This post may see me in hot water; however, I hope it’s sprinkled with shrimp boil and fresh lemon juice following an afternoon of busy deveining and chopping okra to prepare the gumbo and jambalaya of my memory.
I often understood Anne Rice’s choice of New Orleans as the setting for her vampire novels, and the Southern Gothic tradition still lingers in film, books, novels, and music. But since I lived in and around New Orleans for a few of my formative years, the allure of the sights, sounds, and smells of the French Quarter are continually lingering somewhere in my soul. One of the films so evocative of the languid but volatile nature of the people grabbed my fear by it’s hinges and shook it around in my core.
The opening scenes of Saratoga Trunk, even though they were filmed on the back lot of Warner Brothers’ Studios, coalesced and complimented my memories of walking along the brick-lined streets with gas lamp replicas and wrought iron balustrades as merchants hawked their wares to tourists with phrases like “Fresh pralines, fresh as New Orleans.” The forbidden lairs of the voodoo queen, Marie Laveaux, still beckon and tempt, and the stories of the ghosts of tortured slaves and murdered innocents perpetuate my nightmarish memories of childhood anxiety.
The varied characters and events equalled my experiences of the actual people and places I’d seen and heard. I’d walked on Rampart Street, just like Clio Dulaine did in the film. I’d seen the traffic up and down the Mississippi as it flowed out to the Gulf, and a visit to the Madame Tussaud’s in the Quarter is still white-hot in my memory with the beating heart of Abraham Lincoln on his deathbed and the torture chambers created by madmen who imprisoned their slaves for imagined slights. Jazz music floated everywhere and a funeral cortege with a marching band of somber players made me stop dead in my own tracks, mesmerized by the notes and the spectacle.
As I walked through the uneven streets and looked in the shops, I was given a small sack of herbs to ward off the evil eye so others wouldn’t be tempted to send evil thoughts my way, and as I found myself drinking a cup of chickory coffee and delighting in three beignets dusted with a lightening streak of confectioner’s sugar, I looked skyward and saw the Cabildo guarding the plaza like a fortress.
For all it’s character-driven dialogue, Saratoga Trunk still might be considered the bastard sister of Gone With The Wind (Max Steiner also did the music for Saratoga Trunk), but for me, it’s characters seem more real because of the part of my life lived in New Orleans. Ferber’s book arrived in 1941, but Margaret Mitchell’s had preceded it by several years. When Saratoga Trunk was filmed in 1943 (but not released until 1945), war-rationing made the fresh vegetables unavailable, so most of the produce viewers see in the market are fakes. What isn’t fake is the singing voice of Ingrid Bergman, which enchants us as well as Gary Cooper in his role as gambler Clint Maroon. Bergman’s vocals in this film are also one of its rarities. And every dimestore cowboy as well as Governor Goodhair, or former Texas politician Rick Perry, has done some form of imitation of the Texas cowboy Cooper portrayed in Saratoga Trunk, but none can compare.
Flora Robson, who was honored with an Oscar nomination for her role as Angelique Pluton, had also played Queen Elizabeth I in The Sea Hawk, and was adept at many kinds or roles, but she was one of many actors through the ages who have portrayed characters of other races. Her language and phrasing reminded me of the language I’d heard spoken as a child. French phrases and inflections peppered with a verbal sauce spicy as a bottle of Evangeline perpetually floated like curious clouds of conversations all through the French Quarter of my childhood. (In Saratoga Trunk, it was the first time I’d ever heard the word “zumba!” on the silver screen.) The French phrases and Cajun intonations made Robson’s interpretation easier to believe, even though her eyebrows were some of the severest ones Max Factor, or in this case, Perc Westmore, ever created. Bergman’s eyebrows were also darker than in most of her other roles, and if scrutinied closely, a continuity issue exits from scene to scene. (Westmore touched up Bette Davis in Elizabeth and Essex, created the makeup for Quasimodo portrayed by Charles Laughton in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Robson’s own look as Queen Elizabeth I in The Sea Hawk.) Angelique, a creation of Ferber’s and screenwriter’s Casey Petersen’s design, was ultimately an exotic persona crafted by the talents of Flora Robson, who evinced a complicated soul of a former slave, and mother of a son who was afflicted with dwarfism, but was nonetheless beloved.
“Tell them there is someone on Rampart Street now who is not afraid of them. Clio Dulaine, that’s me! I’m as good as they are.”
Jerry Austin, who plays Angelque’s son, Cupidon, was born in Russia, and had an uncredited part in Todd Browning’s Freaks, but his part in Saratoga Trunk was probably his most famous role.
Cupidon’s friendship with and admiration of Clint Maroon makes him endearing, and this film fascinated me because of his energetic performance and his ability to tweak the heart strings of viewers. His injuries in the film make it the peak of emotional turmoil as his death seems imminent. But there is a happy ending, and Austin is an integral part of the drama, which is unusual for character actors of his stature at the time. As one of the “little people” of classic cinema, Austin packs a powerful emotinal punch, and his moments on screen will charm you.
So for all it’s political correctness of its times, it is most probably incorrect for ours, but the unusual characters and the animal magnetism of Gary Cooper as a Texas gambler make this film one of Cooper’s most memorable because of the unique group of stock characters who defy the usual roles.
Lena Horne was seriously considered for the part of Clio Dulaine, but was ultimately unavailable as her studio would not lend her out for this part. I have no doubt she would have made Clio Dulaine as memorable a role as Ingrid Bergman did.
