Tuesday, April 10, 2018

JOAN OF ARC: Blu-ray (RKO/Sierra Productions, 1948) Kino Lorber

On May 8th, 1429, a 17-year-old peasant girl in full body armor, hair cropped to resemble a boy, took up arms against the English in the district of Orleans. It was more than a crusade. It was ordained by God, or so the young woman thought, as she forged onward in the name of her sovereign liege to wreck the English stronghold and smite these foreign invaders once and for all from her native France. Barely a year later this same girl, victorious and rumored to be divinely chosen, became the prisoner of a Burgundian faction allied with the English. Barely ten months afterward, she was martyred at the stake, erroneously condemned for heresy and witchcraft – her legend, forever to proliferate throughout the world. The legacy of Joan of Arc will likely never perish. Indeed, the first screen adaptation of her brief life and times arrived on celluloid as early as 1900. Producer, David O. Selznick wanted an even more glorious tribute to ‘the maid of Orléans’.  To this end, Selznick made screen tests of Katharine Hepburn as early as 1933, shot in the experimental 3-strip Technicolor. For better or worse, nothing except these tests survived Selznick’s verve – nor Hepburn’s passion to play the part. Mercifully, Ingrid Bergman was not out of the running just yet. After establishing herself as one of Hollywood’s most bankable and luminous stars, indie producer, Walter Wanger tapped Bergman to star in a picture that would become as forgettable as it proved notorious: 1948’s less than enthusiastically executed Joan of Arc.
That the resultant would-be epic failed so miserably to gel as anything better, beyond a few poignant flashes of greatness (mostly attributed to Bergman’s sincere performance), remained something of a mystery and a disappointment for all concerned. Certainly, the picture had pedigree: Bergman for starters; for another, a superb stagecraft – Joan of Lorraine, by imminent playwright, Maxwell Anderson (who also wrote this screenplay with an assist from Andrew Solt), and, toiling behind the camera, director, Victor Fleming, whose contributions to cinema included such immortal classics as Red Dust (1932), Treasure Island (1934), Captains Courageous (1937), The Wizard of Oz, and Gone with the Wind (both in 1939). Independently produced for Sierra Pictures, defunct even before the movie’s premiere, and released via RKO in the middle of their sad, slow decline into oblivion, Joan of Arc proved a palpable box office draw. Alas, its gross fell far shorter of expectations. In hindsight, its fairly easy to pick away at the picture’s vices, even if only to expose its virtues. Yet, for all the human folly swirling behind the scenes, Joan of Arc on the screen is not quite the artistic turkey its notorious reputation has maintained ever since 1948. And yet, and especially at 145 min., it remains not an altogether satisfying experiment to wade through; its melodrama too clever and wordy, with a complete absence of compelling action sequences to bookend it. This latter dearth is likely due, in part to budgetary restrictions. Besides, Vic Fleming practically invented the ‘action sequence’ via his lengthy and lucrative alliance with Clark Gable over at MGM. By 1948, this expertise ought to have born some titanic battle sequences for Joan of Arc.
And yet, herein Fleming just seems stymied by Anderson’s zealous deification and character study, plagued by platitudes. Our Jeanne d’Arc is overburdened with some very sticky verbal diarrhea to clog and divert the inspiration from this otherwise remarkable patron saint of ole France. Bergman could hardly be counted upon to convince as the virginal warrior who hears the voice of God compelling her to fight in the name of her exiled Dauphin (Mel Ferrer in his movie debut). And yet, expertly lit by cinematographer Joseph Valentine, with glycerin tears applied for the climax, one could almost accept the figment of a star of Bergman’s magnitude (an even worldlier woman at the age of 33 in 1948, at the cusp of having her extramarital affair with Italian neorealist director, Roberto Rossellini blown out of proportion – a ground-shifting event in her career), as that maiden/martyr from history, wholly innocent of the crimes against the church for which she is ultimately put to death. 
