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Joan of Arc (Nov. 11, 1948)

Joan of Arc
Joan of Arc (1948)
Directed by Victor Fleming
Sierra Pictures / RKO Radio Pictures

Joan of Arc was always a force to be reckoned with.

In life, she had heavenly visions, led the French army to several victories against the English during the Hundred Years’ War, paved the way for Charles VII to become King of France, and was tried for heresy and burned at the stake in 1431. When she died, she was only 19 years old.

In death, she exerted a powerful influence over the imaginations of artists and writers. From Shakespeare’s largely unflattering portrayal in Henry VI, Part 1 to Mark Twain’s largely forgotten historical novel Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, the Maid of Orléans was a devil to some, and a saint to others.

Over time, the English decided to stop caring so much, and she came to be seen by more and more people as a holy figure. In 1920 the Catholic Church decided to make it official, and canonized her, which reignited interest in her life. Her trial for heresy, which was held in 15 sessions from February 21 to March 17, 1431, was exhaustively recorded. Most fictional portrayals of Joan of Arc, like George Bernard Shaw’s play Saint Joan (1923), drew from these official records.

Maxwell Anderson’s play Joan of Lorraine opened on Broadway on November 18, 1946, and played for 199 performances at the Alvin Theatre. The last performance was on May 10, 1947. The original production starred Ingrid Bergman as Mary Grey, an actress playing Joan of Arc who struggles with her director, Jimmy Masters (played by Sam Wanamaker), over how Joan should be portrayed.

Joan of Lorraine was the basis for the 1948 film Joan of Arc, which also stars Ingrid Bergman, but the “play within a play” concept was jettisoned in favor of straight historical drama. Much of Anderson’s original dialogue was retained, however, with additional scripting and added characters by Andrew Solt.

Ingrid Bergman

Joan of Arc was the last film that Victor Fleming directed. The man who directed The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Gone With the Wind (1939), as well as many other memorable films, died of a heart attack on January 6, 1949. He was 59 years old. While it might not be as fondly remembered as some of his other films, it’s still a pretty good one to go out on. It’s a big, sprawling, Technicolor costume drama (although there is a cut version that is just 1 hour and 40 minutes, the original cut of the film is 2 hours and 25 minutes long). Most importantly, Joan of Arc features a brilliant lead performance by Bergman. Most of the other actors are pretty good, especially José Ferrer (in his first film role) as the Dauphin, later Charles VII. With a cast of thousands, however, there are bound to be a few duds, and there are, although Ward Bond, whom I more closely associate with westerns than European historical dramas, was better than I was expecting. John Ireland? Not so much.

Joan of Arc is also heavy on dialogue and light on spectacle. With the film looks great, there’s only one big battle scene, and it doesn’t come close to matching similar scenes that Fleming directed for Gone With the Wind. While Joan of Arc is by no means a bad film, without Bergman’s performance it would lose most of its impact.

It’s certainly worth seeing, but if you’re only going to see one film about Joan of Arc in your lifetime, it should be Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), which stars Maria Falconetti in one of the most hypnotic film performances of all time. With spare sets and simple costumes, Dreyer achieves effects Fleming could only dream of. Falconetti’s performance in The Passion of Joan of Arc walks the fine line between madness and mysticism. Religious faith is a tricky thing to depict on film, but Dreyer’s film is one of the few that gets it exactly right.

The fiery finale of Fleming’s Joan of Arc is powerful, too. And as far as visual depictions of religious martyrdom go, I think both films are more powerful statements than the geek-show excesses of The Passion of the Christ (2004).

In the run-up to the 21st Academy Awards, Joan of Arc was the first film to receive seven nominations without a nomination for best picture. Ingrid Bergman was nominated for best actress, José Ferrer was nominated for best supporting actor, Hugo Friedhofer was nominated for best dramatic or comedy score, Richard Day was nominated for best art direction in a color film, and Frank Sullivan was nominated for best editing. The film won in two categories; Joseph Valentine, William V. Skall, and Winton Hoch won the Oscar for best cinematography in a color film, and Dorothy Jeakins and Barbara Karinska won for best costume design in a color film.

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The Fugitive (Nov. 3, 1947)

Faith and religiosity are notoriously difficult things to depict on film. It’s easy to go too far in one direction — witness for instance, the brutal, mind-numbing literalism of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004). Belief and faith are abstract things, and while cinema can suggest the abstract, it is still a visual medium.

John Ford’s The Fugitive is rarely numbered among the director’s greatest achievements, but it was reportedly one of his personal favorites. It was filmed entirely in Mexico, and much of the crew was assembled from the Mexican film industry.

