March 17, 2014

Isn't It Lucky?

Saratoga Trunk has long been at the top of my list of guilty pleasures. This 1945 costume melodrama is stuffed with the emotional and thematic detritus of mid-century romance novels. The plot is a tumbling fiasco of carriages, tight bodices, card sharps, cheroots, and whores—what used to be called "tempestuous." There isn't a single boring moment, or a single sensible one. For overheated ludicrousness, Saratoga Trunk outpaces virtually all of its competitors, including Gone With the Wind (1939), Forever Amber (1947), The Strange Woman (1946), and the Gainsborough Studio melodramas of the same period (The Wicked Lady, Madonna of the Seven Moons, The Man in Grey).

Ingrid Bergman is Clio Dulaine, a feisty demimondaine prone to occasional bouts of hysteria. She sashays around the marketplace in New Orleans, her dwarf (Jerry Austin) and mulatto maid (Flora Robson) in tow, flirting with the laconic, mentally slow Texan gambler Clint Maroon (Gary Cooper). Bergman does more than give the role fire: she makes Clio sleazy, sexy, and dangerous. It's one of Bergman's most enjoyable performances; she was never before so outlandish. It's as if the girl in Gaslight (1944) really had been driven mad at the end and decided to taunt and tempt all the men in the city to avenge herself.

Southern flirt. Ingrid Bergman
The whole movie is uninhibited and unhinged. Sam Wood, the director, made sure that no one put the brakes on. Maybe he thought he was still working with the Marx Brothers. The ramrod-straight Gary Cooper specializes here (much as he did in Sternberg's great Morocco in 1931) in being a dorky, galumphing target for the randy Clio (he often languidly stretches out his boots in front of her while she gazes down at them, excitedly). As the prim and pinched maid Angelique, Flora Robson performs in blackface and delivers all her lines in a huff (she's worried about her charge's reputation, if you can believe it). The actress played a similar part (also in face paint) opposite Vivien Leigh's kittenish queen in Caesar and Cleopatra about a year earlier, but this maid, clucking and scuttling after her mistress, with the dwarf bringing up the rear, is a damn sight stranger (and funnier) than that soggy Shaw adaptation (too tightly constricted by misplaced reverence and leaden bulk).

Saratoga Trunk is like a MAD magazine sendup of Edna Ferber (who wrote the novel and screenplay) or one of Georgette Heyer's insipid romances. Everything comes vibrantly alive on the screen—the dialog, the steamy moss-hung sets, the deserted Gothic mansion haunted by ghosts real or imagined, the satiny cinematography, and the music (the main theme is just about Max Steiner's best). It pulsates as artifice. Up through the 1950s, Hollywood melodramas were consistently Brechtian. Saratoga Trunk intentionally quashes any emotional identification and avoids any semblance of authenticity, except in one scene: Clio sings a sexily moist song to Clint in Creole French, and for the first time you get the feeling that art is imitating life. It's a put-on, but an earnest one.

1 comment:

madonna of the seven baboons said...

Dana Stevens says 'guilty pleasure' is outdated. She prefers 'juice bomb'. (Besides, if one should feel guilty about a film like this, what about all the truly shameless garbage out there? This looks high-class compared to most films made then or now).

PS. Wicked Lady and Madonna of the Seven Moons are delirious, delicious fun.