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Saturday, May 10, 2014

JOAN OF ARC (1948)

Lovingly restored to its original 145 minute length and pudding-rich TechniColor (adjust your saturation level accordingly), Ingrid Bergman’s dream project* is more diorama than drama. Stately pageantry & heavy religiosity hardly bring out the roistering best in director Victor Fleming, but he does seem intrigued working on the Pop-Up 'Book of Hours' sets art director Richard Day came up with. Really, everyone’s working their tail off, even some unlikely Hollywood ‘stock’ casting holds the advantage of keeping the gargantuan speaking cast straight. (In a rare moment of unintentional humor, Fleming has Joan bid farewell to her three favorite soldiers in a manner that recalls Dorothy with Scarecrow, Tin Man & Lion in his own WIZARD OF OZ/’39.) The unsolvable problem is really Maxwell Anderson’s lumbering script (from his own play, an award-winning hit for Bergman on B’way) which never locates a dramatic fuse to the story. Joan’s initial encounters & conversions are glossed over and her capture by the enemy goes missing during intermission. (Come to think of it, intermission also goes missing.) Worse, he never finds a speaking tone (other than windy archaic) to fit the times & mood. That same year, John Huston & Richard Brooks pulled a working screenplay out of Anderson’s KEY LARGO by tossing out the original’s free verse; a tactic also used in the underrated PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX/’39. But those films had the advantage of being Saint-less.

DOUBLE-BILL: Perhaps Joan is easier to capture in silent film where we give her any voice we choose. DeMille’s JOAN THE WOMAN/’16, like this production, too huge to earn out, works well on its own terms. Find excellent editions for both JOANs on IMAGE-DVD. Of course, the greatest of all Joans is still Maria Falconetti in Carl Dreyer’s PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC/’28, out on Criterion.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Bergman had been in something of a career swoon when she plunged into Italian film & Roberto Rossellini after ARCH OF TRIUMPH; JOAN and UNDER CAPRICORN all tanked. (*Bergman even got Rossellini to document her 1954 performance in Arthur Honegger’s concert piece JOAN AT THE STAKE.) Her Italian films did no better, but in a way, the caesura in her screen visibility zipped her right past the awkward transition stage that slowed up so many maturing female stars after the 1940s. Instead, she returned, older, sadder, wiser and with a new kind of staggering beauty & deeper acting talent in the mid-‘50s, and never had to look back.

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