In it, Henry Fonda plays a fugitive priest, on the run from the authorities after the church and its emissaries have been made illegal following a civil war. He’s a man whose faith appears to be broken — or at least in the process of being tested — but it’s difficult to really know, because Fonda’s performance is so blank-eyed and tentative that it’s hard to know what’s going on in his mind for most of the picture. Ironically, The Fugitive is a movie that is strongest when it is at its most heavy-handed.

It’s clear from the outset that the movie is meant to be seen as an allegory — the opening narration tells us as much. Also, in the opening credits, we see that none of the characters have names. Fonda plays “A Fugitive,” Dolores del Rio plays “An Indian Woman,” Pedro Armendáriz plays “A Lieutenant of Police,” J. Carrol Naish plays “A Police Informer,” Leo Carrillo plays “A Chief of Police,” and Ward Bond plays “El Gringo.” It’s also not meant to take place in Mexico, but rather, as the narrator informs us, “merely a small state, a thousand miles north or south of the Panama Canal. Who knows?”

Graham Greene’s 1940 novel The Power and the Glory (also published as The Labyrinthine Ways) did actually take place in Mexico, but the filmmakers likely didn’t want to offend their host country with a story that was critical of the Mexican Revolution or any of its ramifications.

Greene wrote The Power and the Glory when he was himself a kind of fugitive. Twentieth Century-Fox and Shirley Temple’s lawyers had sued Greene and the magazine Night and Day for criminal libel over his review of the film Wee Willie Winkie (1937), which — ironically — was directed by John Ford. In his review of the film, Greene wrote of Temple that “she measures a man with agile studio eyes, with dimpled depravity. Her admirers — middle-aged men and clergymen — respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire.”

Greene’s trip to Mexico in 1938 was ostensibly at the behest of the Vatican, who wanted him to document anti-Catholic violence and persecution. According to Greene’s friend, director Alberto Cavalcanti, whose lost autobiography was recently unearthed, Greene’s real reason for going to Mexico was to escape Temple’s lawyers.

In any case, whatever narrative subtlety and moral complexity the novel had is not present in the film, which has little to offer in the way of ideas. I hesitate to call Henry Fonda “miscast,” because he’s usually such a wonderful performer, but he really is awful in The Fugitive. His facial expressions range from beatific to panicked, and that’s about it.

The power of the film — and it is a powerful film, especially toward the end — comes from its visuals. Ford and his cinematographer, Gabriel Figueroa, crafted a beautiful-looking movie, full of nighttime shadows, murky light, and sun-drenched wide open spaces. The final sequence, which is an allegory for the crucifixion and resurrection, is achieved with very little dialogue, and is well-done, if a little obvious.

Humoresque (Dec. 25, 1946)

In a recent NY Times interview with David O. Russell, the director of the Oscar-nominated biopic The Fighter (2010), he compared his star, Mark Wahlberg, to John Garfield. Russell said that — like Garfield — Wahlberg is “always kind of in character, because it’s always him in some way.”

Garfield might seem as unlikely a choice as Wahlberg to play a concert violinist, but Humoresque never tries to pass Garfield off as something he wasn’t. His character, Paul Boray, spends his boyhood in what appears to be New York’s Lower East Side, in an immigrant family that has neither the time nor the money for classical music. (Garfield was born Jacob Julius Garfinkle, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, and grew up in Brooklyn and the Bronx, where he was enrolled in a school for difficult children.) At a high society party, a tipsy young woman refuses to believe Boray when he tells her he’s a violinist. She pegs him as a prizefighter, and refuses to believe he even knows what end of a violin the music comes out of. “It comes out of the middle,” he responds. (Garfield would, however, play a boxer in his next film, Body and Soul.)

There are plenty of hoary cliches in the early sections of the film. Bobby Blake plays Boray as a child. His immigrant father (J. Carrol Naish) works hard and always has his eye on the bottom line, while his mother (Ruth Nelson) is more sensitive, and grows to believe in Paul’s desire to play music. All of these scenes are pretty laborious.

Perhaps director Jean Negulesco wanted to be explicit about how a rough young man from the slums could become a dedicated concert musician, but all of the scenes of Boray’s childhood are less effective than a short sequence later in the picture in which the adult Boray storms out of a recording studio after being forced to cut a major chunk from a piece for radio time. He returns to his apartment to play alone, and the wildness of his music is reflected in a herky-jerky montage of chaotic city streets and teeming masses of people.

