Sunday, January 24, 2010

SARATOGA TRUNK (WB 1945) Warner Archive Collection

Based on Edna Ferber's celebrated novel, Sam Woods' Saratoga Trunk (1945) is a mishmash of plot entanglements surrounding the comings and goings of 'notorious' woman, Clio Dulaine (Ingrid Bergman). Seems Clio's late mother was a fiery sort whose weak spot for men in general, and one married man in particular - Nicholas Dulaine - led to an affair that scandalized her reputation and all but destroyed the Dulaine family honor. Shunned by society, Clio's mother endured social obliteration after the affair ended, thereafter dying a broken woman - presumably in France.

All this is back story, of course, scripted in short shrift by Casey Robinson before the boat from France carrying Clio, her embittered housemaid, Angelique Buiton (Flora Robson) and mischievous, diminutive man servant, Cupidon (Jerry Austin) arrives on the shores of New Orleans. It is Clio's intent, as Nicholas' illegitimate child, to reclaim a place amongst respectable society. Arriving at the abandoned house that her mother once shared with Nicholas, Clio restores the Cajun villa to prominence and thereafter delights at taunting Nicholas' surviving relations; Charlotte (Sophie Huxley), Mrs. Dulaine (Helen Freeman) and grandmother (Adrienne D'Ambricourt) by her very presence.

In the meantime, Clio becomes attracted to tall Texan Colonel Clint Maroon (Gary Cooper); a wily chameleon of a gambler who sees Clio quite clearly for the rake in bustle that she is. At first Angelique detests Clint for his demanding ways. Soon, however, Angelique begins to realize that Clint might be exactly what the doctor ordered. Clio is prone to inexplicable fits of confusion - occasionally bordering on some sort of insanity - that only Clint's rough and tumble ways with her seem to be the cure.

Eventually, Clint and Clio's stormy passion drives a wedge in their relationship. Clint departs for Saratoga and Clio, having outstayed her welcome in New Orleans and thus being paid off by Nicholas' family, burns all of her mother's belongings in a bonfire before trailing after Clint.

Arriving in Saratoga, Clio is befriended by Sophie Bellop (Florence Bates); a dowager whose influence on polite society carries quite a lot of weight, despite the fact that she is as penniless as Clio. Clint and Clio are reunited even as she makes plans to seduce wealthy railroad financier, Bartholomew Van Steed (John Warburton); an affair managed by Sophie. Meanwhile, Clint and a ragtag crew of rail busters are determined to put an end to the pilfering of the 'Saratoga Trunk' a rail line that threatens Van Steed's supremacy in the area.

Having befriended Cupidon in New Orleans, Clint is not terribly surprised when the pint size stows away with the rail busters on their next crusade. Unfortunately for all concerned the train carrying Cupidon, Clint and the rail busters is involved in a head on collision with another locomotive. Barely surviving, Cupidon and Clint are brought back to the hotel on the night that Van Steed proposes marriage to Clio. Realizing that she loves only Clint, Clio spurns Van Steed's offer and rushes to Clint's side, eventually restoring him to health.

Saratoga Trunk isn't particularly engaging entertainment, and yet there is something compelling about the enterprise as a whole. Ingrid Bergman is miscast as Clio - her bouts of giddy discontent more comical than tragic. Still, there is genuine chemistry between Bergman and Gary Cooper, the latter on familiar ground and delivering the one credible performance in the movie.

Flora Robson is painfully miscast as the black slave, Angelique - her heavy makeup and ultra thick uni-brow creating some sort of gross pantomime that would have been better served by the likes of Louise Beavers, Hattie McDaniel, Butterfly McQueen, Ethel Waters or even Lena Horne. Robson - a gifted actress when the material is right - does her best with a Creole accent that is tenderly convincing but her obvious Caucasian features give the performance away as sheer black faced camp.

On the plus side are Joseph St. Amaad's superb production design and Max Steiner's elegant score that together resurrect all of the gentile finery of turn of the century Louisiana. Ernest Haller's cinematography is perfection, as are Leah Rhodes' sumptuous costuming for the film. As such, even when the foreground action seems to slack off, there's plenty for the eye to latch on to in backdrop accoutrements.

Saratoga Trunk is a Warner Archive release. Without the benefit of restoration, this burn-on-demand DVD transfer fairs inconsistently with age related artifacts present throughout. The first and last third of the film are relatively sharp, with a refined gray scale and a fair amount of fine detail. The middle third is a curiosity; inexplicably muddy and softly focused, suggesting that this portion of film has been derived from either second or third generation elements rather than original camera negatives. The audio is mono and adequate, though at times dialogue seems slightly inaudible. There are NO extra features.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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