Review: Saratoga Trunk
Ingrid Bergman plays a headstrong (read: Selfish) Creole woman in 1870s New Orleans after time away in Paris. Born to a wealthy father, but an illegitimate child, she comes back to New Orleans with her Haitian maid (Flora Robson!) and dwarf manservant (Jerry Austin) in tow, hoping to escape the scandalous nature of her conception. She hooks up with polite Texan gambler Gary Cooper, who is perfectly aware of what she is (a gold-digger) and what she’s attempting to do (catch a rich fella). And still falls for her anyway, as they both end up in Saratoga Springs. There Bergman masquerades as a rich French woman, whilst cluey seasonal resident Florence Bates pegs her for the imposter she is straight away. Cooper, meanwhile finds himself some competition in dullard railroad company heir John Warburton, whom he’s doing a business dealing with, despite obvious mutual disrespect. Ethel Griffies plays Warburton’s snooty mother who has zero time for Bergman whatsoever.
Some good actors are put to very bad use in this disastrous, miscast film from director Sam Wood (“A Night at the Opera”, “A Day at the Races”), that was shot in 1943 but not released until 1945. Ingrid Bergman is a terrific actress in the right role, but playing this supposedly French-accented Creole woman (with an unflattering dark wig) is just horrendously out of her range. Bergman goes for a mixture of giggly flirt and unlikeable Scarlett O’Hara, fails miserably, and at no point sounds anything other than Swedish. She tries hard. Really, really hard, but she’s just not right in a part that requires more bravado and a little bit of trashiness (I think Tallulah Bankhead would’ve been much more appropriate). The normally very classy British character actress Flora Robson, meanwhile, is quite simply one of the worst cases of miscasting I’ve ever witnessed, as Bergman’s Haitian (!) servant. In blackface. And a Stepin Fetchit accent to boot, despite Stepin Fetchit not sounding remotely Haitian. It’s embarrassing to witness, especially considering there were several African-American actresses they could’ve employed at the time. Instead they take a British actress, slather on some boot polish, and stick on some ridiculously thick eyebrows. As for little person Jerry Austin, he’s completely amateurish and who the fuck hires a little person as a manservant anyway? Carry your own bags you lazy cow, you’re making a disabled person do the work for you? (I’m a disabled person myself and only half-serious about this point. It just seemed odd to me). Gary Cooper fares better, in that playing a boring, polite, cowboy hat-wearing Texan is a comfortable fit for him. However, he’s still a human Oak tree, overdoes the ‘Thank ‘ya kindly, ma’am’ schtick a bit, even saying ‘dern tootin’ at one point. No, not ‘darn tootin’, ‘dern tootin’, apparently. He shares little to no chemistry with Bergman on-screen, despite apparently sharing quite a bit off-screen if you know what I mean. On-screen she giggles and he fumbles as they awkwardly stumble through a lack of chemistry.
The one truly good performance in the film comes from Florence Bates, who is terrific. Sadly, the film is a lost cause before she even turns up. The only other worthwhile thing about the film is the excellent B&W cinematography by Ernest Haller (“Captain Blood”, “Gone With the Wind”). The portrayal of Creole flavour and folk here is eye-rollingly bad and clichéd in the extreme. This is C- material from a C-grade director, that somehow managed to nab an A-grade cast it majorly misuses the majority of, and resulting in a D-grade mess. Something has gone very, very wrong here, and the best I can say for it overall is that it’s oddly fascinating in its awkwardness.
Overlong, fatally miscast (how did Robson get her only Oscar nomination for this?), and horribly dated drama that is probably best forgotten. Some very embarrassing casting in this one. It looks great, but I’m shocked the damn thing even got a release in the first place since even for 1945 it seems pretty outdated. It’d be offensive if it weren’t so stupid. From the novel by Edna Ferber, the screenplay is by Casey Robinson (“Captain Blood”, “Now Voyager”, “Casablanca”).