The 1941 novel, Saratoga Trunk, by Edna Ferber, is highly praised by Pablito Tortuguita on Amazon, and since it’s been decades since I’ve read it, I though I would share an in-depth review:
‘Saratoga Trunk’ tells a love story while evoking all the richness of three eras–Paris and New Orleans of the 1850s-1870s, the Gilded Age (or the Robber Baron period), and the early 20th century. It’s the story of Clio Dulaine and Clint Maroon, who begin an unconventional relationship in an unforgettable scene bursting with detail.
That detail–immediate and sensory as well as historical and nuanced–makes the novel as effective as the best period romances, because it supports the excellent characterization to create a believable story from improbable characters , they travel to Saratoga Springs in upstate New York and meet the movers and shakers of the Gilded Age.
Masterful prose–sparely elegant at times and incomparably lush at others–combined with sharply-drawn detail and fully rounded characters leads to a truly pleasurable experience. I completely recommend this book to anyone who wants to read a writer from the Golden Age of 20th-century American literature at the top of her form. Even So Big, for which the same author won a Pulitzer in 1924, is merely the equal of this novel.
And the film, produced in 1943 and screened for servicemen overseas, was not officially released until 1945 because the glut of WWII films had overwhelmed the cinematic marketplaces. Currently, however, the cllimate for this film may be tenuous at best because of its subject matter and how it was developed in the 1940s.
Ingrid Bergman, ever the actress seeking diverse roles to expand her repertoire and advance her career, played Clio Dulaine, an illegitimate half-black daughter of a Southern aristrocrat, and Flora Robson played Angelique, a mulatto servant, in blackface with eyebrows that would rival Margaret Hamilton’s in The Wizard of Oz. But for her valiant and effective efforts, Robson received the only Oscar nomination bestowed upon this film. The pairing of Bergman and Cooper, whose last pairing ran the Oscar nominations up to 9 in For Whom The Bell Tolls, repeated the same sort of electric chemistry that was, evidently, warmed over from their off-screen liasions.”
According to the TCM article on its website, ” In her autobiography co-authored with Alan Burgess, Ingrid Bergman: My Story, Bergman recalled being amazed at how close Cooper’s acting persona was to his real personality, though on-screen his true star potential was revealed. ‘The personality of this man was so enormous, so overpowering-and that expression in his eyes and his face, it was so delicate and so underplayed. You didn’t notice it until you saw it on the screen. I thought he was marvelous: the most underplaying and most natural actor I ever worked with.” And according to one comment Cooper made somewhere in my recollection, but as yet unverified for this article, after Cooper finished a film with Ingrid, he couldn’t get her on the phone. She just wouldn’t talk to him if they weren’t working together.
Considering the number Cooper did on Patricia Neal’s sanity, and the costumer Irene*, who committed suicide a year and a half after Cooper had died, that was a pretty savvy Swedish move.
I can still remember the sighs my mother made when I saw this film for the first time as an unsure, wobbly teenager. The camera takes a long, slow, languid persual of Gary Cooper as Clint Maroon from tip of his boots to the top of his white hat. And women of a certain age and perusasion in the 40s, right up until now, still swoon. All the major female characters in the film are in awe of his stature and handsome features, and Bergman’s manic-depressive Clio was obviously bewitched by the Maroon/Cooper electricity. Don’t believe me? Check it out. If you don’t swoon, you just ain’t human. Watch the initial meeting between Clio and Clint, and when Clint says to Clio,”Trying to teach me the English language? I’ll learn anything you say” and if your blood pressure doesn’t change, switch the channel or move on to the next entry in your DVR queue. How much of this is acting?
Even perennial battle-axe Florence Bates as Mrs. Bellhop charms us as she is affected by his charmisma as well. “And those hips!”:
The lush costumes, period jewelry and millinery designs are credited to Leah Rhodes, and are fraught with detailed notions, lace, and ribbons. One of Bergman’s ensembles also includes one of the cutest pleated aprons I’ve ever seen on the screen.
The sexually-charged, dramatic chemistry between Bergman and Cooper was part of the impetus for their second collaboration considering the fireworks they generated on For Whom the Bell Tolls, and you can’t take your eyes off of them while they adore each other in either film.
The “New Yawk” liberals and the politically correct may fry me in a hot vat of peanut oil because I still enjoy this film and these characters. I just hope they make sure I’m crisp.
*According to the IMDb entry for classic-era costume designer Irene, “Doris Day wrote in her 1975 autobiography that she got to know Irene quite well. One night after Irene had a few drinks, Irene told Day that the “love of her life” was Gary Cooper. On several other occasions Irene spoke about the intensity of her love for Cooper, and Day got the feeling that Irene had never mentioned this to anyone before her. Day wrote that today she honestly could not tell if they actually had or were having an affair, or if it was a one-sided love. Irene took her own life about a year and a half after Cooper’s death from cancer.”
Saratoga Trunk was not shown during Gary Cooper’s Summer Under The Stars Celebration 2015 on August 30, but was screened during Ingrid Bergman’s on August 28.
This post was created for Kristen Lopez’s Summer Under The Stars Blogathon on Journeys in Classic Film: http://journeysinclassicfilm.com
Turner Classic Film Database
Ingrid Bergman, My Story
Buzzfeed ignored Flora Robson in this article: http://www.buzzfeed.com/arianelange/10-times-white-actors-played-people-of-color#.pvbEVBvXR
Scott Rollins Film and TV Trivia Blog: http://cscottrollins.blogspot.com/2015/03/flora-robson-queen-of-character-acting.html
Flora Robson, This Is Your Life, and her championing of Paul Robeson: http://www.bigredbook.info/flora_robson.html
Christy’s Inkwells: Florence Bates-“It’s A Grand Feeling” : https://suesueapplegate.wordpress.com/2013/11/10/florence-bates-its-a-grand-feeling/