Joan Of Arc (1948)

JOAN OF ARC—France, 1428. The Hundred Years War (actually 116) was in its 92nd year when Jeanne d’Arc, an illiterate teenaged peasant girl, compelled by visions of saints and voices from above, was convinced God directed her to help eject the hated English from France and have Charles VII, heir to the throne, be declared King. During this murderous medieval epoch, war and plague saw France lose half of its population, England a third, yet of all those casualties, the girl,19 when she perished at the stake, is the one who is remembered six centuries later. Canonized as a saint, simple and serene Joan has been the subject of countless interpretations, including the luxuriantly beautiful, emotionally addressed, greatly underrated 1948 film version. Though critics prefer the stunning 1928 French silent The Passion of Joan Of Arc, director Victor Fleming’s Technicolor-imbued Hollywood epic starring the radiant Ingrid Bergman stands as the one most recognized by ordinary film fans.

Bergman played the role in “Joan of Lorraine” on Broadway and its playwright Maxwell Anderson adapted it for the film, with Andrew Solt. It was the last film for Victor Fleming (Gone With The Wind, The Wizard Of Oz); he died of a heart attack two months after the premiere. A passion project for both star and director, they were too close to the subject (and each other) to be satisfied with how it turned out, and critics carped, but like the martyred maid at its heart, time has been good to this unfairly maligned tableaux of studio craftsmanship and performance prowess. Along with fixing the glowing Bergman in the popular perception of the iconic heroine, the movie introduced an unlikely star in Jose Ferrer, as the weakling Dauphin who brought Joan fervent hope and bitter woe.

As with parsing fact from fable about Joan, the saint’s in the details when it comes to the box office for this golden oldie. Premiering late in 1948, after the ‘roadshow’ run it was drastically shorn of 45 minutes for the general rollout in the autumn of ’50. That battle-axed version was the one seen for half a century until restoration brought back the missing footage and those stunning Technicolor hues. Uncut it runs 2 hours, 25 minutes; the version to see. Gossip blather had it a money loser, yet Cogerson places it the 5th among 48’s crop and assigns a domestic gross of $10,800,000. It did well in Europe. Worldwide rentals (the distributors share of the loot) are reported at $6,025,000, but that’s just a portion of the gross revenue. RKO called a loss of $2,480,436 against a cost of $4,650,000 (exorbitant at the time, plus double that and then some for prints and advertising) but they were notorious (as were other studios) about shifting figures around. While not the monster hit the makers hoped for, it was a monetary success, so lazy reviewers slavishly aping old wags about poor results need to Joan-up and speak the truth. *

Oscars went to the Cinematography (Joseph A. Valentine, Winton C. Hoch and William V. Skall)  and Costume Design (Dorothy Jeakins and Karinska). Bergman went up for Best Actress, Ferrer as Supporting Actor, other nominations were given to the Art Direction, Film Editing and Music Score. The producer Walter Wanger got an Honorary award “for distinguished service to the industry in adding to its moral stature in the world community by his production of the picture Joan of Arc.” So miffed there wasn’t a Best Picture nod, Wanger refused to accept the token.

Along with Ferrer’s stellar debut as one of history’s great weasels, there are venomous villain turns from Francis L. Sullivan, Gene Lockhart and J. Carrol Naish, securing purchase in a cast jam-packed with character actors: Ward Bond, John Emery, Shepherd Strudwick, Cecil Kellaway, Alan Napier, Leif Erickson, Roman Bohnen, George Coulouris, George Zucco, Hurd Hatfield, Herbert Rudley, Jeff Corey, Morris Ankrum, Robert Barrat, William Conrad, Frank Puglia, John Ireland, Ray Teal, Roy Roberts, Henry Brandon, Nestor Paiva.

Apart from the impressively arranged medieval combat scenes of the Siege of Orleans fairly early in the film, the heft of the telling is dialogue driven and studio-bound, the latter giving it a stylized theatrical look. Make peace with the talking and the sets: the strength of the performances and the richness of the color and appointments lock in the essential drama and tone. Hugo Friedhofer’s moving score adds further emotional resonance. Does it matter that the luminous leading lady at 33 was considerably older than the girl she was playing? Not a jot: Ingrid’s a vision. Fleming, echoing his cinematographers, exulted “She is bullet-proof. There has never been another figure like her before a camera. You can shoot her from any angle, any position. It doesn’t make any difference–you don’t have to protect her (from unflattering photography). You can bother about the other actors on the set, but Ingrid’s like a Notre Dame quarterback. An onlooker can’t take his eyes off her!” Pretty much oui.

* Mirroring persecution. After bringing legend to life in a modern age, one with supposedly enlightened people beset by their own existential choices (the fact of The Bomb exacerbated by Cold War tensions and Red frenzy insisting Commies lurked under every other comma), Bergman felt the fiery wrath of pious provincials. Five months after the premiere, revelation of her extramarital affair with Italian director Roberto Rossellini broke her image, and a pregnancy took her from saint to slut with the press, politicians and the public. Since this how-dare-she? transgression took place before the wide release, it no doubt affected the box office results and subsequent belittling of the film. Rediscovery and restoration of the original print has elevated opinions. For the star, the moral hypocrisy of the outraged ostracized her until 1956, when she was welcomed back as another beset heroine, Anastasia.

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