Problematic Film History – Saratoga Trunk

Welcome to a new feature at IceCream4Freaks: Problematic Film History!  Each week, I’ll be discussing a well-regarded film of the past and the elements of that film which have aged the worst.  This week: Saratoga Trunk

Films with outdated or problematic elements can be explained away simply. Birth of a Nation was on the cutting edge of film, despite its content or how The Crying Game was about a subject the world didn’t know about. Other times, there is absolutely no excuse for how things end up and Sam Wood’s Saratoga Trunk. What you end up with is a mixed bag of mediocre storylines and completely inappropriate racial appropriation.

The film stars Ingrid Bergman as Clio Duliane, the shamed illegitimate daughter of a French creole aristocrat and his mistress. She returns to New Orleans to avenge the reputation of her departed mother and the family who has wronged her. She is accompanied by her dwarf manservant Cupidon (Jerry Austin) and her half-black maid Angelique (Flora Robson).

The odd preludes on her quest for vengeance include making a show of herself in a local market by eating a bowl of jambalaya…served on the head of Cupidon. Along the way, she meets the dashing Colonel Clint Maroon (Gary Cooper). Despite being in love, the two are separated by a combination of Angelique and Clio’s intentions of marrying rich.

The film itself is a chaotic mishmash of themes, ideals and objectives, none of which ever coalesce into anything more than a mess. The film begins as a revenge thriller, then turns into a game of political intrigue, only to culminate in an action-packed western. Cooper tries his best to keep things together, but the chaotic energy as well as the grossly miscast Bergman as a French-creole, ends up with a story that would have been grossly mismanaged on its own.

The big problem is Angelique. Flora Robson is not black. She is not half-black. She was born and raised to two white Scots. Not only did the filmmakers decide to cast the completely white Robson as Angelique, they gave her the most horrendous makeup and she adopted a terrible accent. Some scenes include Angelique and authentically black actors in the background, which give further scrutiny to the decision to make Robson such a caricature.

On top of the shame of Robson, Cupidon’s characterization is based almost entirely on comic relief. Though he gets a slightly rehabilitated ending, 95% of the film treats him with ambivalence. Additionally, Clio is seen as having some sort of mental disorder, though it is never fully addressed in the film or explained in any way. At multiple points, Clio thrashes about and acts unnaturally, followed by periods of deep sleep. Some have interpretted this as bipolar disorder, but this film is not the one to litigate a mental illness.

Overall, Saratoga Trunk doesn’t have the cultural impact of other films I will cover, but the fact that its lone Oscar nomination came at the hands of a poor characterization of a half-black woman in blackface by a Scottish actress does not bode well. Even without the casting issue, this film would still be a gigantic mess.

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