Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Joan of Paris (RKO, 1942)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched an odd movie Turner Classic Movies had shown as part of this month’s “Star of the Month” tribute to Paul Henried: Joan of Paris, a 1942 wartime melodrama from RKO featuring people who would become two of the biggest male stars of the 1940’s — but not at RKO: Paul Henried and Alan Ladd. Both went straight on from Joan of Paris to their star-making films at other studios — Henried with Now, Voyager at Warner Bros. and Ladd with This Gun for Hire at Paramount — indicating that the “suits” at RKO had a good eye for talent but a lot of trouble keeping it. (The biggest and longest-lasting stars RKO ever “broke” — Katharine Hepburn, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers — were signed during the one-year tenure of David O. Selznick as studio head.) Written by Charles Bennett and Ellis St. Joseph from a story by Jacques Théry and Georges Kessel, Joan of Paris deals with a group of five Royal Air Force bomber pilots who are shot down over occupied France shortly after the German takeover. The squadron leader is Paul Lavallier (Paul Henried), who’s the product of a French father and a British mother. The other four, including “Baby” (Alan Ladd in the last of his galley-years films), are 100 percent Brits, and “Baby” was seriously wounded when German fighters shot down his plane. As a result, the other four are forced to hide in a sewer and Paul, the only one who speaks French (though of course, this being a U.S. movie, all the dialogue is in English!), is sent out to contact the Resistance and get help for the men. While fleeing he enters the apartment of Joan (Michèle Morgan, the one card-carrying French person in the cast), and though she’s initially perturbed (to say the least!) at the appearance of a strange man in her bedroom, eventually she agrees to help him, not only because she’s a decent person but also because she’d adopted Joan of Arc as her personal saint (remember that when this movie was made Joan of Arc had only been canonized for two decades!) and she’s impressed when the Free French medallion Paul wears contains the Cross of Lorraine (with two horizontal bars — the top shorter than the bottom — instead of the usual one).

A good percentage of the action (such as it is) in Joan of Paris takes place in a large French cathedral, billed in the “trivia” section of’s page for the film as “the studio’s largest single set since The Hunchback of Notre-Dame” (the 1938 version with William Dieterle directing and Charles Laughton as star — which I rather heretically think is the best film of that story, superior to the quite good 1923 silent with Lon Chaney, Sr.), but I suspect it was the same set as the one built for Hunchback. The centrality of the church to the story is explained not only by the fact that Joan’s character is depicted as an intensely religious woman who’s adopted Joan of Arc as a role model but also because the priest, Father Antoine (a bit of intriguing anti-type casting for Thomas Mitchell — judging from the good-hearted drunks he usually played, one worries how they can keep Father Antoine from over-indulging in the sacramental wine), is a key contact for the Resistance. Most of the film is a chase scene through Paris, as Paul attempts to elude the Gestapo in general and two Gestapo agents in particular: local commandant Herr Funk (a rather oddly miscast Laird Cregar — he was great as a rogue cop in I Wake Up Screaming and the psychos he played in The Lodger and Hangover Square, but he’s too queeny to be believable as a Nazi and one can’t imagine a weirdo like Cregar comfortable as a cog in a machine of institutionalized evil) and his unnamed agent (Alexander Granach) who’s given the principal responsibility for keeping Paul under surveillance in hopes he’ll lead Funk to the other four British flyers.

I’d first seen Joan of Paris in the 1970’s, during my early days cultivating an interest in classic Hollywood — back in the pre-VCR, pre-DVD, pre-cable movie channel days in which satisfying your curiosity about a legendarily good (or legendarily bad) movie often meant staying up past 3 a.m. to watch it “live” as it aired on some obscure UHF channel — and I’d been disappointed in it. Now it seems like an oddly uneven movie, one that at times because of the World War II subject matter, Henried’s presence in the cast and the appearance of an exotic European beauty as the female lead to be a virtual prequel to Casablanca. At other times it seems just dull and one wishes it could have been directed by Charles Bennett’s former collaborator, Alfred Hitchcock — they made six movies together, five in England and one (Foreign Correspondent) in the U.S., and Bennett was essentially to Hitchcock what Dudley Nichols was to John Ford or Robert Riskin to Frank Capra: the writer who did more than any other to shape the identifiable style of a superstar director — instead of the other major director to emerge from Britain’s film industry in the 1930’s and make a career in the U.S., Robert Stevenson. Much of Stevenson’s work here is genuinely imaginative — the first sequence is, of all things, a clip of the “Don’t Let It Bother You” number (and its preceding montage of Parisian night life) from the second Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers film, The Gay Divorcée, which is suddenly cut off when all the lights in the club set go out and we hear a radio advisement that the five British flyers are on the loose — and the screen remains pitch-black until a later scene when one of the flyers, in hiding, strikes a match and we finally get a look at them. There are also plenty of dark, shadowy atmospheric compositions in the style later known as film noir — the cinematographer was Russell Metty, who had shot some of the early tests for Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and would later work with Welles on Touch of Evil — and a quite good chase scene in which our sights of the actors are reduced to little more than their feet and most of the story is told with sound effects alone, Val Lewton-style. (Was Lewton already influencing his RKO confrères even though he was just making his first movie as producer, Cat People, around the same time? Or were both Stevenson and Lewton drawing on the lessons in the creative use of sound RKO’s people had learned from former radio master Orson Welles?)

Joan of Paris is a maddening movie, quite good in spots, quite banal in others, suffering mainly from the naïveté of Michèle Morgan’s character — though within the limits of the script she acts it quite well — and also from the stuffed-shirt nature of Henried’s: here as in Casablanca he’s unable to bring much more than a sort of generalized idealism to his role as an anti-Nazi freedom fighter (even though Henried was German and an anti-Nazi refugee himself!). At the same time there are some great scenes, including one in which an already condemned British captive who’s refused to give the secret address of the underground leader to the Nazis under torture is visited by Father Antoine, who needs that information to help Our Heroes, and naturally he thinks the “priest” is a phony, an actor hired by the Nazis to trick him out of the secret they’d previously tried to torture out of him. At the end Michèle Morgan’s character gets captured and shot by the Nazis — thereby sacrificing her life for her country’s liberation, just like her namesake and role model — but she’s bought enough time for all the flyers, including Henried’s character (who was willing to give up his own life for the others to get away, but in the end didn’t have to), to make their seaplane connection back to Britain.