In hindsight, it is Joan of Arc’s studio-bound theatricality that sinks the picture (shot almost entirely indoors with unconvincing painted mattes and laughably artificial rear projection substituted for the real thing); this, and Fleming’s all-pervading desire to will an epic on par with Gone with the Wind from a tale that, at its core, is as intimate and utterly void of grandiloquence as The Song of Bernadette. Even the main titles, superbly underscored by Hugo Friedhofer, with their terminally glacial scroll of ‘featured players’, haplessly plots to recapture the essence of ‘Wind’s’ monumental Hollywood epoch – if, to no avail. Tragically, what follows is awkward and – at times, dull – despite some very fine performers giving even more decently refined performances to boot (George Coulouris, George Zucco, Selena Royale, Francis L. Sullivan among them). Evidently, RKO could see the proverbial writing on the wall in 1948; Joan of Arc, shorn of 45 minutes for its re-issue; the heavy-handed edits doing little except to create grotesque incongruities in an already convoluted narrative. Our story begins in the hamlet of Domrémy. Jeanne (Bergman), the daughter of Jacques d’Arc (Robert Barrett) and Isabelle Romée (Selena Royale) is an introspective girl. Her silence is cause for concern. For Jacques has dreamed the girl will leave their close-knit family to lead men into battle. Unaware Jeanne is haunted by similar fantasies she believes to be divinely inspired by God (in reality, the girl admitted to being guided by Saint Michael, Saint Catherine, and Saint Margaret) Jacques cautions his daughter to commit such meandering thoughts to the present and the toils of hard work. Jeanne, however, has other intentions.
Praying for guidance, Jeanne next bribes her loyal uncle, Durand Laxart (Roman Bohnen) to take her to Vaucouleurs on an errand. Instead, she confronts Sir Robert de Baudricourt, Governor of Vaucouleurs (George Coulouris), with a message she will lead France’s nearly defeated armies onto a great victory. She speaks of a horrific battle already in progress. Unaware of such a conflict, as no dispatches have arrived to inform him otherwise, Baudricourt admonishes the girl as a simpleton, ruled by silly delusions of grandeur.  Baudricourt will hold steadfast to this perception until news comes from afar, outlining precisely the details Jeanne spoke of at their initial meeting. Unable to ignore the girl, though fearing a heretic in his midst, Baudricourt presents Jeanne to a priest who declares her neither a sorceress nor possessed by the devil. It must be God that she hears. Baudricourt concurs, and orders the knight, Jean de Metz (Richard Derr) and squire, Bertrand de Poulengy (Ray Teal) to accompany Jeanne’s lengthy journey for an audience with the Dauphin. Along the way, Jeanne is protected by the Constable of Clervaux (George Zucco), who awaits her arrival near a decimated footbridge with news that an English garrison is awaiting her capture nearby.
Navigating around this threat, Jeanne and her warrior guides arrive at the court of Charles VII (Jose Ferrer) in Chinon. Discouraged by his wayward advisors, Georges de la Trémoille (Gene Lockhart) and Regnault de Chartres, Archbishop of Rheims and Chancellor of France (Nicholas Joy) to consider this girl no better than a fraud, the jaded and cowardly Dauphin agrees to a ruse; momentarily assigning both his crown and robe of state to Charles de Bourbon, Duke de Clermont (Richard Ney) in a pretense to fool the girl. Charles retreats into the audience of courtiers to observe the spectacle and Jeanne’s humiliation from a distance. Instead, with clairvoyance beyond the power of mere intuition, Jeanne rejects Clermont, then surveys the gathering, before walking straight to the Dauphin to declare her undying loyalty. Far less amused, and ever more stirred by her uncanny ability to see through his deception, Charles affords Jeanne men to march in his name on the advancing English stronghold.  
It is important to remember that France had all but fallen under Charles’ reign. Hence, the immediacy of his decision to appoint this peasant girl as commander of his armies speaks more to Charles’ desperation than any great faith he might have harbored in the girl. Nevertheless, arriving at the encampment near Orleans, Jeanne is, at first, ridiculed by Captains Jean de la Boussac (John Ireland) Poton de Xaintrailles (Morris Ankrum), Gilles de Rais (Henry Brandon) and Raoul de Gaucourt (Tom Brown Henry); especially, after she declares the wanton behaviors she has witnessed upon her entry into the camp must end. Every man who fights for France will renounce sin and ride in the name of the Lord. These jaded military strategists resist – at first. But then, a miracle occurs. Jeanne is taken to the bosom of the men who fight under their command; welcomed, already, as the patron saint of France. Her reputation has preceded her. Whipped into an impassioned frenzy by Jeanne’s declaration of war, the army is at last victorious over the English, though, alas, not before many casualties are inflicted on both sides and Jeanne herself has suffered a shoulder wound from an arrow. At battle’s end, Jeanne assesses victory as moot; for it comes at a grave cost to brave men, having sacrificed everything for the glorious good yet to follow, that they shall never partake.
