In 1945, Ingrid Bergman reached the height of her popularity. Three years after saddling audiences with Casablanca, she made three movies – Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound, Leo McCarey’s The Bells of St. Mary’s and Sam Wood’s Saratoga Trunk. These were all huge hits for Bergman and the studios they were produced at, but the third film in that list has rightly been forgotten, even more so than the McCarey film. While The Bells of St. Mary’s features one of her best performances, Saratoga Trunk, made by Warner Bros., is an odd creature and quite possibly a movie that really doesn’t deserve to exist.
Saratoga Trunk is based on a novel by Edna Farber, the novelist of Show Boat, Cimarron and Giant. Bergman stars as Clio Dulaine, the illegitimate daughter of a respected Creole gentleman. After her father died, the establishment kicked her mother out of New Orleans when she was just a baby. Now an adult, Clio has returned to New Orleans and she’s out for blood. OK, she’s only out to embarrass all the people that kicked her mother out, but still… it’s that old cliche – Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.
Along with her Hatian maid Angelique (Flora Robson) and her dwarf manservant Cupidon (Jerry Austin), Clio succeeds at first. But she still can’t find that rich man to marry to make her life better. She actually falls in love with tall Texan Col. Clint Maroon (Gary Cooper), but he’s not as rich as they’d hope. He actually gets fascinated with her devil-may-care attitude to a point, and eventually leaves to Saratoga Springs, New York. Since Clio’s behavior got herself kicked out of New Orleans, she follows him.
That sets up a last act filled with so much melodrama that it’s hard to take. Even though Clio and Clint love each other, he decides to help her woo one, but we know they have to end up together. They are, after all, played by the top two billed stars.
In most of Bergman’s films – even the bad ones – she was the saving grace. Her performances could lift a film out of the dumps. But here, the material is too awful too be rescued. Clio is one despicable, unlikable character and even worse than the mother in Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata. From the moment her character decides she wants to sleep in the room where her father tried to commit suicide, it is clear that Clio is going to have little redeeming qualities. She is like other Farber characters, in that she’s searching for a better life. But Clio has no desire to reach a higher status through kinder ways. She is not better than the people she wants to embarrass. She’s even worse.
Saratoga Trunk also features a bizarre performance from Flora Robson, who wears brownface for the entire duration of the film. Yeah, this is an old movie, but I thought by 1945, Hollywood had moved beyond that. I guess not.
If there’s one really neat quality of this film, it’s Max Steiner’s score, which perfectly captures the craziness of Clio’s plans. It feels like Steiner too realizes how outlandish this whole movie is and is commenting on that through his score.
Saratoga Trunk was probably the last movie I should have watched on Ingrid’s centennial. It’s a downright quirky movie for both her and Cooper. Plus it’s incredibly long at 135 minutes. This movie is safe to skip, proving that even the best stars have some duds on their resumes.
Please check out my list of my favorite Ingrid Bergman roles at TheCelebrityCafe.com.