I cannot, in any conscience, recommend Saratoga Trunk. The list of caveats to work through is a “Choose Your Own Adventure” of racism, ableism, and low-key misogyny (though less of the third, what with the first two). If you’re a Flora Robson completist, you presumably know about the time she was Oscar-nominated for playing Blackface, and so you’ve already made your peace with Trunk. For Gary Cooper completists, there are undoubtedly less shockingly exploitative lousy historical soap melodramas in his filmography.
So then Ingrid Bergman presents the most compelling reason to watch Trunk; she’s in quarter-Blackface (she powders a lot is the film’s excuse) as the illegitimate daughter of a New Orleans blue blood. After her mother “killed” her father–the film skirts around it, presumably for Code reasons (the Code memos must be a sight), but probably Dad killed himself, and Mom found the body. But after the father’s death (after he’d left Bergman’s mother to marry a fellow, white, blue blood), his family paid the mom off, and she took baby Bergman to Paris.
Now Mom has died, and Bergman is back in New Orleans to exact revenge on family matriarch Adrienne D'Ambricourt. In tow, Bergman has family servant Robson and valet Jerry Austin. Austin’s a little person. Trunk plays him for adorable comedy every time. With music. It’s a lot.
Bergman’s got a simple plan—she’s going to blackmail D'Ambricourt, possibly into ruin, as payback for Mama, and then she’s going to marry a rich guy, pass as white, and live a life of luxury. Unfortunately, Bergman almost immediately meets Texan Cooper, and he’s such a tall drink of water in his ten-gallon hat and legs for days, she immediately puts off the marriage pursuit to enjoy some Texas.
The movie initially can’t decide if Cooper’s a mark or an accomplice. Once he and Bergman get canoodling and fading to black together, he’s at least aware Bergman’s a scam artist, and she’s out to fleece D'Ambricourt (deservedly or not). The first act takes a lot of time establishing Cooper as Bergman’s love interest, including having him bond with Robson, which features Robson demanding Cooper respect her.
As a Black woman.
I’ll just give everyone the opportunity to google Flora Robson.
That scene ends with the fastest fade out in the film like the Hays Office told them they could do it because having a white woman say she deserves respect as a Black woman is at least better than a Black woman saying it? Again, the memos must be a treasure trove of racism, misogyny, and misogynoir. But, really, just yikes.
The movie’s first half, with Bergman hanging out in New Orleans with Cooper on her arm (and vice versa), giving the blue bloods heart palpitations, is bad. The second half of the movie (less than half, unfortunately) has Bergman on the prowl in Saratoga, her eyes set on marrying would-be railroad tycoon John Warburton. The Trunk in the title refers to a railroad’s main line.
Bergman and Cooper have to keep their hands off one another long enough for Bergman to marry rich. She’ll get help from busybody Florence Bates and have all sorts of awkward interactions around the grand hotel where they’re staying in Saratoga Springs. Saratoga’s about how New Orleans is crappy, and the most beautiful place on the planet is in upstate New York.
After a brief rally in the late second act—Bates gives Trunk some unproblematic gas, arguably the first player to do so—things fall apart for the finale. The Trunk finally becomes important, only it’s dramatically inert. I’m curious if Edna Ferber’s source novel is a spoof of objectivism or if it’s sincere. The movie doesn’t really have time for it—the capitalist philosophy is Cooper’s story, and the movie does Cooper’s scenes away from Bergman in quick exposition dumps. He’s just around for beefcake. Or the early-to-mid-forties version of Gary Cooper beefcake.
Cooper’s never good, but—when he’s not being racist or ableist to the sympathetic supporting players—he’s likable. Bergman’s either great or terrible. She’s doing high melodrama. I mean, she’s not great, but she’s (problematically) compelling. And they do have lots of chemistry together.
Director Wood and photographer Ernest Haller deserve kudos for the ways they find to squeeze all of Cooper’s limbs into the frames. The movie makes lots of hash about him being so tall, and Wood does his damnedest to make Cooper seem too tall for the screen.
Technically, Trunk’s a solid studio melodrama. Wood’s direction is fine. He likes implying sexy time more than he likes doing action scenes, which is a problem. Max Steiner’s score would be excellent if it weren’t for his comedy themes for when Austin walks, talks, or exists.
Fabulous gowns for Bergman from Leah Rhodes.
Saratoga Trunk is in the “needs to be seen to be believed” camp (or is it “needs to be seen to be believed camp”), but not in a good way. Beware.