July 26--With its glittering society and Revolutionary past, Saratoga Springs is rich in all the ways that matter to storytellers. It's ripe for intrigue, full of character and characters, real and imagined, from the worlds of crime, baths-soaked wealth, battlefield heroics and horseracing.
No wonder, then, that the Spa City has found its way into movies and novels. The list is long and covers a lot of thematic territory, but it boils down to a few genres: Horses. History. Mystery. All three have been known to overlap -- and keep in mind, "history" can encompass both the noble and the sordid.
"Seabiscuit," the 2003 Gary Ross film (based on Laura Hillenbrand's book) about the underdog thoroughbred who wowed the crowds during the Great Depression. Some of the footage was shot at the Saratoga Race Course.
"Tea Biscuit" is the name of the thoroughbred in "It Ain't Hay," a 1943 Abbott and Costello comedy about a muddle over a mistaken horse that all comes to a head at the racetrack. It's a remake of the 1935 film "Princess O'Hara," itself based on a Collier's story by Saratoga track habitue Damon Runyon.
"Diamonds Are Forever," Ian Fleming's fourth James Bond novel, in which 007 is told to bet on a fixed race (horrors!) at Saratoga.
"The Horse Whisperer": Both Nicholas Evans' 1995 novel and Robert Redford's 1998 film heap on the mushy mysticism along with the romance, which involves an orphic horseman oand the tetchy, troubled New Yorkers who seek his help in Montana. Some visually gorgeous bits were filmed in Saratoga and environs, including a snowy accident scene shot in Hadley that proves central to the plot.
"Saratoga." Clark Gable plays the hunky bookie, Jean Harlow the platinum dame, in Jack Conway's 1937 romantic comedy about a stud-farm family and their betting shenanigans.
"Saratoga Trunk": It wasn't actually filmed anywhere near Saratoga Springs (unless you count Burbank as a suburb), but this 1945 film version of the Edna Ferber novel stars Gary Cooper as a Texas gamblin' man who hits the Saratoga racing season with Ingrid Bergman in tow as a sketchy New Orleans dame. Spawned a 1959 Broadway musical, "Saratoga" (music by Harold Arlen, book by Morton DaCosta, lyrics by Johnny Mercer).
In "Quinn's Book," William Kennedy's 1988 novel, a Civil War reporter reflects on his life, obsessive love and the events into along the way: the war, the draft riots, the Underground Railroad, the boxing. And the racetrack.
"The Saratoga Deception: A Mystery Novel of the American Revolution," by Steve Leadley, was published just a few months ago, one of scads of historical novels set in a similar time and place. It's also one of scads to focus on the Battle of Saratoga, a subgenre that also includes "Saratoga: A Novel of the American Revolution," by David Garland, and "The Thunder of Captains: a novel of the Battle of Saratoga," by former Times Union columnist/editor Dan Lynch.
"Billy Bathgate," both E.L. Doctorow's 1989 novel and Robert Benton's 1991 film, mine the Spa City's gangland past in this tale of a Bronx kid who sashays around Saratoga with the gun moll (Nicole Kidman) of the legendary Dutch Schultz (Dustin Hoffman). The track makes an appearance. But really, when does it not?
Stephen Dobyns' 10-book detective series, which began in 1976 with "Saratoga Longshot," stars ex-cop, stable guard and Saratoga gumshoe Charlie Bradshaw.
"Ghost Story." The 1981 movie, based on the 1979 Peter Straub novel, featured a large and dapper contingent of Golden Boys -- Fred Astaire, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Melvin Douglas and John Houseman -- and their interactions with a spectral femme fatale. Set in New England, but those creepy mansions can be found on North Broadway; Fairbanks' is 720.
Matt Witten, best known as a TV producer and scribe -- for "Medium" and "House," among other things -- has also written mystery novels set in Saratoga Springs. His first, "Breakfast at Madeline's," gets moving when a guy drops dead at a Saratoga java joint (not Uncommon Grounds).
In 2009's "The Skeptic," Tim Daly plays an adamantly non-believing lawyer who finds himself in a spooky Victorian manse -- actually the Batcheller Mansion Inn -- along with Tom Arnold and Zoe Saldana.
"Aftermath": This neo-noir thriller, the last film of Chris Penn, was filmed in 2005 but hasn't yet had wide release. Penn plays the ex-con employee who gets into an argument with his construction boss, Anthony Michael Hall, and one thing leads to another. That sort of thing.
Miscellany (and while we're at it, music):
True, it's not a book or a movie, but no compendium of Saratoga pop-cultural references would be complete without a mention of Carly Simon's "You're So Vain," in which the unnamed narcissist scores at the track. It's the most famous example of "Saratoga" employed as shorthand for snooty-toots wealth and self-absorption.
Speaking of which: In Ernest Hemingway's "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," the dying Harry barks at his moneyed wife: "If you hadn't left your own people, your goddamned Old Westbury, Saratoga, Palm Beach people. "
"Cremaster 3," actually the fifth film in visual artist Matthew Barney's non-linear sexual-anatomical-allegorical film cycle, was shot in part at the Saratoga Racecourse. It is the only work on this list to feature a half-woman, half-cheetah.
In the ballad "Saratoga," Nina Simone made this direct appeal to the city: "Oh Saratoga, will you smile / And dream with me a while / My love is far away." Also, did you know (you probably didn't) that "Saratoga" is the name of Madrid's number one metal band? Their songs include "Angel o Demonio" ("Angel or Demon"), but what that has to do with horses, gambling, upstate New York history or sulfuric baths, I can't say.
Finally, Edith Wharton's last novel, 1938's "The Buccaneers," opens this way. If you can, cue up Duke Ellington's "Saratoga Swing," a sultry 1929 jazz tune, and play it while you read:
"It was the height of the racing season. The thermometer stood over ninety, and a haze of sun-powdered dust hung in the elms along the street facing the Grand Union Hotel....Mrs. George, whose husband was one of the gentlemen most interested in the racing, sat on the wide hotel verandah, a jug of iced lemonade at her elbow and a palmetto fan in one small hand, and looked out between the immensely tall white columns of the portico, which so often reminded cultured travellers of the Parthenon at Athens."
And no, the Grand Union Hotel doesn't exist at 4 Congress Park any longer. A FedEx Office does.
email@example.com, 518-454-5439, @AmyBiancolli
(c)2013 the Times Union (Albany, N.Y.)
Visit the Times Union (Albany, N.Y.) at www.timesunion.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services
A service of YellowBrix, Inc.
Most Popular Stories
- Shia LaBeouf Plea Deal, Alcoholism Treatment
- Ohio State Band Chief Fired After Probe
- Hispanic Leader Goes the Extra Mile
- Stop-Start Engines Save Gas, Reduce Emissions
- Jennifer Lopez, Pitbull to Perform at Fashion Rocks
- Ukraine Says Russians Firing Across the Border
- Ford Q2 Net Profit up 6 Percent
- U.S. Weighs Refugee Status for Immigrant Kids
- Ricky Martin Joins 'The Voice ... Mexico'
- Morgan Stanley Ponies Up $275 Million to Settle SEC Charges