees, when she was called in by Saratoga director, Jack Conway, who had already brought in several young actresses, including the beautiful Rita Johnson, her striking resemblance to Harlow put everyone in the room that morning on edge. Mary had it all: the figure, the trademark platinum blonde hair, broad face and even the cleft chin. By God, that chin, they all thought, as the actress took her seat to start the screen test.

Jack Conway had found his replacement for the unfinished scenes — only four crucial minutes were left to film when Jean Harlow begged him to call her boyfriend Bill Powell, who was himself filming nearby, to take her home. Despite Harlow’s strange comments to her makeup ladies about not coming back, no one thought for a minute that the star would never finish filming her scenes.

Conway, desperate to get it over with and deliver the film, and despite Mary Dees’ enthusiasm and perfect looks, made sure that only long shots were used. When that wasn’t possible, he had Dees put binoculars to her face (much of the movie takes place at the Saratoga race track), or he shot from the side so that she was mainly hidden by a huge floppy hat.

Dees did not pick up on any of this. As far as she was concerned, replacing dead Harlow was her break-out moment.

Of course, she told herself, it wouldn’t be right to snatch stardom from Harlow’s last motion picture. No. But it would be perfectly understandable if her scenes in the movie, and her actual physical appearances to promote the film around the country, led to many, many wonderful opportunities.

And so, over an excited telephone call back to her mother back home in Alabama, Dees gushed that being Jean Harlow’s replacement was the best thing that could have happened to her.

“Mama, this is it! This is it! You watch, I’ll get my own big pictures next year,” Mary assured her mother while standing at the telephone in the Culver City boarding house where she stayed for $20 a week, bath not included. But for Mrs. Dees, sitting in the telephone seat in the dark hallway in her home in Tuscaloosa, something did not feel right.

After the call, Mary went back to the huge scrapbook she had started. Laid out on her double bed, she had already artfully pasted in several full size newspaper clippings announcing Jean Harlow’s death on June 7, 1937 in huge copperplate headlines, most accompanied by glamorous, if grainy, publicity photographs of the gorgeous star. There were other clippings about her funeral on June 9, 1937 attended by her grief stricken mother Jean Bello and 250 of Hollywood’s motion picture stars, filmmakers, executives and technicians — the hair, makeup and wardrobe people who had adored working with the down-to-earth Jean “Baby” Harlow.

Mary had also pasted in newspaper photos of Clark Gable and the other men who were pallbearers grimly carrying Harlow’s copper casket on their shoulders. And of course, she was delighted to find a photograph of Bill Powell, Harlow’s last lover, utterly heartbroken.There were smaller clippings about the call to Mr. Mayer, M-G-M’s studio head, to finish the film, and then those about the search for Harlow’s replacement. Mary had taken much delight in pasting in the snippets pronouncing Miss Rita Johnson as the replacement, followed by others proclaiming her as the rightful owner of the honor.

Meanwhile, for the studio, a Harlow replacement got the film finished. But no one, not even for a moment, entertained the notion that the remarkable Miss Harlow could ever be truly replaced. Not now, not ever. From the day the film was released to unprecedented sold out audiences across the country, Mary Dees would always be just Harlow’s stand-in. Her resemblance made her a dead woman walking — a trigger to audiences of what was lost, not what could be found.

Christmas Eve, 1937 – The Shubert Theatre, Broadway, New York City

Backstage at the Shubert Theatre the stage manager hesitates to pop his head into in the star dressing room. He’s not sure he can take looking at the young woman one more time. That’s not something he’s ever thought about a gorgeous woman before. His motto – You can look at a buffet all you want, so long as you eat at home – has worked for him and his missus for the 12 years he’s worked at the Shubert. In that time he’s been witness to a miraculous, many would say enviable, stream of some of the world’s most beautiful women in and out of the star dressing room.

The first time he popped his head in he saw Jean Harlow powdering her nose. His next thought was: that dame’s been dead and buried for six months now. Of course he also knew that Miss Mary Dees would be making a special appearance tonight. The crowds kept coming for Saratoga despite its release being some weeks ago now. His head knew this, but his eyes said Jean Harlow.

He told himself to stop acting like an old grandma spooked by a picture falling off the wall! Do your job, man!

After he double rapped his knuckles on the dressing room door and the obligatory wait for a yes, which this time came in a soft, somewhat Southern accent, he opened the door and popped his head in. What he meant to say was: “One hour, Miss Dees.” What actually happened resembled when a fish is yanked onto the jetty and takes its first breath.

The stage manager stared grimly ahead, willing his mouth to work immediately. Mary Dees looked up from the Photoplay magazine she was reading. The man tried again and was greatly relieved when he managed to convey the message to the young actress.

“Thanks. I appreciate it greatly,” said Mary in return, tears swimming in her eyes.

