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Monday, May 2, 2011

JOAN THE WOMAN (1916)

Joan of Arc wouldn’t be canonized until 1920, but Cecil B. DeMille was already treating her like a saint in this grand production. And while Metropolitan Opera diva Geraldine Farrar may have been two decades too old to play Joan, she’s remarkably convincing within the presentational acting style De Mille favored. (Note regulars like Raymond Hatton as the Dauphin & Theodore Roberts as the villainous Cauchon to gauge that pure DeMille thespianship. He’d still be coaxing it out of actors for THE TEN COMMANDMENTS in 1956.) This show was his largest yet, too big to earn out, with hundreds of battle-extras, costumes & horses, as well as multiple castles, courtyards & cathedrals; it’s still exciting stuff. De Mille was at his most creative from 1915 to 1923*, and we’re lucky to have the stunning print that’s available on the Image DVD edition. Lenser Alvin Wyckoff pulls off some daring multiple-exposure effects, real nighttime shooting, unusually dynamic angles and, right at the end, an early stencil-coloring process that adds a terrifying touch of fire to Joan’s burning at the stake. (There’s also a terrifying accident with a horse during a big battle scene. Not for the feint-hearted.) Anyone expecting this early silent feature to equal the artistry seen in Carl Dreyer’s late silent classic, THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC/’28 with Maria Falconetti & Antonin Artaud, is bound to be disappointed. But in its own way, it's damn impressive filmmaking. Even the WWI framing story, with handsome Wallace Reid, just a few years before Paramount got him addicted to morphine, as a British officer who dreams his way back into Joan’s story and then makes the ultimate sacrifice to help fight off the Germans on French soil, comes off just as C.B. must have hoped.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *There’s a famous scene in Billy Wilder’s SUNSET BOULEVARD/’50 where Erich von Stroheim, as Norma Desmond’s butler, tells William Holden about the three great directors of early Hollywood, ‘D. W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille & me.’ The inclusion of DeMille always gets a laugh because his best known films got so stiff & corny. But, in context, it’s really not such an outrageous statement.

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