Thursday, September 20, 2018

The Unimportance of Being Earnest

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 matches its competitors in the field, 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). Very little outpaces it on its own terms—perhaps King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun (1946), which is after all in a class of its own.

Ingrid Bergman is Clio Dulaine, a feisty demimondaine prone to occasional bouts of hysteria. She sashays around the marketplace in Old New Orleans, her dwarf servant (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. She’s like the girl in Gaslight (1944) a few years down the road.

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 stretches out his boots in front of her while she gazes down at them, excitedly). As the prim maid Angelique, Flora Robson performs in blackface and delivers all her lines in a huff—she’s always worried about her charge’s reputation. The actress played a similar part (also in face paint) opposite Vivien Leigh’s mewling queen in Gabriel Pascal’s 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 turgid 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 dialogue, 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 work). The movie pulsates as adult fun, as artifice. Up through the 1950s, Hollywood melodramas were consistently Brechtian. Saratoga Trunk intentionally quashes any semblance of authenticity in narrative or emotional landscape, 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.

No comments:

Post a Comment