Despite her misgivings, Jeanne now leads her emboldened forces into a series of successful battles, reclaiming much of the countryside. She also bears witness to the Dauphin’s coronation, a prescient part of her original vision, transformed into a terrible nightmare when the Burgundians, who fear her, buy peace from Charles for a mere 100,000 crowns. The wily and enterprising Bishop Pierre Cauchon of Beauvais (Francis L. Sullivan) conspires with John, Count of Luxembourg (J. Carrol Naish) to topple the girl from her seat of authority. As Jeanne feels betrayed, she threatens to expose Charles’ deal with the Burgundians; a move to oust her from the army. Undaunted, and woefully unprepared, Jean amassing a smaller army of loyalists to accompany her on a siege of a fort at Compiegne. Alas, she has fallen into a trap, taken captive by the English. Eager to rid themselves of their mutual mortal enemy, the Burgundians and the English conspire on Jeanne’s execution on grounds she is a heretic. During her trial at Rouen, Joan is interrogated by a panel of judges, splitting hairs over her incarceration. She is prisoner of the English, not the church. Nevertheless, Jeanne dexterously subverts these allegations. Her will and her intellect cannot be broken. She has her accusers on the run.
Realizing her popularity with the masses, Bishop Pierre Cauchon of Beauvais closes the rest of the proceedings; stacking the audience with enemies to weaken Jeanne’s resolve. Bloodied but unbowed, Jeanne’s entrenched piety earns her the vigorous respect of the Inquisitor, Jean Le Maistre (Cecil Kellaway) and the Bishop of Avranches (Taylor Holmes). After Jeanne’s legitimate request for a stay of execution is denied by Beauvais (he will not allow her case to be presented to the Pope in Rome, as is her right), the girl is submitted to physical torture and returned to her cold, dark cell where she is constantly being threatened by the sexual advances of a lascivious guard. Beauvais promises that if only she recants her testimony about hearing voices she will be transferred to a female prison instead. Alas, this too is a grotesque lie, designed to shatter what little resolve Jeanne still possesses. Hearing her heavenly voices again, Jeanne renounces her abjuration. For her ‘sin’ Jeanne is condemned to die at the stake even as the gathering spectators emphatically protest it as an injustice. Jeanne is bound to the stake. The fire is lit, and the flames devour her. In death, she is comforted by the sight of a cross, gently whispering, “Let none be hurt for me.”
Initially, the movie was entitled, The Life of Joan of Arc, and then, Joan of Lorraine; eventually foreshortened to Joan of Arc, though not without a minor legal battle, as at least three other studios already held the rights to this title. Setting aside his earlier screen tests of Katharine Hepburn, David Selznick announced in the trades he would be producing a ‘picturization’ of Joan of Arc as early as 1940. By then, Selznick’s faith in his newest contract player, Ingrid Bergman had been affirmed with her debut in Intermezzo (1939). Disappointingly, nothing came of this, and, by 1946, Selznick had moved on in his infatuation with Jennifer Jones (both the lady and her career), enough to consider her for the lead. Mercifully, this wrinkle too failed to materialize. Then, in April of 1947, Selznick announced he had no future plans to pursue the project. Ironically, his decision coincided with Bergman’s startling debut in Maxwell Anderson's stagecraft, Joan of Lorraine.  Eager to capitalize on the play’s success, indie producer, Walter Wanger and director, Victor Fleming quickly amalgamated Sierra Pictures to float the project.  
As the play had focused on a group of actors putting on a production of Joan of Arc, receiving divine inspiration from the lady herself, Fleming announced the film adaptation would be more a straight-forward retelling of Joan’s life and times with Anderson assigned to rework the script. MGM was to have served as distributor. But in mid-September of that year, Fleming and Anderson encountered their first creative rift, prompting a delay of several months; enough time for L.B. Mayer to reconsider backing the costly endeavor. Perhaps Mayer had suffered a bit of déjà vu, recalling the struggles between him and VP Irving Thalberg on Marie Antoinette (1938), another expensive period picture. And anyway, Mayer’s penchant had moved on to family films – not period epics. Sensing a hit in their midst and ripe for the asking, RKO stepped up to the plate, both as a secondary backer and distributor of the movie. Paying out $200,000 to MGM for their expenditures incurred thus far, RKO assumed $1,100,000 on the negative completion, but stepped aside to let the Bankers Trust Co. of New York intervene with a $3.5 million loan to Wanger and Fleming.  