Long stretches of Humoresque are told through music, which is beautifully played by violinist Isaac Stern, but there’s plenty of snappy dialogue, too. When Boray gets in an argument with his friend, accompanist, and mentor Sid Jeffers (played by pianist and wit Oscar Levant), Jeffers tells him, “You’ll do all right. You have all the characteristics of a successful virtuoso. You’re self-indulgent, self-dedicated, and the hero of all your dreams.” Boray responds, “You oughta try a few dreams yourself, it might make you less cynical. When I look at you, I know what I want to avoid.” (And to give you an idea of the rapidity of the dialogue in the film, that exchange takes place in less than 12 seconds.)

The plot, such as it is, kick in around the 30-minute mark, when Joan Crawford shows up as Mrs. Helen Wright, a myopic, dipsomaniac socialite with a sharp tongue. Her husband is a cultured, sensitive man, but — by his own admission — very weak, and as soon as Helen takes an interest in Paul and his career, tongues begin to wag.

Garfield and Crawford have great chemistry, and both are good enough actors to give their relationship depth. It’s unclear for a time exactly what each wants from the other, but her alcoholism and his deep-seated anger make for plenty of stormy scenes. At one point, Paul blows up and yells at her, “Well, you didn’t do any of this for me, really. You did it for yourself, the way you buy a racehorse, or build a yacht, or collect paintings. You just added a violin player to your possessions, that’s all.”

In Bosley Crowther’s review of Humoresque in the December 26, 1946, issue of the NY Times, he wrote, “The music, we must say, is splendid — and, if you will only shut your eyes so that you don’t have to watch Mr. Garfield leaning his soulful face against that violin or Miss Crawford violently emoting (‘She’s as complex as a Bach fugue,’ Oscar says), and if you will only shut your ears when folks are talking other such fatuous dialogue, provided by Zachary Gold and Clifford Odets, you may enjoy it very much.”

I love Crowther’s reviews. Maybe if I’d been around when he was writing them I would have resented the stranglehold he had on public perception, but in retrospect they’re fantastically entertaining. I liked Humoresque more than he did, but I don’t disagree with his assessment. One has to take into account his longstanding hatred of Joan Crawford, of course, but by the time the credits rolled I was more moved by the music than by any of the vacuous melodrama.

The Beast With Five Fingers (Dec. 25, 1946)

Robert Florey’s horror flick The Beast With Five Fingers begins with the following words: “This is the story of what happened — or seemed to happen — in the small Italian village of San Stefano — nearly fifty years ago.”

Normally in my reviews I try to avoid spoilers. I’ll summarize the plot, but only up to a point, and I try to talk around any big twists. But since The Beast With Five Fingers is pretty up-front about its unreal elements right from the start, I’m just going to give everything away about this movie willy-nilly. So if you don’t like spoilers, stop right now and go read my review of Tarzan and the Leopard Woman. I totally don’t give away how hot Brenda Joyce looks in it.

Anyway, The Beast With Five Fingers is based on a short story written in 1919 by W.F. Harvey (1885-1937), an English author who is also famous for penning the story “August Heat,” which was memorably adapted for the radio show Suspense in 1945, in a show starring Ronald Colman.

The script for the film was written by Curt Siodmak, who intended it to be a vehicle for Paul Henreid. Henreid turned it down, however, reportedly saying, “I’m not wild to play against a dead hand.”

Peter Lorre, in his last film role for Warner Bros., was cast instead. Siodmak felt this casting was less effective, since the audience immediately assumes that Lorre is a psychopath, which they wouldn’t when presented with a handsome, self-contained actor like Henreid. I tend to agree, especially since Lorre does nothing to disabuse the viewer of the notion that he’s a raving maniac. From his very first scene, Lorre does what he did best; act completely creepy and insane.

Lorre plays Hilary Cummins, an astrologer who takes his work very seriously. He’s employed as secretary to partially paralyzed concert pianist Francis Ingram (Victor Francen), but if Hilary does any actual work for Ingram, we don’t see it. He’s unashamed to admit that he wants Ingram’s nurse, Julie Holden (Andrea King), to constantly dote on him so he can be left alone to discover a “key to the future,” which Hilary claims was known only to the ancient astrologers, but has been lost since the burning of the great library at Alexandria.

There are other hangers-on in Ingram’s Italian villa, such as Ingram’s attorney, Duprex (David Hoffman), and Bruce Conrad (Robert Alda), a small-time con man and composer who seems stymied by his association with Ingram. Conrad transcribed some Bach pieces, modifying them to be played by a one-handed pianist, and ever since, has been unable to write anything.

