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Saratoga Trunk (September 23, 2010)

For Whom the Bell Tolls is full of conflict and intense, Saratoga Trunk is breezy and charming, and at 135 minutes, a full half-hour shorter than the earlier picture. The two films shared the same stars, Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman, and the same director, Sam Wood. Filming completed on For Whom the Bell Tolls in October, 1942 and started in February, 1943 on Saratoga Trunk, finishing the following May. The movie was based on a novel by Edna Ferber, and its script was written by Casey Robinson. The music is by Max Steiner.

Unlike so many films starring Bergman, in this one her character is more or less in control of her situation, and that may be why I think it is one of her best roles. Variety’s contemporary review said “she takes command in every scene” and I agree.

The performance of the British actress Flora Robson as Bergman’s biracial maid and confidante Angelique Buiton is done with great dignity and respect. Robson’s performance was nominated for the best supporting actress Oscar. In today’s Hollywood, no Caucasian actress would play an African-American or Asian-American, and that is a good thing. In the 1940s this was not an unusual practice. Warner Brothers had reportedly tried to borrow Lena Horne, on contract with MGM, for this role, but the studio refused to loan her.

This movie is filled with really pleasing performances from supporting actors. I’ll note here the ones of Robson, of Jerry Austin as the dwarf Cupidon, the German actor Curt Bois as the lawyer Haussy, John Abbott as the hotel desk clerk Roscoe Bean, and Fred Essler as the restauranteur Monsieur Begue. The divine Florence Bates, who for me enlivens any film she shows up in, appears as the society woman Mrs. Bellop.

Warners spent a good deal of money on this costume drama set in 19th century New Orleans, reportedly more than they had spent on any production up to that time. The studio purchased a collection of thirty dresses from the 1880-1910 period from a lady named Susan Dreer Volkmar but it isn’t known if any of those costumes appeared in the picture.

The film wasn’t released until March, 1946, nearly three years after filming was completed. We’ve seen this before with Warner Brothers’ movies of the time, including Arsenic and Old Lace, The Big Sleep, and others. The pictures with story lines related to the war were released first, while the ones without waited until hostilities ceased. I hope you enjoy watching Saratoga Trunk with me tonight.