In retrospect, Joan of Arc suffers from being confined mostly to sound stages at the old Hal Roach Studio. To offset his concerns the movie was already something of an expensive glamour and puff piece, Fleming began encouraging the picture’s promotion, trumpeting its many virtues: the costliest costume epic since Gone with the Wind, with 4,300 extras employed in a single shot. Impressive, though untrue. Fleming and Wanger did employ experts from both the Metropolitan Museum and Library of Congress in their ‘research’, as well as French priest, Father Paul Doncoeur; something of an aficionado on the subject, and, medieval expert, Henry Noerdlinger to counsel on the fashioning of the customs and costumes authentic to the period. The 150-piece custom armor used in the movie was made out of lightweight aluminum. Even so, it weighed approximately ten pounds, and required the expertise of artist, Noel Howard and boat builder, Fred Wilken. Horses were imported from Iowa for the battle sequences, shot in and around the San Fernando Valley. In Balboa, 150 acres were drained to reproduce the marshlands of Compiegne. Finally, surviving sets from RKO’s 1939 The Hunchback of Notre Dame were reassembled for Joan’s stake-burning sequence.  Nearing the end of his shoot, Victor Fleming suffered a terrible bout of flu, delaying completion by nearly two weeks, with even more added scenes photographed as late as mid-February, a mere three months before the picture’s preview.  Tragically, in November this same year, Fleming died of a heart attack.
There was little time to mourn. By then Joan of Arc had proven a box office dud, despite a then virtually unheard of million-dollar marketing budget to promote the movie, and an even more extensive roadshow run, playing some 3,000 engagements.  While it proved more popular in some cities overseas, the impression at home was less than conciliatory. Critics were mixed in their appraisals and audiences failed to turn out in droves to see it.  Even with reissues in 1951, Joan of Arc’s total box office was only six million, approximately three million less than it cost to produce and distribute. Perhaps no one was more disappointed with these results than Ingrid Bergman, who had toiled with a mad fervor to present ‘the real Joan’ to the public; crafting her performance from surviving detailed accounts of the girl’s life. Fruitless too, proved the annual Oscar campaign to get Joan of Arc canonized for movie-land sainthood. Though it received nods for Best Supporting Actor (Ferrer); Actress, Art Direction; Editing; and Musical Score, and won Best Cinematography and (color) Costume Design, the nomination for Best Picture eluded Joan of Arc.
Further indignation was yet to follow: producer, Walter Wanger forced to declare bankruptcy when receipts from this passion project failed to repair the damage that completely wiped out his personal finances. In less than a year, Bergman’s wholesome and Teflon-coated bankability would be severely tarnished by her extramarital affair with Rossellini. This might account for at least part of the reason RKO did not chomp at the proverbial ‘bit’ to reissue the picture in 1950; passing along the honor to Balboa Distributors who would remain in charge of its marketing. Mercifully, the ‘longer’ cut of Joan of Arc was spared, to be rediscovered and restored by UCLA Film and Television Archives in 1998. It is from this restorative work that Kino Lorber has reissued Joan of Arc on Blu-ray. The results, remastered in 2K, speak to an earlier time when digital wizardry to preserve and restore movies to their original luster was not available. Aside: I will simply go on record here, that it does not seem prudent, much less to have exhibited foresight for future generations, to perform a 2K scan if the original elements are severely flawed for starters. Joan of Arc suffers intermittently from a painful mis-registration of the original 3-strip camera negatives, creating disturbing halos from shot to shot. When these appear, the image is woefully out of focus.
On the whole, the Technicolor elements have held up remarkably with rich hues, rarely suffering from fading. Age-related artifacts are everywhere, and, at times, very distracting. Most of these could have been rectified with just a little creative management of newer digital software to perform the necessary clean-up. Again, I do not see the point to a Blu-ray release of any movie that looks as though its original elements has been fed through the proverbial meat grinder. Contrast is excellent, save a few weak moments. Matte work is frightfully transparent. The original soundtrack, thought to be lost for decades, but later discovered in its entirety in Europe, is presented with at least some attention paid to its aural quality. It sounds very good and will surely impress. Were that I could say as much for the image. There are no extras, save a few trailers. Bottom line: Joan of Arc was never a masterpiece. Kino Lorber has afforded its hi-def debut. For this, I suppose we should be grateful. But I still hold to the purpose that a movie deemed worthy of a 1080p Blu-ray release is as equally deserving of at least marginal digital work to make its presentation as good as possible, without breaking the bank – and, of course, with the cultural importance of the picture itself placed in its proper context. So, pass and be glad that you did.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
2.5
VIDEO/AUDIO
2.5
EXTRAS
0

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