Ingram is a petty tyrant and thoroughly unpleasant man. His right side might be paralyzed, but his left hand is incredibly strong, as he demonstrates in a memorable scene in which he strangles Lorre — who is more than capable of the histrionic puffing and wheezing required of him when Ingram finally lets go.

One dark and stormy night, Ingram rolls around the villa in his wheelchair, pitifully crying for Julie. He pitches down the stairs, and the fall kills him.

His death brings a few greedy relatives (played by Charles Dingle and John Alvin) out of the woodwork, eager to hear the reading of the will. They’re not happy when Duprex informs them that Ingram recently changed his will to leave everything to Julie.

For most of its running time, The Beast With Five Fingers is a fairly standard haunted-house mystery, but it has a strange premise that’s always bubbling beneath the surface, namely that you’re going to see some kind of five-fingered beastie scuttle around for at least some of the picture.

This odd premise is delivered on eventually. After Duprex is murdered, the other occupants of the villa open the sarcophagus holding Ingram and find him clutching a push dagger in his right hand, his left hand missing … cut off.

Enter J. Carrol Naish as commissario of police Ovidio Castanio. It’s one of many “ethnic” roles Naish sunk his teeth into (see also Humoresque and the radio show Life With Luigi), and like everything else in the film, it’s more silly than scary, but Naish is a good actor, and he gets one of the film’s best moments, during the last minute of the picture.

The eponymous crawling thing doesn’t show up until almost an hour has passed. The final 20 minutes of The Beast With Five Fingers, however, deliver what the audience paid to see … a phantasmagoria that only exists in Lorre’s mind. He watches Ingram’s disembodied hand float over the keyboard, playing Bach’s Chaconne in D minor as arranged for the left hand by Brahms (who was friendly with composer Max Steiner’s family back in Vienna). He then rips apart the library to find the crawling hand and attempts to stop it by nailing it down. It’s classic Lorre … all bug eyes and feverish gasping. And although it probably played pretty gruesomely at the time of the film’s release, it’s all campy good fun now.

Florey directed the silly proceedings in a solid, professional fashion, with plenty of fluid camerawork and smooth dolly shots. Time magazine said in their review of the film that Florey was “plainly untroubled by considerations of taste,” but the worst thing in this picture is a disembodied hand that crawls around on its fingers, strangling a few people here and there. It’s an effective special effect, but too ridiculous to ever be taken seriously. This is one you can watch with the kids during prime time.

Strange Confession (Oct. 5, 1945)

StrangeConfessionApparently populist rage against pharmaceutical giants is nothing new. In Strange Confession, the fifth of six “Inner Sanctum Mysteries” produced by Universal Pictures and released from 1943 to 1945, Lon Chaney, Jr. plays a brilliant chemist named Jeff Carter whose life goes from bad to worse when he twice accepts employment from the unscrupulous owner of the largest medical distributing company in an unnamed American city.

Strange Confession is more of a straight drama than the other films in the Inner Sanctum series. Except for its gruesome finale, it’s free of the Gothic overtones and murderous double-crosses found in the rest of the series. The opening few minutes are gripping, with Jeff clutching a bag in his hand and skulking through the shadowy nighttime city streets, deliberately avoiding a police officer. It’s a very noir beginning, right down to the story structure. Jeff arrives at the home of an old school chum named Mr. Brandon (Wilton Graff) and sits down to confess something horrible. He opens the bag and shows Brandon what’s inside. Brandon recoils, but the camera doesn’t reveal the bag’s contents.

Jeff recalls better days. He once had a well-paying job, a pretty wife named Mary (Brenda Joyce), and a baby boy named Tommy (Gregory Muradian). Unfortunately, his employer, Mr. Graham (J. Carrol Naish) exploited his talents and treated him poorly. He even had Jeff hard at work on Christmas Eve, composing an acceptance speech for him in which he took full credit for Jeff’s accomplishments in the lab. Jeff quit his job and worked for a small pharmacy, forced to labor on his chemistry experiments after hours in his bathroom. He was poor, but happy. But this wasn’t enough for his wife, who wanted better things in life, so a year later, Jeff went back to work for Mr. Graham. Jeff, his wife, and little Tommy started living the good life, with a house in the suburbs and an Irish housekeeper named Mrs. O’Connor (Mary Gordon).

Unfortunately, Graham, in addition to being a bad boss, was a cad. He had designs on Mary, and sent Jeff and his affable assistant Dave (Lloyd Bridges) deep into South America to work on a flu cure called “Zymurgine.” While Jeff and Dave were hard at work testing and perfecting the formula for the drug, Graham romanced Mary, who naïvely saw him as just a friend, taking her out to dinners and shows. Worse, he rushed Zymurgine into the market before Jeff’s fully tested formula was even ready to be shipped back to the United States. In a prescient moment, Graham tells his coterie of underlings, “You can sell almost anything if you advertise it enough.”

