Tuesday, September 2, 2014

From the DVR: Joan of Paris (1942)

Five RAF pilots find themselves stranded in the countryside after their bombers are shot down over France…and their squadron leader, Paul Lavallier (Paul Henreid), is already formulating a plan to get his men to England by alerting British intelligence in Paris.  Paul knows people who know people—as a member of the Free French Movement, he escaped to Britain shortly after the Germans sentenced him to death (and enlisted in the RAF).  Getting the other flyers into Paris will not be easy; one of them, a pilot (Alan Ladd) nicknamed “Baby,” was injured during the others’ eluding of a German patrol (one of those soldiers had to be dispatched when he stumbled on to the flyers’ hiding place inside a bar) and needs medical attention.

Lavallier and the others make it to Paris, and as they seek refuge in a cathedral, Paul contacts a priest he knows from his boyhood, Father Antoine (Thomas Mitchell).  Antoine is able to offer them safe haven by hiding them in the city sewers…and things get a bit tense when Paul must distract a Gestapo agent (Alexander Granach) who’s been trailing Baby, stuck to him “like a postage stamp.”  Paul gets Baby safely hidden, but finds he’s inherited the tenacious agent—who’s now tailing him.  In the hopes of shaking off the Gestapo while trying to find out who his crucial contact is in Paris, Paul ducks into a café and makes the acquaintance of Joan (Michèle Morgan), a fetching young barmaid.  Named after her patron saint (Joan of Arc), Joan will play a pivotal role in paving Paul and his comrades’ trek to freedom, which is seemingly blocked at every turn by the wily head of the Gestapo in Paris, Herr Funk (Laird Cregar).

Production on RKO’s Joan of Paris had already been completed before the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, but the studio decided to hold back its release until a month after…and a most fortuitous decision that was indeed.  Movie audiences wanted to see pictures on the subject of WW2, and flocked to Joan in great numbers, making the movie one of the studio’s highest grossing releases that year (and don’t think RKO, which constantly struggled with its finances, wasn’t appreciative).  Modern day viewers can push the topicality aside and enjoy a cracking good espionage thriller, written by Charles Bennett & Ellis St. Joseph (based on a story by Jacques Thery & Georges Kessel).  Joan of Paris was directed by Robert Stevenson, whose later involvement with much of the Walt Disney product tends to overshadow his fine early work in films like Jane Eyre (1944) and a great Dick Powell thriller, To the Ends of the Earth (1948).  (Stevenson also held the reins on one of my “guilty pleasures,” 1950’s I Married a Communist—better known today as The Woman on Pier 13.)

Making their starring American film debuts were leading lady Michèle Morgan and leading man Paul Henreid; Morgan was probably the better known of the two thespians, having achieved much international acclaim for her turn in Marcel Carné’s Port of Shadows in 1938.  Sadly, with perhaps the exception of Passage to Marseille (1944), her American film career was fairly unremarkable and she returned to her native France to continue in films there (she also does outstanding work in the 1948 classic The Fallen Idol).

It would be co-star Henreid who benefitted more from his role in Joan; as “Paul von Hernreid” he was signed by RKO after small roles in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939) and Night Train to Munich (1940)…but then the actor went to Warner Brothers and enjoyed even more success lighting cigarettes for Bette Davis (Now, Voyager) and getting on that plane with Ingrid Bergman (Casablanca).  (Interestingly enough, his co-star Morgan had been heavily considered for the role of Ilsa in that last film.)  Both Henreid and Morgan promoted Joan with a war bonds drive, one of the first Hollywood films to capitalize on that type of marketing campaign.

Morgan and Henreid make a dynamic couple in Joan, and they are aided and abetted by a sterling supporting cast.  RKO borrowed character actor legend Laird Cregar (Blood and Sand, I Wake Up Screaming) from 20th Century-Fox to play the role of the villainous Funk, and Cregar doesn’t disappoint—expertly blending menace and urbanity (the scene where he and Henreid square off in a game of cat-and-mouse is most memorable).  (I found it amusing that several characters refer to Laird’s Funk as “Your Excellency,” since that’s the handle his Satan goes by in the 1943 classic Heaven Can Wait.)  Interestingly, Laird also co-starred in the film that would offer up the breakthrough role for his Joan compatriot, Alan Ladd that same year: This Gun for Hire.  Ladd, who’d been in the picture business for a decade and still not catching a break, plays the doomed Baby and has a memorable death scene in which Thomas Mitchell’s priest recites the Lord’s Prayer as Ladd expires.  RKO wanted to sign him to a contract on the strength of that performance (Ladd may not have been the best actor around, but he’s very good here) but his agent-wife Sue Carol convinced him Hire was the better option.  Her instincts were on the money, and in the wake of Hire’s success Joan of Paris was re-released for the benefit of Alan’s rapidly expanding fan base (he even got top billing in the posters).

Veteran character actress May Robson shines as Henreid’s Paris contact and Thomas Mitchell steps out of his wheelhouse as the courageous Antoine…but the fun for me was seeing Bernard “Louis Dumbrowski” Gorcey in an uncredited role as a parishioner impatiently waiting for Mitchell to hear his confession.  (TDOY radio fave Hans Conried is also on hand as a sinister Gestapo agent.)  Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture (RKO music-man-in-residence Roy Webb), Joan of Paris is a must-see wartime suspenser with some unforgettable Hitchcockian set pieces including an early example of death by steam bath (courtesy of Oscar-winning cinematographer Russell Metty).  It’s available on MOD from the Warner Archive…or you can cheap out like I did, recording it during Alan Ladd’s sojourn in the Summer Under the Stars spotlight.

1 comment:

Caftan Woman said...

I keep passing this one up. I think I'm getting it confused with something I saw once and disliked. Can't think what. Can it be that I've watched too many movies? Naaah.