Next up after my takes on Ordinary People and Spice World comes Saratoga Trunk, a little known 1940's epic starring Ingrid Bergman and Gary Cooper. This film has haunted my psyche for years after seeing it initially and a subsequent viewing a few months ago only deepened my love for this gloriously insane disaster. Now, if only more people could see it; currently, it's only available on a hard to find VHS copy and TCM once in a blue moon. What a goddamn shame.
When I first saw the little-seen 1946 drama Saratoga Trunk, a Sam Wood-directed epic based on a novel by notorious author Edna Ferber and starring Ingrid Bergman and Gary Cooper, some years ago, I was not quite sure what to make of it. Even as a neophyte film watcher, I recognized that the film was not perfect: the leads, especially Bergman, were horribly miscast, the story bounced around between various plot points and situations without much cohesion, the whole mood of the film is just, for lack of a better word, weird. For whatever reason, however, I was enthralled by Saratoga Trunk. Not in the way one may be by a “camp” film or one that is “so bad it’s good” like Mommie Dearest, but, rather, in the almost indescribable fashion one watches a car wreck with curious interest long after they know they should look away. For years after my initial screening of Saratoga Trunk, long after memories of other more technically proficient films had faded away from my memory, it persisted as one of the most oddly memorable films I had ever seen. When I decided to rescreen it recently, I hoped that my fondness towards the movie would not falter as sometimes happens with movies you build up in your mind. Only, you realize far too late, they weren’t worth all the affection you heaped upon them the first time around. Thankfully, that did not occur, and, if anything, a second viewing helped me verbalize what exactly makes this inconsistent, deeply flawed film so immensely fascinating.
From the onset of the film, it becomes heavily apparent that Saratoga Trunk is Jack Warner’s attempt to cash in on and duplicate the success of Gone With the Wind seven years earlier. With a story about a determined woman, with the help of a strapping rogue that loves her, breaking social taboos and norms simply to get ahead alive and get petty revenge on those who had done her and her family wrong in the past, Warner obviously realized the potential for another mega hit. Adding on Ingrid Bergman and Gary Cooper, quite possibly the most sought after stars in Hollywood by that point, What is so surprising about this is not the fact that Saratoga Trunk made so much money (although nowhere near Gone With the Wind’s record profits), but, rather, the fact that Bergman and Cooper were cast in the first place given their miscasting. Cooper is not a terrible match for the rugged he-man lead—he played them all the time in his long career. Rather, the role depends on an actor like Clark Gable who could be completely charming but also a jerk at the same time. Cooper has a hard time balancing the two contradictory aspects of the character; he has charm to spare, but you never quite dislike him as much as you are probably supposed to. Bergman, on the other hand, is all wrong for the Scarlett O’Hara clone she plays. Always at her best in films like Notorious and The Bells of St. Mary’s which allowed her to emote with her expressive face, Bergman is at an obvious disadvantage in Saratoga Trunk where most of the movie is spent with her delivering chunks of dialogue in either a haughty, impatient manner or a coquettish fashion.
But, all of this miscasting aside, Bergman and Cooper are actually not bad in the film. Although it hardly ranks with each of their respective performances, both actors manage to be relatively engaging throughout the entire runtime of Saratoga Trunk, managing to both stay grounded and keep up with the film’s increasing strangeness. The situation is very similar to Cate Blanchett’s performance in Notes on a Scandal. The brainy, clinical actress is hardly the first person you would think of to play the dull, almost vacant school teacher, yet she is completely fascinating and entertaining in the moment, perfectly over-the-top during the film’s climactic showdown between herself and Dame Judi Dench.
The fact that Saratoga Trunk was made during the height of the Production Code is quite surprising given the twisted nature of the film. With its wacky, downright strange supporting characters and subplots involving sex, manipulation, blackmail and con artistry, Saratoga Trunk is in sharp contrast with the traditionalism of the typical Ferber American epic. A film that revolves around Ingrid Bergman, flanked by a dwarf and British character actress Flora Robson in blackface as her mulatto servant, traveling from France to her now deceased mother’s home in New Orleans to (a) get revenge on the family that ruined her mother’s life and (b) land a rich husband using every cheap, shameless tactic in the book does not sound like the typical output from the woman who wrote Show Boat and Giant. The relationship between Bergman and Cooper in the film is also interesting because it takes the sexual dynamic between Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler that made Gone With the Wind so popular and twists it to another level. If you thought Scarlett and Rhett were morally dubious, Bergman and Cooper’s characters make them seem like church folk. At first, Bergman makes it blatantly clear that she is only with Cooper for his money and he accepts this. They eventually break up once Cooper realizes just how scarily hell-bent she is on her mission for revenge. Once that mission is complete, however, Cooper becomes her partner in crime in trying to get her hitched to a rich mama’s boy. He makes up lies for her, moves into the next hotel room so they can work together on a plan and then sits back and watches her squirm when confronted by people who doubt her story. To make things even more complicated, there are moments where the two characters simply look at each other and pure animalistic lust passes between them. Some of these looks are so blatantly lusty, it is hard to believe they passed the censors.
Another fascinating aspect of Saratoga Trunk is that it manages to transcend the “camp” label applied to similar-sounding movies. Camp films tend to go overboard in certain respects, whether it is in overacting, over directing or over stylizing with the camera. They have big “moments” where, either through ineptitude or sheer carelessness, the viewer realizes that the film has become something entirely different from what the creative team envisioned. The rape scene in Myra Breckinridge would be one such moment, or the infamous wire hanger scene in Mommie Dearest. A legitimate “camp” film is normally punctuated with moments like these to liven up dull bits in between. Saratoga Trunk has no such moments. The film has campy aspects, certainly, but nothing artistically or stylistically is pushed in that direction. Each individual scene feels carefully crafted, and no one moment takes you completely out of the film. The weird vibe that permeates Saratoga Trunk is only noticeable when considering the film as a whole. In each individual scene, nothing the dwarf or Bergman’s servant says or does is incredibly “out there,” yet, when you think of them in context of the entire film, they stick out like a sore thumb, almost to the point of laughter.
Saratoga Trunk belongs in a class of films I like to call “beautiful disasters.” An example of a film that belongs in this specialized group would be the recent The Box, a nonsense thriller that falls short of whatever insane vision director Richard Kelley had in his head but fails spectacularly. Or, Francois Truffaut’s Hitchcockian misfire Mississippi Mermaid which makes up for a hackneyed story with its stars, the most beautiful couple in the history of film, Catherine Deneuve and Jean-Paul Belmondo. They may be lacking in some department, but they are far more fascinating to ponder for hours on end than a film like Frost/Nixon which may be technically proficient but offers nothing of interest once the runtime ends. I do not know about most people, but, good or bad, I would rather have more films like Saratoga Trunk that leave me guessing as to why they are so fascinating--even during moments when they shouldn’t be.