Ill-gotten profits trump integrity, and the whole thing comes full circle, personally affecting the principal characters and leading to a bloody conclusion. Strange Confession is quite a good one-hour B picture. Chaney’s performance is better than usual, and Naish is a smooth, oily antagonist. He’s well cast, too. With his hangdog features, black hair, and pencil-thin mustache he looks like a shorter version of Chaney, making him the perfect doppelgänger villain.

The Southerner (April 30, 1945)

SouthernerFrench director Jean Renoir directed this adaptation of George Sessions Perry’s novel Hold Autumn in Your Hand, which won the first National Book Award in 1941. (The novel was adapted by screenwriter Hugo Butler, with uncredited contributions from Nunnally Johnson and William Faulkner.)

Zachary Scott, in a role originally intended for Joel McCrea, plays a Texas cotton picker named Sam Tucker who decides he doesn’t want to be a sharecropper anymore. He wants to grow his own cotton, harvest it, and be responsible for his own destiny. So he buys a piece of land and a ramshackle little house, and moves his wife (played by Betty Field), his children, and their crotchety grandmother onto it. Once there, the Tuckers must valiantly struggle against nature, disease, and their fellow humans to make a go of it.

The Southerner received three Academy Award nominations, including one for best director. Renoir didn’t win, but he was named best director by the National Board of Review, which also named The Southerner the third best film of 1945, after the World War II documentary The True Glory and Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (which won the Oscar for best picture). Despite all these accolades, I was lukewarm about this picture. Scott is good in his role. His acting is understated, and he embodies “quiet dignity.” J. Carrol Naish is also very good as the villain of the piece, Tucker’s neighbor who seeks to destroy Tucker merely because of his inchoate hatred for anyone who tries to rise from his station in life. In fact, all the actors are good, except for perhaps Beulah Bondi, who hams it up a bit as Granny, a prickly pear if ever there was one. (Also, it might be hard for modern viewers to see her sitting in her rocking chair in the bed of a slow-moving pickup truck along with all the family’s worldly possessions and not think of The Beverly Hillbillies, which is unfortunate, since this film strives to be a realistic human drama.) My tepid reaction to the film is not related to any of the particulars, but rather to the overall feeling I had at the end. I just felt as if something was missing. Some essential component that would make me care about the characters and their situation more than I did.

Renoir is today best known for his French-language films like Grand Illusion (1937) and The Rules of the Game (1939), but he made a few English-language films besides this one. The first was Swamp Water (1941), which, like The Southerner, is about simple rural Americans. Perhaps my cool reaction to this film was due to the fact that I don’t find simple people as compelling as complicated people. Or maybe it’s just because the print I saw was kind of crummy. If the visual beauty of the countryside were allowed to shine through, maybe I would have liked it more. I’ve read that Renoir considered this his favorite American-made film. And, as I mentioned above, it was very successful with critics. So if this sounds like the kind of film you enjoy, then by all means you should see it. Meanwhile, I’ll be next door, watching a late ’40s film noir set in a big city about paranoid, sweaty people who aren’t quietly dignified in the slightest.

House of Frankenstein (Dec. 1, 1944)

house_of_frankensteinIn an effort to more deeply penetrate the pop culture of the 1940s and 1950s, I’ve been listening to radio shows and watching old movies pretty much in the order they were released. I’ve been doing this for awhile, but since we have to start somewhere, we’re starting on December 1st, 1944. World War II was in full swing in both Europe and the Pacific, and a little film called House of Frankenstein was released in theaters in the United States.

House of Frankenstein is 11 pounds of shit in a 5-pound bag. Seventy minutes just isn’t enough time for Boris Karloff as a mad scientist, Lon Chaney, Jr. as the Wolf Man, John Carradine as Dracula, J. Carrol Naish as a sympathetic circus hunchback, and a whole lot of other stuff. I love all the horror movies from Universal Studios in the ’30s and ’40s, and this is a fun flick, but it’s all over the place, and never really finds its way. Recommended only if you’ve already seen Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, Bride of Frankenstein, Dracula’s Daughter, The Wolf Man, Son of Frankenstein, Son of Dracula, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, and several others that I can’t immediately recall. If that seems like a lot, it is. If after watching all of those movies you feel that all the combinations of monsters and madmen has already been done, you’d be right, but if you still feel like seeing it done, you could do a lot worse than this movie.