Suddenly a coward, his job done, the stage manager pulled his head back in and went to knock on the door of veteran actor Monte Blue, also appearing tonight.

But now it was just five minutes to showtime for Miss Dees and Mr. Blue. The stage manager stood outside the dressing room door. He double rapped his knuckles one more time and in the same instant that he heard “yes,” the door opened and there she was, Harlow again, right in front of him.

Mary had fixed her makeup to cover up the tear streaks, gave her halo of platinum blonde hair another brush and re-applied her best shade of red lipstick. The effect was breathtaking, overwhelming even. The stage manager shut his jaw with a snap, but stood for a beat too long staring at the young woman who stopped herself short so as not to collide with him on her way out of the dressing room.

“Thanks,” she said and the two locked eyes. “Uh, I’m sorry but I don’t know your name.”

“Dixon. Ronald Dixon, ma’am,” and he had the good sense to take one step back so Mary Dees could step through the door.

“Well, thank you Mr. Dixon. Merry Christmas to you.”

“Miss Dee..ees,” Ronald stuttered, what the hell was wrong with him? “Have you got people here in New York City to spend Christmas with?”

Tears immediately welled up in Mary Dees’ eyes. Ronald Dixon instantly felt like the village idiot. Not trusting himself to speak, he resorted to universal gestures and held up a finger while stepping past the young woman. He made a swift lunge for a small pink hand towel from the basin in the corner of the dressing room and handed it to Mary almost in the same movement.

“My apologies, ma’am. Certainly ain’t none of my business and I didn’t mean to make you upset,” he said as she carefully, precisely dabbed around her blue eyes.

“I don’t have people here. But my hotel room is very lovely. I’m sure I’ll be alright,” Mary said, handing the towel back. Ronald looked at his watch, shocked at the time. He said nothing more, but reached for Mary’s elbow and together they stopped in front of Monte Blue’s door.

Ronald did his swift double rap rap and the door flung open just as he yelled out “Two minutes, Mr. Blue” so that he ended up yelling it into Monte Blue’s face. Mary laughed.

The older actor tapped at his watch angrily. “Whatcha thinking, young man! Never been late to anything in all my life. Not gonna start now at the Shubert!” and with that he grabbed Mary’s other elbow.

Together the three headed toward the glow from the stage.

Postscript: Mary Dees created two scrapbooks which are held at the W.S. Hoole Special Collections Library of the University of Alabama.


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Copyright Alicia Mayer 2013.

12 thoughts on “Not Harlow. Mary Dees, the actress who filmed Jean Harlow’s unfinished scenes in Saratoga.

  1. Alicia… FASCINATING. Particularly the question asked of the women audience – why they went to see the movie. “…They simply had to know what the world’s sexiest woman would look like with death grinning over her shoulder…”

  2. Thank you Jonathan for taking a moment to read my new story. Yes, I was amazed when I read about this fact-finding mission. The two main answers were as reported at the time. Glad you liked it!

  3. Fascinating story about a woman who thought this would be her breakout moment, only to discover it made her no more than an answer to a trivia question.

    As I understand it, initially Louis B. Mayer wanted to scrap Jean Harlow’s “Saratoga” scenes entirely and film it with another actress as the female lead; in fact, he supposedly asked Carole Lombard — whose romance with Clark Gable was then making headlines — if she would be interested. Lombard, who had become a good friend of Harlow’s, immediately rejected his proposal. Not only did she deem it tasteless, but knew it would be a no-win situation for her.

  4. Alicia, one of your best ever – so haunting! So well told! What a fabulous tale! I’m sending it to John and others I know. My Dad would’ve loved this!
    So, I take it Mary Dees sort of fizzled after this? Another Hollywood heartbreak?

  5. Yes, poor Mary Dees had almost no film career to speak of after this, though I understand she did do some theatre. In fact, she came to Australia with The Women shortly after. She lived a long time too. Passed away in 2004. I’ll add this today. I think it’s worth inclusion in the postscript now that I think of it. Thanks for your support as always!

  6. Wonderful way to put it re Mary Dees’ career. Loved the extra info. Thanks again for your support.

  7. Maurice Seymour was not a MGM photographer, and this was not a MGM publicity photograph. Maurice Seymour was actually two brothers in Chicago, who practiced under the name Maurice Seymour. The outfit was one of the most important theatrical photography studios in Chicago in the 1930s-1950s. For more information, check out David Shields’ Broadway Photographs site.

  8. Alicia, I would love to speak with you about your source material and research for this article. I’m a student at the University of Alabama, and my final research paper is on Mary Dees. This is brilliant.

  9. Thanks Kenneth. Evidently, she did some theater and did tour Australia with a play. But there was a great divide, it seems, between her ambition and the opportunities she had.

  10. Alicia, again you give a well written article. I always felt a bit sad for Mary Dees and the disappointment she must have felt. Hope to be reading more stories from you.

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